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Ask Dr. Editor

Literature reviews that work

Techniques for coherent, analytical lit reviews.

BY LETITIA HENVILLE | SEP 29 2020

Question

I’m frustrated by the feedback that my supervisor gives me. She wrote that my literature review was “choppy,” and when I asked her how to fix this, she told me to “add nuance.” I don’t understand what these terms mean in practice, and so I don’t know what I’m supposed to be changing.

– Educational Studies

Dr. Editor’s response:

This kind of vague feedback is frustrating because it doesn’t provide sufficient guidance to help you to improve. Let’s take a step back to consider the landscape of the literature review before we dig into the specifics of “choppy” writing.

Structurally sound literature reviews

When you’re a student, your literature review serves a simple purpose: to attest to your understanding of your field. Students need to prove that they get the basics. As you emerge as a scholar, though, the function of the lit review shifts, and it becomes a space for you to enrich your problem, revealing its complexity while unpacking tensions in the conversations that surround it.

The structure of your sentences can help you to make this shift from summary to analysis. In a summary, you might trace the chronology of an argument, showing how research findings and interests have developed over time. Such a literature review might look like this:

Summary structure: Smith et al. (2010) argued A, B, and C. Later, Wong et al. (2012) demonstrated D and E. Then, Jones et al. (2015) showed F.

In this example, the authors of each argument are the subject of each sentence. The repeated “researchers + verb + results” structure of each sentence is, I would guess, the cause of the choppiness your supervisor has identified.

In an analysis, though, you’ll want to either reveal or resolve tensions in interpretations of findings. You can support this move by making strategic choices about what you place in the subject position in each sentence:

Analytical structure: Understandings of A have changed alongside improvements in testing. When [method 1] dominated, A was thought to have qualities B and C (Smith et al., 2010).
As [method 2] refined our ability to see [quality of A], we began to see more D, E
(Wong et al., 2012), and F (Jones et al., 2015).

This second example contains the additional nuance your supervisor has suggested. Structurally, you can bring about this nuance by subordinating who did the research — that is, putting the researchers in parenthetical citations — and promoting the topic or theme around which your discussion coheres. Instead of saying “researcher verbed result” over and over, this example shows the relationship between ideas by identifying how each study has refined understandings of A.

Editing out choppy sentences

Choppy writing emerges when sentences don’t have smooth transitions. The summary structure example above is choppy because we keep getting new information — the names of different researchers — at the beginnings of each sentence. There’s nothing to link Wong et al and James et al to the information that ended the previous sentence, and the result is choppy incoherence.

Having poor transitions between sentences isn’t a problem that is solved by adding a bunch of “moreovers” and “furthermores.” Instead, you can decrease choppiness in your writing by ensuring that you place new pieces of information at the ends of your sentences. Here’s a before-and-after:

  • Choppy: Researchers have been examining [1] the way people choose to sit in a library. [2] The other people in the room often determine [1] the choice of seat.
    • The second sentence presents new information (“The other people in the room”) before the old information (“choice of seat”). We might call this pattern “2-to-1” because we are given new information, [2], before we are given prior information, [1].
  • Smooth: Researchers have been examining [1] the way people choose to sit in a library. [1] The choice of seat is often determined by [2] the other people in the room.
    • Here, the second sentence presents old information (“choice of seat”) before new (“the other people in the room”). We might call this pattern “1-to-2,” as the second sentence provides us with familiar information, [1], before adding to it with [2].

In English, this given-to-new pattern provides paragraphs with a linear logic that makes them easier to follow.

Note that not all paragraphs will follow a 1-to-2, 2-to-3, 3-to-4 given-to-new pattern. In the analytical structure example above, I followed a 1-to-2, 1-to-3, 1-to-4 pattern. As long as you keep new information to the ends of your sentences, you’ll provide the transitions that you need to prevent your writing from appearing choppy.

This given-to-new structure has the added benefit of reducing your reader’s cognitive load, as you aren’t asking your reader to process new details at the same time as they are processing the content of your sentence.

Support for supervisees

As I conclude, dear letter-writer, I want to say that I hope that you are getting more precise feedback on the content of your research than you are on the quality of your writing. It may be that your supervisor doesn’t know that you are struggling to implement their feedback — a challenge that is in your power to address.

Consider either speaking with a supportive graduate studies staff member at your institution, to see if you can get advice on communicating effectively with your supervisor, or attending a free webinar like BCCampus’s recent “Adapting to COVID-19: Establishing and Building a Stronger Relationship with Your Supervisor” — because, ideally, your supervisor should be providing you with the guidance and mentorship that you need to establish yourself in your discipline.

I suspect that one of the factors that contributes to the mental health crisis in graduate education is the feeling of powerlessness. Please ensure that you know and follow best practices for effective communication, because you may be able to get the guidance that you need if you change how you make those asks. If you’re already following those best practices, however, then I’d encourage you to continue to do what you did when you emailed m — that is, seek feedback from other experts — because, with some supervisors, no amount of “managing up” will get you the support you need.

ABOUT LETITIA HENVILLE
Letitia Henville
Ask Dr. Editor is a monthly column by Letitia Henville, a freelance academic editor at shortishard.ca. She earned her PhD in English literature from the University of Toronto. Have a question about academic writing or editing? Send it to her at shortishard.ca/contact or on Twitter @lertitia.
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