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Prepared by University of Waterloo

Section D: Critical Writing Skills

This section provides you with an overview of important writing skills that will help you write your literature review.

What will I learn?

By the end of this section, you will be able to

  • apply critical writing skills to write concisely using an academic tone,
  • use academic language appropriate to the literature review genre,
  • know when to use analysis, synthesis, description, summary, comparison, and critique; and
  • integrate evidence using summary, paraphrase, and quotation.

Although we have already examined the structure and organization of the literature review itself, we need to discuss the language, tone, writing style, and verb tenses that you will use in the writing process.

Writing Concisely

Concise writing uses the fewest words necessary to accurately convey an idea to a reader. Writing concisely is challenging because you must reflect on word choice, sentence structure, and organization, but will increase a text's overall clarity when achieved. Writers should not be overly concerned about writing concisely while drafting their work. Instead, they should pay careful attention to the conciseness of their writing while revising.

Consider these four areas of writing to help you write concisely:

Cut Meaningless Words and Phrases

Avoid clichés, idioms, and colloquial expressions

WORDY

Rather than taking the bull by the horns, she was quiet as a church mouse.

CONCISE

She avoided confrontation by remaining silent.

WORDY

The bridge is unstable due to the fact that it was constructed with inferior material.

CONCISE

The bridge is unstable because it was constructed with inferior material.


Avoid filler words, all-purpose words, and unnecessary qualifiers

WORDY

All things considered, climate change should be given more attention, in my opinion.

CONCISE

Climate change should be given more attention.


Avoid vague words in favour of specific words

WORDY

Engineering is comprised of many aspects.

CONCISE

Engineering is subdivided into many disciplines.

Cut unnecessary repetition

Avoid repeating the same word within a sentence when used in two different ways

WORDY

He was right to assume his subjects are right-handed.

CONCISE

He correctly assumed his subjects are right-handed.

Avoid redundancy of ideas

WORDY

Subjects with little technical training tend to perform poorly due to their lack of technical experience.

CONCISE

Some subjects' lack of technical experience resulted in a poor performance.

Eliminate words and phrases that express an idea that another word implies

(e.g. added bonus, and etc., basic necessities, brief in duration, combine together, close scrutiny, disappear from sight, past history, etc.)

WORDY

As already stated above, beluga whales use sounds and echolocation to hunt in dark or turbid waters.

CONCISE

As stated above, beluga whales use sounds and echolocation to hunt in dark or turbid waters.

Simplify Sentences

Eliminate unnecessary uses of expletive constructions

(such as "It is", "There is", and "There are", at the beginning of the sentences by rephrasing)

WORDY

It is challenging to read Shakespeare.

CONCISE

  • Shakespeare is challenging to read.
  • Reading Shakespeare is challenging.
Replace verb + noun clusters with a single verb

WORDY

The researchers conducted an investigation of the effects of caffeine on students writing timed examinations.

CONCISE

The researchers investigated the effects of caffeine on students writing timed examinations.

Replace verb clusters with a single strong verb

WORDY

Many young people today make the decision to live with their parents during university.

CONCISE

Many young people today decide to live with their parents during university.

Eliminate unnecessary helping verbs

WORDY

The teacher could understand why her students failed the test.

CONCISE

The teacher understood why her students failed the test.

Join short, related sentences

WORDY

Many of his fabrications lay in plain sight for years. One of them was published in the respected Journal Science.

CONCISE

Many of his fabrications, one of them published in the respected Journal Science, lay in plain sight for years.

Use the active voice

WORDY

The findings were published by researchers at the University of Waterloo.

CONCISE

University of Waterloo researchers published the findings.

Rewrite Jargon

Use plain language whenever possible

WORDY

The author’s expostulation impugns litterateurs of yore.

CONCISE

The author’s argument disproves earlier scholars.

Explain a technical term if you must use it

WORDY

The photographer fixed the negative.

CONCISE

The photographer removed unexposed silver from the negative in a solution of chemicals, so ‘fixing’ the negative.


Tone and Language

Any literature review written for academic purposes adheres to formal writing conventions. To practice academic writing, try to rewrite the following sentences to adhere to the recommendations for formal writing listed below:

Recommendation: Academic writing requires direct and unbiased arguments

Question 1

Rewrite the sentence to avoid generalizations

Since the beginning of time, humans have wanted to visit the moon.


Question 2

Rewrite the sentence to avoid unnecessary qualifiers and emotions

In my opinion, it is disheartening to see that so many exceptionally good athletes fall victim to the enticing pull of steroid use.


Question 3

Rewrite the sentence to avoid personal pronouns or addressing the reader

As you can see, the results clearly demonstrate that I have followed appropriate protocol for titration. I think this method was appropriate.


Recommendation: Academic writing requires a formal tone

Question 1

Rewrite the sentence to avoid slang

A lot of guys become cops.


Question 2

Rewrite the sentence to avoid contractions

The experiment didn’t have the expected results and therefore couldn’t be replicated.


Recommendation: Academic writing requires careful consideration of the words you use to explain your analysis

Question 1

Rewrite the sentence to avoid antiquated and inflated language

The amalgamation of apropos inquisitions vanished after one researchist absconded with the communiqué, causing quite a conundrum.


Question 2

Rewrite the sentence for an academic audience

Nowadays, teens just can’t walk into jobs like before when they could.


Question 3

Rewrite the sentence using more accurate words

Plants were kept in the cold overnight.


Grammatical Considerations

Verb Tenses

Verb tenses are a way to give your reader more information about the source you are discussing. These are standard guidelines that may differ depending on your discipline or your professor’s specifications.

Past Tense

Use the past tense to report what authors or researchers have said or done. Use it while discussing what a researcher has completed.

Example:

Lee argued that space is a relevant category of analysis, whereas Ali suggested that more emphasis should be placed on culture.

Present Tense

Use the present tense to discuss your analysis of a source or to generalize the accepted knowledge in the field. Literary works should also be discussed in the present tense because they are still in a state of being.

Example 1:

Moby Dick is about a large white whale.

Example 2:

The small sample size limits the study’s reliability and validity.

Present Perfect

Use the present perfect to generalize about past literature.

Example:

Scholars have found that social networks in rural Ontario were complex and multifaceted.

Active vs. Passive Voice

Active voice emphasizes the performer of the action: The subject of the sentence performs the action. The active voice is direct, clear, and concise. The reader knows who is responsible for the action.

Example:

Participants completed the survey and returned it to the researcher.

Passive voice emphasizes the receiver of the action: The subject of the sentence receives the action. The passive voice is indirect, unclear, and wordy. The reader may know who performed the action (if the “by” phrase is included).

Example:

The survey was completed by participants and returned to the researcher.

Using active or passive voice is a matter of style, and you should consider why you are using either to ensure your choice best reflects your meaning. The following comparison can help you choose appropriately:

Active Voice

  • Concise
  • Direct
  • Used to emphasize the subject of a sentence
  • Used to show readers who performed the actions

Passive Voice

  • Wordy
  • Weak
  • Used to emphasize a certain topic rather than a person
  • Used when readers do not need to know who performed the action or when the performer is unimportant
  • Used when considering word location to keep the subject and focus consistent throughout a passage

Inserting Quotations

Quotations must be grammatically consistent with their surrounding sentences. Rather than treating the quotation in isolation, it must be considered as part of the overall sentence structure. Consider the following questions when integrating a quotation:

  • Does each independent clause have only one subject?
  • Is the quotation in the same tense as the rest of the sentence?
  • Does it flow when read out loud as part of its surrounding sentence?
  • Does the quotation logically fit in its surrounding sentence?

The following example contains two quotations that were not integrated into their surrounding sentence properly. Use the questions above to guide you while rephrasing it.

  • Example: Although Pierre Elliot Trudeau was said to be, “Trudeau is an internationally respected leader and excellent spokesman,” he was nevertheless, “‘a little self-centred,’ said the contemporary cabinet minister.”
  • Rephrased: Although Pierre Elliot Trudeau was said to be “an internationally respected leader and excellent spokesman,” his cabinet minister considered him “a little self-centred.”

Formatting Considerations when Quoting Texts

Omitting Information

When omitting a section of a quoted text, use an ellipsis to replace the words you removed. Be sure to include a space before and after the ellipsis.

Before:

“Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly -- they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

After:

“Words can be like X-rays … You read and you’re pierced.”

- Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Clarifying Information

When adding clarifying information, enclose the new material in brackets.

If the original text is, “as a recursive process, it must be treated as a discussion,” define what “it” is in your quotation.

Then the clarified text would be:

As Smith states, “as a recursive process, [writing] must be treated as a discussion.”

Mistakes

If there is a mistake in the original text, use [sic] to show that you are aware of the error and quoting accurately.

Example:

As Smith states, “writing is a recurrsisive [sic] process.”

Literature reviews require you to weave the research story together by explaining ideas across studies, identifying patterns and themes that emerge from the sources, and examining the intersections and relationships across sources. Evaluating sources and contributing to the scholarly conversation around a topic is considered engaging in the discourse in the field. Discursive literature review writing moves away from simply providing a list of sources and instead towards an analytical discussion on how the works in the field talk to each other and collectively build a conversation around a specific topic.

Discursive Writing

Discursive writing starts with identifying points of discussion among the current literature (Figure D.1). Then, while writing your review, contribute to the scholarly conversation by integrating your sources into a wider conversation instead of treating them in isolation. In other words, intersperse your discussion of different sources throughout your review rather than reviewing them one by one as separate items.

This type of writing draws upon your analysis, synthesis, description, summary, comparison, and critique skills.

A Venn Diagram displaying three overlapped circles, the centre of which represents the discourse between academic studies.

Figure D.1: Locating Scholarly Discourse

Scholarly discourse constitutes the areas of overlap between published academic studies. Address these intersections by examining how studies build on or conflict with each other.

Step by Step guide to Discursive Writing

  1. Start with an argument
    • Tell the reader the conclusion you have reached from the sources.
    • Emphasize analysis instead of description.
    • Use words like because, although, through, due to, by, or despite to help you take a position.

    Examples:

    The most robust and compelling finding for the positive impact of physical activity on cognition is the production of brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) following acute aerobic exercise.

    The impact of physical activity on cognition has been examined thoroughly in the aging population, but scarce evidence exists for this relationship in preadolescents.

  2. Support the argument using evidence
    • Consider the source beyond just the facts it contains.
    • Demonstrate that you have examined the sources in relation to one another.
    • Compare, evaluate, and synthesize sources rather than examining each source in isolation.

    Example:

    Even though the positive impact of exercise on the body is known, we still lack an understanding about how acute aerobic exercise changes the brain (Luck et al., 2009). In the past decade, researchers have started to apply neuroscience techniques to answer questions about cognition in related fields like kinesiology and psychology (Luck & Hillyard, 2010; Luck, Woodman, & Vogel, 2012). This shift to a more psychophysiological perspective includes measuring event-related potentials (ERPs) to study attention following exercise. Although ERPs have been used since the 1960s to study attention, several methodological and conceptual advancements have allowed these fundamental questions to be examined in a more comprehensive and reliable manner (Helfrich-Forester, Nitabach, & Holmes, 2011; Smith, Johnson, & Mohari, 2010).

  3. Provide sufficient detail
    • Make conclusions and generalizations supported by more than one study.
    • Compare studies according to your Matrix.
    • Use summarizing, paraphrasing, and quoting techniques.

    Example:

    Similarly, George Sheppard’s article “‘God Save the Green': Fenianism and Fellowship in Victorian Ontario” and David Wilson’s “Fenianism in Montreal, 1862-68” each examined Fenian circles in one Canadian location. Conducting such microstudies allowed for Sheppard and Wilson to connect the movement to Canadians in a much more direct way because they were better able to examine the social context in which Canadian Fenians operated. In his discussion on the importance of examining Canadian Fenians, Sheppard goes so far as to say that, “Fenianism in Canada West was not merely a product of Irish nationalism but also a response to the social conditions of Victorian Ontario’s urban areas,” linking the movement to specific and unique Canadian attributes (Sheppard 130).

  4. Avoid repetitive style
    • Starting every sentence with the name of an author gets boring and encourages isolating sources instead of synthesizing them.
    • If you need to examine the same source several times throughout your literature review, be sure to explain why you are doing so.
    • Build on your analysis, paraphrases, and quotations instead of reiterating them.
  5. In the example below, the writer has revised their original descriptive draft to limit repetition and build their analysis.

Before

C.P. Stacey wrote his article “Fenianism and the Rise of National Feeling in Canada at the Time of Confederation” in the 1930s. Stacey placed Fenianism as the cause of an increasing sense of Canadian nationalism and argued that “Fenianism provided a most beneficial influence upon the immediate and ultimate fortunes of [Confederation]…by engendering an atmosphere of patriotic enthusiasm eminently favourable to the success of an experiment in nation-building” (Stacey 238). W.S. Neidhardt published Fenianism in North America. In it, he showed that mid-nineteenth century Canadians took the Fenians extremely seriously and that their Canadian invasion attempt should not be regarded as, “a revolutionary movement of little or no consequence” (Neidhardt x). Hereward Senior published The Fenians and Canada in 1978, where he was primarily concerned with how Canada was to be appropriated to suit the Fenians’ plans and how Canadian Fenians and their sympathizers were more broadly connected to the pan-Atlantic movement. Many scholars have looked at the Fenians.

After

Interest in Canada’s Fenian movement began as early as the 1930s, when C.P. Stacey wrote his article “Fenianism and the Rise of National Feeling in Canada at the Time of Confederation.” In this work, he placed Fenianism as the cause of an increasing sense of Canadian nationalism and argued that “Fenianism provided a most beneficial influence upon the immediate and ultimate fortunes of [Confederation]…by engendering an atmosphere of patriotic enthusiasm eminently favourable to the success of an experiment in nation-building” (Stacey 238). The trend of examining Canadian Fenians escalated in 1975, when W.S. Neidhardt published Fenianism in North America. In it, he showed that mid-nineteenth century Canadians took the Fenians extremely seriously and that their Canadian invasion attempt should not be regarded as, “a revolutionary movement of little or no consequence,” thereby prioritizing Canadians’ reactions to the Fenians over the Brotherhood’s failed invasion attempts (Neidhardt x). By contrast, Hereward Senior published The Fenians and Canada in 1978, where he was primarily concerned with how Canada was to be appropriated to suit the Fenians’ plans and how Canadian Fenians and their sympathizers were more broadly connected to the pan-Atlantic movement. Senior helped direct attention to Canada’s relationship with the movement, but ultimately failed to mention how active the Fenians actually were within the country. Despite the titles of their works, all three authors treated Canadian Fenians as an unimportant faction of the larger American branch.

Literature reviews require you to weave the research story by explaining ideas across studies, identifying patterns, and supporting your analysis while you do so. As such, using effective summary, paraphrase, and quotation techniques is integral to producing an insightful and convincing literature review. Use a combination of these three techniques, but be sure to consider which one best suits the evidence you’re incorporating and the point you’re making. Evaluate your evidence and integration technique based on the level of detail you want to include. Make sure you properly cite your evidence.

An arrow with the words condense, rephrase, replicate written in it, correlating to the table below that shows summary, paraphrase, and quotation.

Summary

Summaries reduce a work to an explanation of key ideas instead of specific details. Use your own words to explain the main points of a text so the reader can understand the material and how it relates to your argument. A summary can be several sentences to a paragraph in length.

Original Text:

The cognitive and optical costs associated with screen reading differ across mediums because of variations in line spacing, character size, and scrolling rate. Because the cognitive mechanisms of reading affect proofreading (Healy, 1980; Levy, 1983), it is an acceptable measure to compare screen reading performance with print reading performance. The existent literature indicates that screen reading is related to increased time and decreased accuracy when proofreading text (Muter et al., 1982). One reason for decreased accuracy when screen reading texts is that screens reduce the differentiation in word shape, making it difficult to discern a spelling error; spelling errors are easily detected when they disrupt the typical shape of the word (Munk & Hulme, 1983). Because word shape is a predictor of proofreading performance, the uniform nature of word processing on a screen will make proofreading text on a screen more difficult than proofreading text on paper.

Text adapted from original article: Wright, P., & Lickorish, A. (1983). Proof-reading texts on screen and paper. Behaviour & Information Technology, 2(3), 227-235. doi: 10.1080/01449298308914479

Summary of Above Text:

Editing from screens takes longer and is less accurate than reading from paper. It is more challenging to find spelling mistakes on a screen due to the standardization of fonts and formats (Wright and Lickorish, 1983).

Paraphrase

Paraphrasing a text gives your reader the same level of detail as the original text, but in your own words. They should reiterate a specific detail of the original text accurately but avoiding its exact language. Paraphrases should be no more than two or three sentences in length.

Original Text:

The existent literature indicates that screen reading is related to increased time and decreased accuracy when proofreading text (Muter et al., 1982).

Possible Paraphrasing of Above Text:

Longer duration and less precision are disadvantages associated with correcting writing on electronic displays (Muter et al., 1982).

Quotation

Quotations are repetitions of the exact words and language used by the original author of the text you’re using as evidence. Quotations should only be used when the exact way an author phrases their material is just as important as the information they’re conveying. Place short quotations between quotation marks and format longer quotations as block quotations. Consult your style guide for citation information and for the exact length quotations must be before they need to be treated as a block quotation.

"As long as people think they can fight city hall, they won't be plotting to tear it down." (Loo, 1994).

Strategies to paraphrase and summarize

Maintaining academic integrity while paraphrasing and summarizing can be accomplished through rewriting the original material in your own words and properly citing the text you consulted. Use a combination of the following strategies while paraphrasing or summarizing:

  1. Read the text thoroughly, then try writing 3 to 5 sentences that summarize the text’s main ideas without looking at the text itself.
  2. Replace words with synonyms unless they are technical terms.
  3. Modify parts of speech by writing in the past tense, the past perfect tense, or the present tense.
  4. Rearrange sentences from active to passive voice, or from passive to active voice.
  5. Rearrange the sentence structure by switching dependent and independent clauses or by rearranging the order of information presented if the original order is irrelevant.

Useful Evaluative and Object Words

Reporting Verbs

Reporting verbs can be used to add more evaluation or description to evidence integration by showing the reader how you are using the material. Some verbs carry an objective connotation and can therefore be used to introduce evidence without adding any evaluation. On the other hand, including some sense of evaluation is sometimes beneficial, so consider using reporting verbs that support your overall analysis of a text when an evaluation is necessary.

Reporting verbs can indicate your evaluation of the information, arguments, or research presented within a text. As such, consider the connotations implied by the verbs you use.

Connotations associated with Signal/Reporting Verbs
Positive Negative Neutral
finds claims states
shows implies reports
demonstrates assumes studies
Other Common Reporting Verbs

Analyze, Argue, Demonstrate, Describe, Develop, Discuss, Examine, Expand, Explain, Find, Focus, Give, Identify, Indicate, Note, Observe, Point out, Propose, Provide, Publish, Report, Say, Show, Study, Suggest, Use

Key Takeaways

  • Consider word choice, tone, language, and verb tense when writing your literature review.
  • Use paraphrase, summary, and quotation techniques to effectively analyze sources to write your literature review.
  • Engage in discursive writing by identifying arguments and supporting those arguments with sufficient detail and analysis.

References

Acheson, C., & Bond, C. (2011). Writing a Literature Review [PDF document].
Retrieved from http://hedc.otago.ac.nz/hedc/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/Writing-a-literature-review.pdf

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2004). Academic Writing for Graduate Students (2nd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Swales, J. M., & Christine B. Feak. (2012). Academic Writing for Graduate Students (3rd ed.). Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Next Section Overview

In Section E: Revising Your Work, you will learn key reviewing and editing strategies.

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