Dr. Z's Dos and Don'ts for Writing a Literature Review

As a service to Masters paper writers everywhere (especially in the Instructional Technology program at the University of Northern Iowa), I am beginning a list of the things that successful writers Do and Don't do when writing a literature review.

Students in the UNI Masters programs - You WILL BE HELD RESPONSIBLE to use these tips for writing your literature review!

(What should students/teachers remember? Please add your own ideas)


Paper Format

  • Do backup your work. You need to have at least 2 copies of your work so it won't disappear when(not if) you have a malfunction.
  • Do place running titles in the upper left corner.
  • Do place Arabic numbers in the upper right corner (inside the header).
  • Don't place a number on the front page. Do use Page Breaks
  • Do follow this Headings format. (APA 6th Edition)
  • Do use the (Obama, 2008) format for citing references
  • For citing direct quotes, use (Obama, 2008, p. 54) at the end of the quote.
  • If the author(s) was/were mentioned before the quote (e.g., Obama stated "This . . . ") use (2008, p. 54) at the end of the quote.
  • If the author(s) and year was/were mentioned before the quote (e.g., Obama (2008) stated "This . . . ") use (p. 54) at the end of the quote.
  • Use 1" margins on all sides, except left margin - 1.5"
  • Use italics to identify your search terms in your Methodology (i.e., The reviewer use social media, teacher education and Twitter for search terms when searching the ERIC and Google Scholar databases.)
  • Do follow the APA Formatting Guidelines:
Use the Instructional Technology Literature Review Masters Paper template (6th edition) - This template is designed to provide you with the appropriate formatting for your review.
  • Do use the Hanging Paragraph formatting tool to format your References list with a ½" indent.
  • Manually right-align your Table of Contents using this technique (Watch this video).

Format Troubleshooting

  • I can't get my page numbering to work. It starts, stops and restarts throughout the review.

Writing Style

  • Do backup your work. You need to have at least 2 copies of your work so it won't disappear when (not if) you have a malfunction.
  • Do write in the active voice. (That means lots of "ings" where appropriate and few "of"s.)
  • Do follow a logical progression of content - it may help to begin with an outline.
  • Do use Masters review terminology - use Examine instead of "look for", Designed instead of "aimed to" Many instead of a lot
  • Do write in 3rd person. (If you refer to yourself, you are the Reviewer and not the Researcher.)
  • You CAN write in 1st person in the Conclusions and Recommendations section.
  • Do cite your source when you make a broad statement. i.e., Schools are cutting programs today.
  • Don't utilize utilize use use
  • Don't use meaningless words: very, quite (use more descriptive words)
  • Avoid "value added" words that express your bias in the Lit Review section.
  • Don't begin a sentence with Also or And or Or
  • Don't use contractions (don't, can't, etc.) - you need to write in a more formal style
  • The only thing in quotation marks are direct quotes. If you want to emphasize a term, use italics.
  • Within the content of the paragraph do not use "&" in referring to multiple authors. Conrad and Donaldson (2004) state..., the & goes in the citation (Conrad & Donaldson, 2004).
  • Never use "that" when referring to a person or group of people...use "who". "That" is grammatically correct, but "who" is SO MUCH classier.
  • Do write your Abstract in present tense.
  • Do use past tense when reporting research in the Analysis and Discussion.
  • Do use future tense when writing your Recommendations.
  • Do use double spacing throughout, including initial pages (with lower case Roman numerals) and reference list.
  • Free Smothered Verbs. The most important word in a sentence is the verb, the action word, the only word that can do something. Weak writing relies on general verbs, which take extra words to complete their meaning. When you write a general verb such as make or is, check to see if you can turn a nearby word into a verb.
    • Change this: This directive is applicable to everyone who makes use of the system.
    • To this: This directive applies to everyone who uses the system.
    • Change this: The committee held a meeting to give consideration to the proposal
    • To this: The committee met to consider the proposal. (from here)
  • Use Transition Words to move from one subject to another. Here is a list of Transition Words

Writing Content

  • Do backup your work. You need to have at least 2 copies of your work so it won't disappear when (not if) you have a malfunction.
    Do use examples to make your point
  • Do use diagrams where useful
  • Do include more than one sentence in a paragraph.
  • The first sentence should introduce the idea or focus of the paragraph, the next sentences should support the first sentence, and the final sentence should summarize or be a transition to the next section.
  • Avoid beginning or ending a paragraph with a quote.
  • Don't include a list of characteristics (e.g., 7 Traits of an Effective Portfolio) or steps (e.g., 6 Steps Towards Effective Blogging) or groups (e.g., 5 Types of Video Instruction) unless you are going to use it as an organizational tool later in the review. Otherwise it just takes up room and has no added value in a Literature Review.
  • Do use Affect and Effect properly. It's explained here. Look for the raven. OR here is a cool song/rhyme that helps you along
  • Don't use Wikipedia as a reference.
  • Don't use the phrase "such as" in your Methodology when listing the databases that you used. Be specific and tell us exactly which databases you used.
  • Do include the year when you are citing a quotation unless you have already cited the year earlier. (Zeitz, 2007, p. 26)
  • Don't introduce new information in the Conclusion.
  • Do follow the Abstract outline for writing abstracts.
  • Do be specific about your sources for your information in the Methodology.
  • Do not simply summarize what others have found on the topic you are going to present in the next section of your review. But weave the study results of others together into a comprehensive picture of what has been done, what is lacking and prepare the reader to discover how your study will address the missing pieces.
  • Do cite secondary resources "as cited in": (as cited in Wurst, Smarkola, & Gaffney, 2008). Secondary resources are not desired but sometimes necessary.
  • Do cite experimental research (usually from journals) to support your statements. If an expert expresses an opinion, it is good. If a researcher describes a study, it is better. Your review doesn't mean much if it is just filled with expert opinions.
  • References:
    • References should ONLY contain resources that were cited in the review.
    • ALL references cited in the review should be listed in the Reference List.
  • OneSearch and Google Scholar are not really databases. They are search engines using databases.

APA Resources


  • Do place Arabic numbers in the upper right corner (inside the header).
  • Don't place a number of the front page.