avoiding the laundry list literature review

I’ve been asked to say more about the laundry list literature review. The laundry list is often called ‘He said, she said” – as one of the most usual forms of the laundry list is when most sentences start with a name. And the laundry list is a problem. It’s hard to read and not very fit for purpose. 

So, what does a laundry list look like? Below is a page of a published book. It is taken from a chapter reviewing the literatures on neoliberalism in ‘the university’. It’s a laundry list. I have:

  • underlined in red the sentence where the author says what they are trying to do (you might call this a topic sentence)
  • circled the sentences that feature a scholar as the subject of the sentence.

Now let’s see what’s going on in the writing. The second paragraph on the first page begins with the author’s intention – to establish that it is difficult to define neoliberalism. They then offer two supporting pieces of evidence for this contention – one from Ferguson and the other from Bell and Green. But is the point of this paragraph to say who said what? Well no. It’s the various interpretations of the term that matter, not who was responsible for them.

Let me re-draft these two sentences to focus on the author’s intention.

Clarifying the concept of neoliberalism is not an easy task. The term neoliberalism is often used as a synonym for capitalism or the inequalities of the economy more generally (Ferguson 2010). Some scholars use the term very loosely, drawing connections between unrelated life events to suggest that a clandestine power is ‘pulling the strings’ (Bell and Green, 2016, after Latour, 2005).

What is now made clearer in the re-draft is that this is actually not yet a paragraph. I’ll continue by adding in further information from the next two paragraphs.

Clarifying the concept of neoliberalism is not an easy task. The term neoliberalism is often used as a synonym for capitalism or the inequalities of the economy more generally (Ferguson 2010). Some scholars use the term very loosely, drawing connections between unrelated life events to suggest that a clandestine power is ‘pulling the strings’ (Bell and Green, 2016, after Latour, 2005). Neoliberalism is also almost always derogatory when used to refer to economic/political policy (Fish, 2009) which produces austerity through the rationality of markets, entrepreneurialism and competition (De Lissavoy, 2014).  The term is also associated with ‘bureaucratisation’ (Hibou, 2015), processes of rationalisation and professionalization, driven by the quest for neutrality, objectivity and professionalization, which govern key aspects of everyday life.  

So that will do as a new draft. It can be worked on further later.

The next paragraph should move on from the need for clarity to offer the definition that the author will use.  Now let’s look at the next page.

IMG_1648Let me try a bit of a rework on that too.

How then can the term neoliberalism be understood? Barnett (2005) suggests that it refers to the discreet alteration of the class-driven reform of the state to benefit free markets. Neoliberalism is a form of ideologically driven policies and government that supports privatisation, the free market and increased competition.

 You can see that I have left Barnett here as a sentence subject. It is not that you never write about an author. The reason I have left Barnett here as the sentence subject is because he is The Key Scholar that the author uses for the definition that informs their book. While we might not agree with them or their definition, when we read Barnett in the sentence, we are clear on what authority the author’s work rests. ( The same is also true for scholar Springer at the top of page one. Springer is also a key source for the author.)

And note, my new second paragraph splits the author’s current third paragraph. I’ve turned three non-paragraphs into two. But perhaps they need some further evidencing/referencing. Yes, it is pretty obvious that my new second paragraph in particular needs a bit more work –  more evidence and argument would strengthen the case being made as well as showing the breadth and depth of reading in the field. You see, once you get away from the he said she said list, you get to show that there is a quantum of evidence for the point you want to make, rather than a less than persuasive single citation. (And note that in re-drafting I have got rid of the ‘therefore’ sentence – this is where the author has tried to reinsert their own post-listing voice and interpretation.)

In sum, my redrafting has:

  • collapsed three paragraphs into two, each one makes their own move in the argument. The first point is that there is confusion about the term neoliberalism, the second offers a working definition of it.
  • avoided the repetitive use of he says, notes, proposes etc.
  • changed some klutzy expression – I moved into brackets the cumbersome double reference – Bell and Green drawing on Latour – so it’s now not too tricky to read.
  • made the writing more authoritative – I removed the abrupt shift into the author’s own view via ‘therefore’ –  the entire two paragraphs are now the author managing the discussion of the substantive topic.
  • moved some sentences from passive to active voice – see paragraph two in particular.
  • highlighted the most important work that the author is using – Barnett
  • produced an argument – I’m not simply reporting summaries of other people’s work, but have made two points supported by evidence.

And the two paragraphs are now ready for further polishing.

If you go on reading the second page, you’ll see the listing pattern repeated. The author’s next paragraph is about how neoliberalism has permeated the university, as is the one after. I’m afraid the first paragraph on page two doesn’t even have an opening sentence about the topic – instead there is a give away sentence about writers. And then comes the list and the author inserting themselves at the end trying to make their point.

The same process of de-listing and re-writing that I’ve already done could be done here. You might even like to try rewriting this text yourself, particularly if you are still working on how to move away from listing.

But the original wasn’t a disaster. It’s not that the author doesn’t know what they want to say. They do. They have grouped the relevant literatures into clumps that move through a tacit argument. And they do have a point to make. It’s really that the text could have been much better.  

But that’s the laundry list issue for you. By focusing on writers rather than the substantive issue under discussion, authors end up listing and then trying to draw things together. They write paragraphs that aren’t really paragraphs but collections of sentences lacking a sensible opener and closer. Laundry list writers don’t really manage the argument – their case is nowhere near as clear as it ought to be. And when this pattern of listing goes on and on – as this one does for an entire chapter – it becomes a repetitive and dull read. In this particular book, this is the only chapter that is so dreary; the rest is much more readable.

It is no accident that it is the literature chapter where such problems occur. Listing is often an issue in thesis literatures work. If you currently have a laundry list in your literature review, then see it as a draft. It’s not too late or hard to rewrite it – you just need to take charge of the text. 

Don’t let other authors hog the lime-light. It’s your work and you need to tell it how it is for you.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in authority in writing, he said, she said, laundry list, literature review, passive voice, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

38 Responses to avoiding the laundry list literature review

  1. James says:

    Reblogged this on James's thinking space and commented:
    For anyone doing, drafting or redrafting a literature review, this is an excellent post that will help claify what a literature review is supposed to do.


  2. Although authors do not often have a choice in the matter, I would suggest that the numbered footnotes method of referencing is a great help in avoiding the laundry list, as well as making the text more easily readable. It also promotes a useful shift in attitude; the cited authors’ names will no longer appear by default in the text, so the reader will know that when they do appear, that is the result of a conscious decision.


  3. Tara says:

    This is very helpful, thank you. But how does this reconcile with having to describe all the studies that are being included in the review? I have to describe where the study was, the population, etc. I find it very hard to do this and also avoid the laundry list effect!


    • pat thomson says:

      I’m talking about a final text… people often have lists for discussion with supervisors. If a systematic review then you need methods and list of texts. But think tables, bulk citations, footnotes as other options.


  4. Writing my thesis these days and this one really helped. Thank you


  5. John says:

    Excellent post! Many graduate students and professors at the beginning of their careers should read it. Thank you!


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  7. Taking us through this process is very helpful! Riffing off this, I’ve suggested some lit review disrupters, to scare off the hogs, at this post on my Becoming a PhD supervisor blog. Thanks Pat!


  8. Rachel says:

    I also like to include tables as summaries. Why spend paragraphs and paragraphs writing out your “laundry list” when you can just pop it in a table? This specifically address Tara’s comment above!


  9. Reshma says:

    This is an excellent post. Thanks Pat. I have a draft of my thesis ready and this comes at the very right time.


  10. Reblogged this on Melanie and the typewriter and commented:
    This is an excellent post about reviewing literature; give it a read!


  11. Thank you for such a helpful and detailed blog post! I will certainly be coming back to this when I start my literature review


  12. JHemon says:

    This is very useful! The laundry list lit review is closely related to the data dump citation (frequently observed in the social sciences). These are citations that, for the purpose of comprehensiveness, include numerous authors and works in a single parenthetical reference, without explaining their importance or how each article relates to the author’s argument. For instance: “In contrast, much recent work has focused on the ways that neoliberalism creates structures of oppression (Peterson and Davis 2015; Gupta 2013; Heaney 2004; Peterson, Peterson and Davis 2011; Grafton 2003; Smith 1997; Paterson-Davis 2017).” The data dump citation is a product of the review process, in which authors are faulted for not mentioning certain authors or works. To head this off, or in response to a review, authors then dump all possible “you missed this” items into a citation string, to insure that the works appear in the bibliography. Another reason for the existence of the data dump citation is a lingering positivism: this is what scientific papers look like, and the social sciences are most convincing when they look more sciences (here’s my p value), so I’ll do citations this way…


    • pat thomson says:

      Yes absolutely. I’ve been planning a post on this and will quote you and this comment.


    • JsmithW says:

      No, the data dump is a way of acknowledging the wide range of scholars that have made a particular point. There is absolutely nothing inherently wrong with it. It is honest and transparent, it is highly useful for a reader who is interested in the literature, it is the only efficient way of showing the range of research the author has consulted, and it is a natural result of avoiding the laundry list format in the first place in those cases where the idea the author is trying to reference has been previously made by a large number of people. It is not always possible or useful to make a claim about the relative importance of the different works being cited and when a general claim is being made, as is often the case in lit reviews, it is quite likely that the claim can be stated in such a way that it can be attributed to a large number of different authors. That is really the nature of a good literarture review.


      • pat thomson says:

        Sorry. I don’t agree, I t’s not enough to show range unless you can say what the range is, what it signifies and why it is important. As well, you need to be able to say something about the nature of the different evidence involved e.g. Theory, empirical and what etc. This may have to happen via text not citation.


  13. shahrulnizam says:

    Reblogged this on S.N.A.


  14. John Aduku says:

    This is an eye opener for me. Thanks for educating lot’s of scholars/ researchers on how best to present literature reviewed.


  15. Adam says:

    Caught a typo: “But that’s the laundry list issue for you p.” I’d like to share this with my students.


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  17. Judy says:

    Wow, such a clear explanation and demonstration of how to write literature review. Thank you very much. I learn a lot from your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. RH says:

    This is good.
    Who doesn’t dislike laundry….

    Liked by 1 person

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  20. Tebogo says:

    Literature review is one of the most challenging step in research process. It always takes times to do quality work.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Michelle says:

    Thank you so much for this post, it has resulted in an ‘aha’ moment for me – much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. gumersindo says:

    Another ground for the cosmos of the data dump Citation is a lingering positivism: this is what scientific papers looking like, and the social sciences are most convincing when they looking more sciences (here’s my p economic value), so I’ll do Citations this way of life… […] the laundry tilt literature recap […]

    Liked by 1 person

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  24. brandenborn says:

    Reblogged this on Chickenbus Chautauqua and commented:
    I’m working in my research methods and thesis prep class on developing research proposals and (at the moment) literature reviews. This is a very helpful example of what to do, and what not to do. Beyond being helpful, it’s just a pleasure to read the craft of writing. I point students to your blog a lot, thanks for the fine work.

    Liked by 1 person

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  26. Charuta says:

    Very educational information for all who are into publication.

    Liked by 1 person

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