Styling your writing in a literature review

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In this section, you will learn about styling the language of your literature review in order to develop a researcher voice which expresses authority and a critical stance.

Developing a researcher voice

When you write your literature review, you are synthesising and expressing your understanding of existing research, including how much you accept, question or reject the claims your sources make. The writing therefore needs to show the position you are taking towards the sources you are citing in your literature review.

Writing with authority

Writing with authority is important in all academic writing because you are trying to persuade your reader to accept your argument/s. In a literature review, you are wanting to show confidence in your stance on the existing research as well as in the argument you are developing regarding the gap you have identified in the literature and the need for your research to fill this gap.

In short, your writing needs to:

  • Be very clear about the message you want to convey
  • Convince others that you are ‘right’ or that your reasoning is sound and that your ideas ‘make sense’
  • Predict how your audience will receive your message or which parts of your claims may be contested.


To convey authority, your writing will need to make claims about the literature you are reviewing and the key arguments and ideas related to your area of your research. A claim is different to a regular sentence. A claim in academic writing will provoke, analyse or interpret rather than merely describe or present facts. Claims can (and should be) supported or refuted by logic and/or evidence, data and argument. Claims will often appear in topic sentences, thesis statements, and introductory and concluding sentences. 


Expressing a critical stance

A literature review is CRITICAL in stance, not purely descriptive. Your choice of words will:

  • Reveal to the reader your attitude towards the research you are citing
  • Indicate whether or not you consider their claims to be substantiated
  • Position your work in relation to the literature
  • Develop an ‘authoritative’ or a ‘researcher’ voice.

Reporting Verbs

One way of signalling your critical stance on a source is through the use of attributive or reporting verbs. Reporting verbs refer to, or report on, a particular piece or body of literature. Their effective use helps in not only signalling the relevance of the sources to your writing but also strengthening your argument and indicating your stance towards a piece or body of literature.

The table below lists some common attributive/reporting verbs and indicates the stance they usually convey. This can be a neutral stance, a distancing or disagreeing stance, or a stance that implies agreement with the ideas or findings from a source.

Verbs that typically express a neutral, distancing or agreement critical stance
Neutral Distancing Agreement
Suggest Allege Argue
Indicate Declare Establishe
Describe Speculate Affirm
Observe Contend Confirm
Comment Claim Show*
Maintain Assert Convince
Report Postulate Demonstrate
Show* Emphasise

*Note that the verb ‘show’ can indicate either a neutral or agreement stance, depending on the context in which it is used in a sentence.


Using tense in reporting verbs

Indicating your critical stance can be achieved through not only your choice of reporting verb (as suggested above) but also the tense you use on that verb. This is because the tense used in reporting verbs signals more than simply when something happened: It can show if you think the ideas of the reported research are current or still relevant to today.

Here are some general patterns of tense use in reporting verbs. However, remember, reporting verb tense is complex and can vary, so check the literature in your field for guidance. Also remember that the patterns of tense use described here apply only to reporting verbs and not to all verbs that may be found in your literature review.



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Research and Writing Skills for Academic and Graduate Researchers Copyright © 2022 by RMIT University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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