Writing a literature review in your own ‘voice’

Literature review sections of a paper or thesis are a tricky beast, to be sure. In my writing workshops, and face-to-face work with writers and their texts, this section, next to ‘theory and analysis’ presents the greatest challenge. This stems, in large part, from a struggle to marry what other authors are saying with what the writers want to say: to let your own ‘voice’ come through as you base and inform your argument on and with relevant reading and research.

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Firstly, to be clear, when I say ‘voice’ in academic writing, I mean argument. In a piece of academic text, such as a thesis, paper or book chapter, your ‘voice’ is the argument you are making, and that is driving the text forward. It is your contribution to knowledge in your field.

I have written here and here and here about literature reviews, and Pat Thomson and Inger Mewburn have some useful posts that you should check out too. In this post, I want to look at less conceptual and more ‘nuts and bolts’ issues in actually writing a literature review that makes your ‘voice’ audible, and builds one part of the argument of your paper or thesis. Essentially, this section must make an argument for what the GAP is that your research is addressing, and discuss the ways in which the gap HAS been addressed in other studies, yet point out clearly the shortcomings/blindspots/remaining questions that this research leaves open, which is where YOUR STUDY comes in.

I trialled an approach to thinking about this, and revising drafts of literature reviews in a recent writing workshop, and their feedback gave me the courage to try it here. I call it ‘concepts and claims over author names’. Other have written about literature review sections that are a citation dump, or a laundry list –  essentially as long list of which authors made which claims, and who contradicts who and how, and so on. This shows that you have read, but not that you necessarily understand how to use what you have read to build your own argument (in support of the need for your research or study). Thus, you need to move from the ‘who said what’ approach (author names) to which concepts, claims, findings etc are useful to tell the reader about so that they can position and understand the argument you want to make.

Look at this example, kindly lent from a student’s early draft of a proposal:

The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers (Kelly & Mills: 2007, p.149) to education. Learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble: 2000, p.1). Although according to Daniel et al. (2009, p.24), ODL has been identified as an effective way of reaching out to large student numbers, Perraton (2000) observes that ODL institutions have high dropout and low pass rates. While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list according to Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap (2003) is level of interaction and support. Successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and quality personalised and affective learning support (Holmberg, 2003). However McKenna (2004) disagrees with this assertion by saying that student success in higher education environment is not a function of motivation but rather of student investment in his/her studies which agrees with Tinto’s (1975, 1993, 1997) assertion that student success is a function of stunt’s commitment to his/her personal goals and that of the institution.   He further says that this investment is both material and psychological. The greater the input to the provision of student support services, the greater the success rate (Sewart, 1993).

There are three main observations I make that I’d like to highlight here:

The first is the positioning of the references (in green) – throughout, they placed after claims (as indeed they should be) but in such a way as to make the effect of the whole paragraph more a list of these claims, than using the ideas advanced by these authors in support of the student’s own claim. So, this is a little ‘laundry list’-like right now. The second, then, is the student’s own claim: what is it? It could be about the goal of ODL institutions, or challenges they face, or student attrition. It is not yet clear. Each paragraph you write needs to have a claim YOU advance, and that selected claims and evidence from reading can be organised around, before you connect this back to the golden thread you are spinning – what is this information helping the reader to understand about YOUR STUDY? The final observation is this, precisely: the connection between this selected information from the readings with the student’s own project. I have attempted a re-write:

Online and Distance Learning (ODL) faces several key, student-related challenges in addressing its central goal. The goal of ODL is to widen participation and to overcome geographical, social and economic barriers to education (Kelly & Mills, 2007). Yet, many learners experience isolation due to separation from their institution, lecturers and fellow students (Rumble, 2000). This sense of isolation may then result in lower levels of persistence, resulting in ODL institutions having high dropout and low pass rates (Daniel et al., 2009; Perraton, 2000). While there are many factors that contribute to attrition in distance education programmes, at the top of the list is students’ level of interaction and support (Stacy, Ludwig, Hardman and Dunlap, 2003). Holmberg (2003), for example, argues that successful distance learners are driven by intrinsic motivation, and personalized, affective learning support. However McKenna (2004) disagrees, saying that student success in a higher education environment is not primarily a function of motivation per se, but rather of a student’s investment in her studies, both material and psychological and the systems created to enable this. Tinto (1975, 1993, 1997) echoes a call for a more systemic, rather than individualised approach to student support, which should be applied in ODL contexts. What all of this means for ODL institutions, is that increasing student retention and success is a complex challenge with numerous variables. These authors, however, seem to be pointing to a need to begin with addressing student support, to decrease alienation and increase students’ ability and willingness to invest in their education more meaningfully.

What I have tried to do here is address my three concerns. In orange, a point, and an explanation of how this information is all pointing back towards the larger study, which is about creating relevant ODL student support structures to increase student success. It may sound mechanical, but try to be conscious of beginning paragraphs with a claim of your creation – based on your reading, but in your own words, and that advances or builds your argument or voice. Not every paragraph will end with an explanatory note, but you should be conscious of drawing the connections between the research you have done and your own argument: as Pat Thomson points out, all reading you include in your thesis must have relevance to, or be positioned in relation to, your argument.

In pink, I have highlighted connecting phrases that position the authors’ claims in relation to one another, yet enable the voice of the writer to come through more clearly, as you get a sense of the writer choosing where to place the claims and what claims to use in making this small part of the argument. Yet, however, while, although – these kinds of ‘transitional’ words are incredible useful in writing, not just to create more readable text, but chiefly to indicate the position of claims made by other writers in relation to one another, and in relation to the argument you want to make.

loads of reading.jpegPerhaps approaching any ‘review’ of the literature from this kind of starting point – concepts and claims over author names (and lists of their points) – will re-orientate you away from ‘reviewing’ the literature, towards using selected literature to make an argument. The point is not to show your readers everything you have read, and what everyone else thinks about your research; the point is to tell us what you think is relevant, and why, using established research to shore up and solidify the credibility and significance of your claims.




  1. […] This is one way of rewriting the passage above, of course; there may be others. But what I am trying to do is distill the essence of the point being made into simpler, shorter, clearer sentences. While the first example may, in the surface, look and sound ‘academic’ because of the large words, and complex phrasing, dig deeper and it becomes hard to understand what the author is really trying to say. The meaning gets a bit lost in the big words, and complicated ideas. To sound ‘academic’, therefore, we should rather focus on creating clear and accessible meanings, through shorter, more focused sentences connected together through relevant explanations and evidence. […]

  2. Brilliant! This is the best blog I have read on literature reviews that apply to doctoral writing! Thank you very much.

  3. Literature review is a critical survey of what hitherto has been written , published and researched on on that specific topic/area.

  4. thank you for the inflo i have been struggling a lot with how to write a literature review

    • It is a really tough section to write, particularly because we can feel so overwhelmed by all of the reading and all of the competing ‘voices’ and arguments that we have to relate to our own argument. Keeping a reading journal really helps me – it may help you, too?

  5. I’m not a PhD student (I’m writing my MA). I just wanted to ask, so far the feedback I’ve been given is “the biggest issue I can see with the dissertation is the lack of your voice through it”. It’s fantastic that I’ve come across your site. I just wanted to ask, would it be acceptable for me to write (even partly) in first person or would you recommend avoiding this?

    • Hi Caroline, I think to some extent it does depend on the discipline and the values underpinning the ways in which knowledge is made and shared in yours. For example, one of the reasons many of the disciplines in the natural sciences, especially the less applied disciplines, still teach students to write in the 3rd person is because of the value of objectivity. If you say ‘I’ you are introducing a human factor and that means possible bias and error, and science knowledge (in general) values objectivity, lack of bias and claims to ‘truth’ on that basis. But, this is changing as the values underpinning knowledge-making are changing. In the social sciences we are more okay with first person (I argue that; My findings show that) because we don’t think knowledge is objective or out there to be found as is. We believe, in different ways, that knowledge is made by humans and systems and societies and has to be interpreted and constructed (although paradigms on what counts as interpretation and construction will differ on how this is done). So we are okay with revealing the human factor in our writing that had a hand in making the knowledge being shared. I do think that there are places in thesis writing where saying ‘I’ and ‘My’ etc makes a lot of sense, but too much first person, especially in sections like the theoretical framework and the literature review can veer your tone into ‘This is all my opinion’, rather than ‘This is credible knowledge in my field that is being used to provide a context and framework for my study’, so you do need to be careful to moderate your use of the first person. I tend to use it more in the Introduction to papers I write and where I discuss data or findings and methodology, to explain motivations for doing the research and for certain methodological or analytical choices and presentation. When I write about theory and literature, and even conclusions, I try to use ‘This study’ or some reference to my work in the 3rd person, as I feel like it establishes the credibility of my claims more firmly. I am a social scientist working in Education and a bit in Gender Studies. So, that’s my take on your questions – which is a good one because most of the time these writing conventions like how we express ‘voice’ are not explicitly discussed or unpacked with students.

  6. i just want to ask how best i can tackle a question that requires me to describe how my own voice can be realized in literature r weview
    thank you for the post it was so helpful

  7. Sherran, thanks for this – it was a very helpful read. This has given me some more, deeper understanding. I think I have been tempted to, throughout, read very widely – and sometimes deeply – though perhaps at the expense of finding my own voice within my writing.

    Actually no, I read widely because I want to see the connections (and lack of connections) that authors make. Somehow this seems to be giving some… respect to the literature. The problem is when the literature is huge (it often seems to be) and when doctoral level assignments might be restricted in scope or word count (they are for various reasons). I think having ADHD plays on this a bit – the desire/need to want to know more, cover the bases and go down endless rabbit holes to find gems among the coal.

    What this post has helped me really understand is the need to bring my voice in, and not merely make an argument; to have a sort of conversation with the experts that isn’t just – as you called it, a laundry list! – but one that is framed by advancing a claim in a nuanced way. I think!

    • Thanks for sharing this, Dustin. Reading widely and getting a handle on the connections between ideas, arguments and trends in the field (or lack thereof) can make you feel so much more confident in your writing and thinking, from my experience. And this makes the task of reading really tricky, because a PhD is not our life’s work, right? We do have to also manage it as a limited project and work out how much we really *need* to know to make a strong, but limited, argument. So, who do we need to invite to the conversation for this project, and what do we need them to converse with us about? That’s perhaps a good guiding question.

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