Slicing the Donut: Writing a level 1 heading of the literature review

The literature review is where students spend most of the “proposal lives” working. In previous posts, I’ve shared with you how a literature review is like hosting a dinner party, how to define and declare the gap, how to use scholarly argument, how to write sticky sentences, and choosing articles for a literature review. In this post, I’d like to extend my post on developing an APA level 1 outline to help you organize your proposal writing. Let’s talk about how you get started in organizing, note taking, and finally writing your first level 1 heading of your literature review.

In one of my all-time-favorite WU Writing center blog posts, Tim talks about how to “prove the presence of an absence” by using an analogy of a donut and donut hole. I’d like to operationalize the analogy even more by expanding on his idea and showing you how the level headings within your literature review fit together to establish the gap and therefore the justification for your study.


The way to show what isn’t known (the gap/donut hole) is to share what is. That’s your job in the literature review. You must “talk around the donut hole.” It’s a big job, but you can do it, if you take it one “bite” at a time.


So, once you and your chair have determined the level 1 headings (general topics) you need to address in your literature review, visualize each of those heading as a different slice of your donut. (Anyone getting hungry yet? Sugar rush? ) Continue reading

Using the APA Level Heading Outline

Most dissertation students at one point or another become overwhelmed during research process. For many this happens during the review of the literature. There are so many articles to identify, obtain, and then organize. Therefore, it is important to have a system that builds your confidence that the articles you find you’ll be able to locate when it comes time to read and write. May I suggest a system that starts with the development of what I call the APA level heading outline?

APA Level Heading Outline

When organizing to write your dissertation proposal, I recommend you use an outline. The outline should align with the appropriate Walden checklist for your methodology and the headings in the outline should be formatted as they are in the dissertation template; level 1 headings (centered, bold, and title case) and level two headings when necessary (left justified, bold and title case). All of the headings are predetermined for you except for the ones in the literature review. Work with your chair to determine your level 1 literature review headings. The headings should provide a full description of the topics covered by your research questions. Here is the template version I give my mentees to individualize for their own study.



Using the outline provides several benefits. First, it helps you to know all the elements that required for the final product. If you consider each level 1 heading as its own mini-paper, the whole process seems less daunting. You can also use the outline as a task-list, and “check” headings off as you write them. I keep an outline for each of my mentees and I change the text color of the completed heading and insert a comment bubble with the date I approved that heading. This provides us with a bird’s-eye-view of what’s been done, and what still needs to be done. Last, I suggest the outline be used to help you tag articles for where in the paper you’re likely to need it.

For example, if a study has the research question:

How effective is technology-enhanced feedback given to doctoral students during the dissertation writing process?

the following APA level 1 headings might be used to organize the Literature review.

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Chapter 5: Interpretation of the Findings

Goal of the Interpretation of the Findings section:
Situating Your Results in Context of What is Already Known 

Up until now, your role in dissertation writing has been to describe, explain, frame, and analyze what others have done. While your critical analysis was imperative in chapter 2 you never shared your personal opinion. In Chapter 4 you objectively presented the results of your study with no comment on what the results may mean. However, in this section of chapter 5, you get to comment directly about the results of your study. The Interpretation of the Findings section is a critical section—and in my opinion—the most fun to write. Very few people read dissertations from cover to cover, but this is a section that will likely be read more than any other.

Writing the Interpretations of the Findings,

Remember the gaps you worked to carefully to frame back in chapter 2?  Now its time to situate your study results in with the current literature. What insight does your study bring? How does your study confirm, disconfirm, or extend the knowledge of what’s in the literature?

Preparing to write Interpretations of the Findings.

  • Make a list of the major findings of the study; per research question (or data source depending on how you want to discuss the findings) from chapter 4
  • Review the gaps you described in chapter 2

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