Writing Tip: Literature Review Word Selection

I recently wrote the literature review chapter for my master’s thesis. While it wasn’t the first research lit review I’d written, it had been a few years and I was, admittedly, more than a bit rusty. Feedback from my supervisor indicated that while my logic was well presented and the chapter flowed well, I had to take my writing up a notch.

I thought of the tools at my disposal and quickly came up with a three-point plan.

  1. Read research papers for writing style and not content
  2. Re-read my previous research papers
  3. Generate a word list

Read for Style

I usually read research papers for content and hardly notice the word selection. To help me understand word selection and style I highlighted non-content words that introduced or explained content in several lit reviews. Below is a sampled portion of a lit review (Junco, Heibergert & Loken, 2011) and how I highlighted the non-content words.

The Junco et al. lit review ties together ideas, findings, and theories, but never do the researchers commit to any of them. I found this was the key to writing a lit review. The omnipresent overview was non-judgemental and the word selection created a natural flow and told the story with supporting research.

I highlighted a few papers and discovered that they all followed the same procedure. Could it be that writing a lit review was based on a formula?  Yes and no. I found that most authors introduced the topic and then gave two or three examples, then introduced a corresponding topic, provided a few examples, and then tied the two topics together.

This discovery gave me a skeleton of my lit review re-write. In bullet points I wrote the main ideas and two supporting statements for each.

Previous Papers

Understanding how others write is important, but I feel it is equally important to understand how I write and then compare the two. I didn’t want to compare apples to oranges so I looked at a research paper I’d written in 2000. I was writing very well at that point in my career because I was constantly writing in a variety of styles.

Reviewing the paper illustrated that I could write a professional research paper. And yes, I was writing in the style I’d discovered in my highlighting exercise.

Reviewing that paper reinforced my writing confidence and showed that I didn’t need a reality TV makeover, but I needed to brush off a few bad habits and start looking at word selection.

Word List

At this point I knew quite at bit: How others write, how I can write, and how to close the gap.

My first step was to create quick writing exercises. I took several highlighted paragraphs from a few research papers and removed the content. With only the highlighted sections remaining, I filled in the blank areas with my lit review. Although I didn’t always have a good fit, it put me in the lit review writing frame of mind.

But I didn’t want my work to be mirrors of others’ work. I needed my own words. There are plenty of word lists available on the Internet, and the one that I began using as seed material is Bloom’s Taxonomy. I used Bloom’s categories, such as “evaluation,” “synthesis,” and “analysis,” which also had a list of verbs that corresponded with each.

For example “evaluation” verbs are “appraise,” “argue,” and “assess.” I add words to the list as I read lit reviews. If I’m ever at a loss for words I can quickly glance at my growing list of words and find an appropriate fit.

What tips do you use for writing a lit review?


Junco, R. R., Heiberger, G. G., & Loken, E. E. (2011). The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal Of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(2), 119-132. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00387.x


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