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? )


Once you have the slices determined for your literature review, pick one to begin working on. I encourage students to pick a heading what they think is the smallest section or the one that has the least literature to contend with. Then, just do your best to think of this as a mini, stand-alone paper like one you might right for a course. Do-able, yes?


The outside of the donut is the largest area to cover. You need to do a thorough search of the literature, to the point of saturation. An abstract review is the way to get started. Using key and subject terms in the databases and using Google Scholar, look at the recent literature in the last 4 years on the topic. Reading abstracts you should compile categories of articles relevant to your topic and study; To Read, Maybe, and Not Likely; Be sure to include nay-sayers on the topic as well. I provide tips on how to organize these pdf files into folders in THIS post.


After you’ve obtained articles, you’ll begin to read and take notes. Using your conceptual framework, and critical reading skills, read the articles looking for commonalities and differences. You’ll need to find a balance of how much note taking you do now so that you don’t have to completely re-read articles later. Keeping track of what you’ve read is important and using a matrix is recommended for easy comparison later. The note taking strategies you used in courses may or may not be adequate here in the dissertation phase. You’ll be reading a LOT. In my graphic these blue shapes represent the articles that you eventually will group and discuss together. These will either become paragraphs or level 2 headings under the level 1 heading, which all together is the donut slice.


Once you’ve organized your reading into categories that make sense for discussion, you’ll want to further expand outline your ideas deciding if the content is enough to divide into level 2 headings or paragraphs. The intro paragraph of each Level 1 should provides the reader with a landscape view of the topic, much like the abstract review did for you as you started this process. The last sentence of the introduction paragraph (highlighted in yellow) should be a statement to organize the rest of the writing in this level 1 heading.

The body paragraphs under each level 2 headings must have strong topic sentences (TS) that connect that paragraph to the heading(s) under which it falls; being overt, rather than covert. Make organization clear, not a mystery. And remember you are NOT to be purely summarizing articles or giving annotated bibliographies on the literature. You are the puppet master, the conductor of the orchestra, or the host at a dinner party, in control of the entire conversation on the topic. You want to provide the most honest and clear explanation of what is known on that topic. Describe the methodologies of studies that have been done, pulling out the most important results that relate to your topic.  But use a lot of synthesis, as well as lots of “You Glue!”  Determine which studies you only need to quickly mention, which ones will get a few sentences, and which ones might just go into a parentheses with studies like it.


After writing the body paragraphs of a single APA level 1 heading section (and the level 2 headings under it), you should have a good idea of how your study fits into what is already known on the topic. In the LAST paragraph of EVERY APA level 1 heading in the lit review, you will write a paragraph that synthesizes what is known, announce the gap, and then relate the relevancy to your study and approach. (I have an entire blog post on how to declare the gap in this all important paragraph.)

A sentence in this paragraph might sound like this, “While the problem has been studied [THIS WAY], and [THAT WAY], no research has been done to look at the problem from [THIS] angle. In my proposed study, I will approach it [THIS] way.” The gap can come in a number of ways, like my example it might be as large as how others have approached the problem. However, your gap might be as simple as the topic not being studied with a particular demographic or using a certain methodology or with enough participants.


Attacking the pastry one slice at a time will eventually get you to a point, where you’ve talked yourself all the way around the donut hole. (At this point, you deserve to celebrate—go buy a dozen donuts—or go out to dinner!) Then in the summary of chapter 2 (and in the background section of chapter 1) you’ll be able to draw from what you wrote in those final paragraphs from each level 1 headings to write a final conclusion and declaration of the gap and how it connects to your study!

Writing the first level heading can be intimidating. However, the good news is, each of the sections (mini papers) will follow the same research process and similar writing structure, so finding a groove early will set you on a good course. I suggest you have your chair review your first level 1 heading writing so you know you’re on the right track.

What has helped you in the writing process of the literature review?


One thought on “Slicing the Donut: Writing a level 1 heading of the literature review

  1. Thank you Dr. Harland for a very helpful and insightful post regarding level 1 headings in the literature review, and identifying the gap. This is also very timely as I am in the process of writing the literature review!

    Thanks again!


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