Analysis of Professional Literature
Writing Workshop

James Neill
Last updated:
27 Mar 2003

Have handy an electronic and hard copy of your draft literature review (including abstract)

Exercises / Material

1. Writing quotes

2. Flesch-Kincaid Readability analysis

3. Peer reviews of abstracts

4. Reading aloud

5. Academic writing guidelines

6. Marking criteria for a literature review

Writing quotes


 Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend.
Inside of a dog it's too dark to read.
- Groucho Marx


Every man usually has something he can do better than anyone else.

Usually it is reading his own handwriting.
- Unknown


The easiest thing to do on earth is not write.

- William Goldman

A word is a bud attempting to become a twig.
- Gaston Bachelard

Writing comes more easily if you have something to say.

All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.
- F. Scott Fitzgerald

If the writing is honest it cannot be separated from the man who wrote it.
- Unknown

Every writer is a frustrated actor who recites his lines in the hidden auditorium of his skull.
- Rod Serling

My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.
- Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961)

Writing is no trouble: you just jot down ideas as they occur to you. The jotting is simplicity itself - it is the occurring which is difficult.
- Stephen Leacock

What is written without effort is in general read without pleasure.
- Samuel Johnson

 When I face the desolate impossibility of writing 500 pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day's works is all I can permit myself to contemplate.
- John Steinbeck

Another thing that Bezard taught was how to take notes and how to set up card files that are useful a whole lifetime. If I had followed his advice, today I would have a gold mine; none of my early work would have been lost.
- Jean Guitton (1901-1999) A Student's Guide to Intellectual Work [1951], Ch. 5:

Our admiration of fine writing will always be in proportion to its real difficulty
and its apparent ease.
- Charles Caleb Colton

Omit needless words. Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.
--William Strunk, Jr.

There is no great writing, only great rewriting.
- Justice Brandeis

"Rewriting is like scrubbing the basement floor with a toothbrush."
- Pete Murphy

Your manuscript is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.
- Samuel Johnson

Flesch-Kincaid Readability Analysis

Various language experts have proposed methods for analyzing the readability of text.  Usually, good writing is simple, but when complex topics are being discussed, it is a challenge to write simply.  But writing simply can became a habit if it is practiced.  In addition, it can help to use automatic readability analysis tools.  These tools can give you a numerical analysis for the complexity of your text.  Two basic principles are considered by MS Word's Flesch-Kincaid readability analysis:

1. Average word length: To improve readability select shorter, simpler words were possible.

2. Average sentence length: To improve readability write shorter sentences.  Often a long sentence can be rewritten as two sentences.


Note that there are many different algorithms for readability, e.g., see Nisus software. (you can download a 30 day trial of this software).  A more academic paper about readability can be found at http://www.timetabler.com/reading.html, which presents the following figure showing the relationship between variables, average number of sentences per 100 words, average number of syllables per 100 words,, and reading age:

Here's how to conduct a Flesch-Kincaid readability analysis by using MS Word.  Open your document, then:

-> Tools

-> Check Grammar

-> Options

-> Tick the “Readability Statistics” box

-> Proceed through the grammar checking

-> When complete, you receive a box of statistics about the paper, including the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Statistic.


Some guidelines to consider:

  • The average American reads at reading grade level 7. 

  • For good quality academic writing, strive to write under a reading grade level of 12.

  • This document has a reading age level of approx. 9.

Reading aloud

  • Reading your writing aloud can have a profound affect.

  • A good piece of writing should sound good when spoken.

  • Get someone else read your paper aloud to you and discuss ways it can be improved.

Academic writing guidelines


 1.      Topic selection and the research question matter most of all.

  • Time spent thinking about, researching, and dialoguing with your professor about the topic for your essay and refining the research question you are going to answer, is time very well spent.

  • It is worth thinking once, twice, and three times before finally selecting the topic and direction of the paper.  Once the topic is decided it becomes difficult to switch one's mind out of that paradigm.  What's more, there usually isn't much time (unless doing a theses) to switch topics once they get seriously underway.  Having said that, it is important to switch topics and questions if it becomes clear that the topic is going to create major problems for writing a paper.

2. Make sure the reader understands the topic and the reason for the paper.

  • Remember, it is your responsibility to explain to the reader why your topic is important, key terms or concepts, and the logic or rationale for what you are going to be examining.  If the reader doesn’t understand the topic, then the rest of the paper is a waste of time.

  •  The introduction section to the piece of writing is usually between one and two pages (approx. 200 to 400 words).  By the end of this, the reader should be clear about the purpose of the paper and the topic.  If not, you need to redraft and cut to the chase!

3. A paragraph should have one main idea expressed in three to five paragraphs.

  • Make one main point per paragraph

  • Use three to five sentences (usually)

  • Have an introductory sentence, one to three sentences which provide the detail of the point you wish to make

  • Provide a summarizing sentence for the point and link to the next paragraph/section

  • Not everyone agrees with this way to structure paragraphs, but it is a general used modern academic format

4. Use examples to help explain and balance out the 'academic' material.

  • Examples can be added to specific sentences by adding phrases such as "for example…" and "such as…".

  • An example can be used to introduce the paper or sections of the paper

  • An example can be used at the end of a section to help bring the information together in a different way

5. Consider the use of subheadings.

  • Sometimes headings are overused (e.g., a subheading for every couple of paragraphs); sometimes they are underused (e.g., more than a few pages, say 1000 words, without a subheading).  Sometimes no headings may be appropriate, such as when a piece has a strong, single narrative which flows all the way through.  More often, though, depending on the subject, there distinct topics which are discussed and which warrant different headings.

  • Be more descriptive rather than less descriptive with the headings

  • In redrafting, make sure that headings accurately match the content of the sections

6. Redraft, redraft, redraft…

  • First drafts are almost always awful.  Second drafts are a bit less awful…..and somewhere many drafts down the track are drafts which are OK or even good.

  • I used to write about three drafts of a paper and get reasonable grades as a student, but now as a professor I’ve learnt that I can rarely write any reasonable scholarly piece in less than about eight drafts.

  • There is no trick or tip to writing which can magically overcome the need for ‘bum-on-seat’ redrafting

  • Try to leave at least a day or two between drafts – the brain seems to do unconscious work on a paper when not constantly engaged with it

7. In redrafting, pay attention to improving the introduction and the conclusion.

  • The introduction and the conclusion really matter.  They provide the crucial front and end pieces for an essay.  Without good introductions and conclusions, essays read as awkward, exposed, confusing, and not offering a clear message.

  • It is critical that the introduction creates a clear and convincing case for the importance and relevance of the topic or question being asked by the paper.

  • It is critical that the conclusion synthesizes the message of the paper and identifies the relevance and future application of the main message of the paper.

8. When redrafting, examine every single sentence and ask how it could be written more effectively and using fewer words.

  • A lot of sentences can be shortened by removing extraneous words

  • A lot of sentences can be simplified by altering the order of expression

  • Check the grammar of your paper using the MS Word function.  I change approximately one third of the grammar issues that are picked up by MS Word – the rest I ignore.

9. Check your paper against a 'model' paper

  • Pick a model paper from amongst your references. 

  • During the redrafting process, go through the structure and expression used in the model paper and see if those ideas can help you to make improvements in your paper.

10. Is your passionate voice is expressed through the paper?

  • At the end of the day, have you said what you really wanted to say?

  • A piece of writing should be true to your voice – is your paper true to you?

  • Are there things you only hinted at which you really wanted to see come through?

  • Are there aspects of the essay which you don't feel comfortable with - these discomforts rarely go away and usually come back with professor's comments which confirm that the discomfort was a sign of something that could have been improved.

  •  Instead of worrying about the weaknesses of the essay, intentionally turn the weaknesses into strengths, e.g., if you know the paper lacks referencing, go to the library for a couple of hours and build up a strong reference list.

  • Nurture your writing self.  For example, I keep a copy of “Chicken Soup for the Writer’s Soul” by my computer.  When I am stuck or disheartened with writing, I often read an story about a struggling writer who eventually achieved success!

11. Make powerful but judicious use of direct quotations.

  • Sometimes direct quotes (“….”) are overused or inappropriately used; sometimes they are underused.

  • Direct quotes should only be used when another person has written a powerful, unique piece of text which adds considerable value in the context of your paper.

  • Never start a paragraph or a sentence with a direct quote.  Always introduce the quote and in your own words and embed it into the flow of the paper.  It is a common mistake to use direct quotes without leading with your own words into, and away from, the quote.

  • For quotes of more than 40 words in length, begin the quote on a new line and inset the quote by 1” from left and right.  After the quote finishes, start your text on a new line

  • Include page numbers when referencing direct quotes

12. When all is said and done, do you have the best title for your paper?

  • Titles less than 5 words are probably too short more than about 12 to 15 words is probably too long.

  • Can the title be expressed as question?  This can often make the paper more intriguing.

  • Can you put something particularly unique or novel into the title which adds some flair?

  • Is the title accurate and true to the content and purpose of the paper?

13. Use professional writing services and continually seek to improve your writing

  • Universities offer professional writing services for students.

  • If you have particular writing issues you know can be improved, then make an appointment and ask for assistance

  • Writing services will help create the outline for a paper, help in redrafting, and in proofreading

  • Take up opportunities to participate in professional writing courses and seminars

  • Read books and websites about how to write and research more effectively

  • Try to apply at least one new writing technique/skill that you learnt somewhere to each piece of writing that you do

Marking criteria for a literature review

  • Look over the marking criteria which will be applied to your paper.  Often you may find that you have overlooked an important aspect of the paper.  Then redraft to ensure that your paper addresses all of the marking criteria.



- Demonstrates knowledge of relevant theory




- Demonstrates knowledge of relevant research




- Uses theory and research to effectively answer the research question and establish the need for further research (synthesizes theory and research in an expert way)






- Clearly explains and establishes research question (i.e., effective introduction)




- Logical flow/structure through main body of paper which builds a clear argument




- Clarifying, insightful conclusion






- Thesis quality writing, with appropriate formatting, etc.