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Researcher Development

Researcher Development

Planning your writing

When you have organised your material, identified your plot and chosen your structure, the next step is to plan your writing. You may have tried and tested strategies for planning your writing – if not, read these blog posts about how other researchers plan their writing.

It is very important when reading literature and taking notes that you are critically analysing the text, rather than taking all as fact. There will be debated concepts in your field and reading different viewpoints with a critical mind-set will help you form your own opinions and judge both the experimental designs and the conclusions the authors are making. Of course we are not saying that the authors are not knowledgeable or trying to deceive, merely that inherent biases and views on particular theories and concepts can sway the conclusions and methods they employ.

The University of Exeter Study Zone has produced a number of resources on the types of questions you want to ask yourself while reading and how to be a critical reader. They have also included a selection of videos that help you become a critical writer too. This process allows you to show examiners that you have been reading critically, as you discuss cited papers with your own analysis of their work. This can include highlighting how you feel their work is important to the field or conducted in a certain way, or linking it with other papers to show the connections of ideas.

There are also a lot of resources on criticality specific to literature reviews and research writing:


Read the blog post Being ‘Critical’ by Pat Thomson, and consider the following list of questions:
  • What is the reason the writer offers for the importance of their topic? Is this convincing? How important is this topic relative to others? Are you persuaded? How does this project sit alongside other work in the field? 
  • What’s the basis for the argument? What kind of research? What kind of research tradition? What methods are used? What do these methods allow the writer to do, see and say – and what don’t they? How well are the methods used? 
  • What literatures and theories are used and what does this mean the writer understands and says? What alternative literatures and theories might productively be brought to this topic? And So What – what might happen as a result of the paper?
Go back to your material, and a key piece of literature you will be discussing in you literature review. Look at your notes and/or your plan. Are your notes answering these critical questions? What can you add to ensure, when you are writing your literature review, you are being critical?

When writing your literature review, it is important to synthesise information to improve the flow of your writing and avoid the “laundry list” reviews that Pat Thomson discusses in her blog post. This is a common mistake, where paragraphs are littered with he said/she said sentences. This can be very hard to read, does not show connections between ideas and experiments, and does not link to your own ideas. In her blog post she highlights how switching to the active voice and using literature to enhance your point rather than just adding it to the end of sentence can greatly improve your writing. This way you are producing an original work with your own voice rather than a collection of the notes you have created. She discusses this issue of “citation dumping” further, while giving you an idea of what an examiner might think and how to improve the way you treat referencing material, I highly recommend reading Pat Thomson’s post on citation dumping as well.

In terms of identifying the gap, the likelihood is you already know the gap in the field that your research degree is hoping to answer, either because your supervisor advertised the project or from meetings with your supervisor. The important point to remember is that your entire literature review should be aiming towards your knowledge gap. From explaining the background in the field, to the detailed particular concepts and theories to the unknown information, it should all point towards what you plan to do in your research degree. This allows the reader to follow your thinking and understand why you are doing the work and what it will mean for the field.


What is the gap in your field, and how will your research help answer those questions? The most common use of a literature review is to introduce your research and explain why your research is needed and important. Dr. Ben Ellway’s Academic Toolkit includes a Research Framing and Justification Canvas  is useful here. Use the canvas structure to map out your litetature and ‘gap’, by:

  • Identifing and specifing (summarising the literature)
  • Analysing and Evaluating (issues/themes, gaps/problems)
  • Framing and justifying (research questions)

This process will enable you to to articulate the exisiting literature, and the gap in the field that your research will address.

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