Be the Glue: Writing Sticky Sentences

Have you ever received feedback on your academic writing that sounds like this?

This paragraph lacks cohesion.
Add more synthesis, please.
This is all summary.
Where is the analysis of these studies?
Why does this matter?

If so, its likely that you need to work on being the glue!


Hopefully you know about the MEAL plan. Walden’s Writing Center has done an outstanding job of providing a model for writing strong academic-toned paragraphs. Here is what MEAL stands for.

M = Main idea = Topic Sentence
E = Evidence = Facts from research studies
A = Analysis = You Be the Glue
L = Lead Out = Your voice summarizing

I find that once students begin to understand the importance of strong topic sentences and lead out sentences, most learn to use them consistently. However learning to do the analysis well is where most students struggle. I have started calling this “the glue” and urge writers to “Be the Glue!” I find myself asking students for more sticky sentences that will pull the citations they are using into a coherent review of the literature.

WU Writing Center stated

Analysis should function as both the “you” (your unique interpretation of evidence) and the “glue” (a clear linkage among pieces of evidence and between evidence and the topic sentence) in every paragraph.

Glue + You = Analysis

Even if you agree with my argument for the importance of having analysis in every paragraph, you probably know how difficult it is to write well. You might be asking yourself, How do I transition from the evidence to analysis? I probably can’t just say “I believe this is important because….” or “This matters because…..” So how do I do it? I’m going to break my answer to this into two parts. First, I will provide tips for how you interpret the evidence and second, tips for linking evidence together. I will conclude with tips on what to avoid when writing these sticky sentences.

Interpret the Evidence

There’s a number of ways you can interpret the evidence. The first is that you explain what the evidence means to the reader. Being well read on the topic, you have unique insight of the evidence that you must share with the reader. Here are some examples:

While novices might identify a need for feedback, or a need for sharing common characteristics with their mentors, their perceptions of their needs might change during their induction experience.

Of particular importance in Gaikhorst et al.’s research is the emphasis on collaboration in the school culture.

Another way to interpret the evidence is to evaluate the quality of evidence. As writer and the one who has read a lot on a topic, it is your responsibility to help your readers know the landscape of the literature on this topic. These analysis statements can be comments on the strength of a study’s methodology to provide insight into strong the data from a study might be. Here are some examples of analysis sentences that are evaluating the quality of evidence.

While the research of Kane and Francis is limited by secondary data analysis, its findings are strengthened by the large sample size for a qualitative study, and help to corroborate other research.

While data from van Ginkel et al.’s study include an array of both qualitative and quantitative data, caution is warranted. The data were collected at just one point in time and therefore do not capture the dynamics of tailoring mentoring relationships to individuals over time. 

The research of Kopcha and Alger contributes important quantitative data among numerous qualitative studies about pre-service teachers’ perceptions of virtual mentoring.

Link Evidence Together

In addition to interpreting the evidence, being the glue also includes linking the evidence (the empirical research you’re citing in the paragraph) to each other and to the topic sentence. There are a number of ways to do this. The first is simply to use transitions words and phrases. These likely will not have citations in them. Here are some examples.

In addition to expressing a positive tone directly to the mentee, effective mentors also maintain a positive perspective about their profession and their role in the profession.

Teachers in Hong Kong felt the same way in a case study exploring perceptions of mentoring.

An important element of “becoming the glue” means that you compare the evidence you’re presenting. Comparing is critical in academic writing as you need to be identifying dimensions that are potentially universally true. The purpose of comparing articles in a literature review is to “see whether they support, or reinforce each other” (Dawidowicz, 2010, p. 69). See how these sticky sentences can be used to organize comparisons?

Beginning teachers in the United States are not the only educators who value practical support when they enter the profession.

Taken together, these studies demonstrate how novices value support in the pragmatic dimensions of their jobs.

Hallam, Chou, Hite, and Hite (2012) discovered similar results to Desimone et al. related to the value of informal mentoring.

The other side of the coin is to contrast the evidence. By highlighting differences in the presented studies, you can “tease out variables, characteristics, or timing that can lead to different outcomes” (Dawidowicz, 2010, p. 74). Since there will be lots of differences among the studies you’re citing, determining which differences are important to discuss is more difficult then finding how studies are similar. However, organizing your notes into matrixes help you to spot differences worthy of being noted in your review of the literature. Here are some statements that might begin a discussion of how studies differ.

While some studies suggest that online discussion forums benefit beginning teachers, contrasting studies highlight different results, particularly when participants engage in peer mentoring.

This finding echoes similar results discovered by Reese (2013), but contradicts other research that notes the limitations of virtual mentoring for providing feedback that aligns with context-specific issues in the new teacher’s classroom (Hunt et al., 2013).

Similar to comparing evidence, another way to link evidence is to relate the findings of the studies to a larger theme you’ve identified in the literature. This could be referred to as synthesis. However synthesis goes beyond the comparison of two or three studies, and is used to identify “larger instances of commonality” (Dawidowicz, 2010, p. 99). The examples below are highlighting characteristics that are common across culture and population.

Results from a qualitative study of art educators paralleled Cowen et al.’s findings.

Research conducted in rural settings corroborates the findings of Gardiner’s work with urban novice teachers.

If your paragraph is closer to the end of a level 1 heading, your sticky sentences can be more directly related to your proposed study.

The work of McIntyre and Hobson is particularly relevant to my own study.

If you are writing the literature review of your dissertation, you are writing to establish the gap. (Note: It is unlikely in course papers, that you will have read enough to be able to say you’ve identified a gap.) To prove that there is nothing, you have to show something. The WU Writing Center discusses this phenomenon in their donut hole post. You must logically show what has been done, to highlight what has not yet been done, thus justifying your study. In the last paragraph of a level 1 heading, you should dance around the donut hole then overtly identify the hole. Here is an example of how that discussion may be introduced.

While the work of Hallam et al. and Desimone et al. supports the importance of informal mentoring for novice teachers, their studies were conducted in face-to-face environments. A gap in the literature remains regarding whether informal mentoring that is offered virtually can effectively support to novice teachers.

What Sticky Sentences are NOT

In closing, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention what sticky sentences are NOT. When attempting to “be the glue” do not fall back on a persuasive tone and plead for action on what needs to be done. When writing the analysis sentences of your paragraphs, be careful not to sound like a politician or to write over-zealous generalizations. With practice, these sentences are easy to spot because they often include words such as should, must, need, always, or everyone and have a tone of emotion that is not appropriate for scholarly writing. Here are a few examples of over-generalized analysis sentences.

Teachers should use technology consistently in order to improve student engagement.

Educators need to improve teacher presence in online courses.

All learners benefit from this type of intervention.

It is important that students always be given more choices on what they learn, and how they learn it.

These types of sentences do not belong in scholarly writing. I suggest you take a paragraph of your writing, and search for these sticky sentences. How well are you doing evaluating and connecting? Are you missing sticky sentences altogether? Can you strengthen your use of glue?

Go forth and work on improving your use of sticky sentences!

Dawidowicz, P. (2010). Review of literature reviews made easy:  A quick guide to success. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Thanks Kendra for allowing me to use excerpts from your writing as exemplars in this post.

Here are some additional resources that may help you improve your sticky sentences.

Smooth Moves: Introducing and Integrating Sources into Academic Prose  This post includes how to introduce evidence with variety, but most importantly (smooth move #3) specific examples of how to connect the evidence to your topic.

Can being a good conversationalist improve your writing?  I love this post because it gives practical suggestions on how to connect the dots for your reader. (Oh yes, I love potato salad!—inside joke—you have to read the blog post to get it!)

By the time you get to dissertation phase your confidence in reading and interpreting what you read has improved drastically (even if you think it hasn’t). However, I bet you could still be more assertive in how you interpret evidence related to your topic. This post, titled Writing with authority, even if your Mama taught you not to!  provides suggestions on how to improve that authoritative voice needed to write good sticky sentences.




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