In many ways writing a good literature review is like writing any run of the mill high quality essay or research paper. Success hinges on the selection of a meaningful and defensible topic, then performing the requisite research and analysis of supporting material. This work will culminate into a written essay in which the writer will state their thesis, their arguments to support their thesis and the reference material which proves the validity of their arguments. So far so good.
There is, however, a key differentiator between a standard essay and a literature review. Ignoring this wrinkle during the planning phase of the paper will disqualify the paper from being considered a literature review, and if that is indeed what is being asked of the writer then it will inevitably end up with a failing grade.
A good literature puts the spotlight on a specific topic (where this a standard essay or research paper it would end there), and it requires of the writer to critically analyze the relationship between the various reference materials and works related to the topic. Once that thread of commonality has been established the writer must then find a way to link everything together and tie that into their own work, arguments and the conclusion they reached.
Just like tackling an essay it is best to breakdown the literature review into smaller, digestible chunks so that the task does not seem insurmountable. The best place to start is to know the lay of the land and determine what is technically required. Reviewing the standards and guidelines set by those marking the literature review is paramount. A writer may have the best topic and written the best essay of their life, but if they broke rules or missed critical elements in doing so, then it will all be for naught.
Choosing a topic is next step and it can be both very easy and extremely difficult. Think it through and hunt down old reviews to see what topics have already been covered. Try to attack a new subject matter or approach a familiar one at a different angle. Keep in mind that this is a literature review and that the topic chosen should not only be interesting, but also defensible.
Then it is time to hit the books and identify the key pieces of literature that will be used in the review. Comb through databases, peer reviewed journals, published studies and scientific data.
Once the mound of raw information has been accumulated it is time to parse and analyze the literature. At this point it may be a good idea to start categorizing the articles and various works that has been collected. This will not only help organize the articles but it will may later on aid in helping draw commonalities for the literature review. For the easier display of information create a table in a spreadsheet and for each article note: the author, the title, the category it was placed in, the particular quote(s) that will be used in the paper, its strengths (how it can be tied to the topic and thesis), its weaknesses (how others may contest its legitimacy as it pertains to the topic), and how it relates to the other articles.
Placing the data on a table accomplishes two things: for the writer, it provides a quick summary sheet of the various references and resources they will be using for their review, and for the reader it provides a visual guide to the conclusion that the writer is attempting to draw.
Now, with all the information in hand and organized in a coherent way to support both thesis and its arguments can the writing begin. A literature review is a bit odd in that it is more an exercise of what not to do rather than the opposite. For example, while it is important to identify the topic, arguments and problem area, the writer should not make global statements. They should not forget to clearly delineate the difference between research findings and secondary sources of information. Don’t forget to not omit time frames. Don’t be afraid of statements like “no studies were found”, but be sure to justify its use in the paper. There are literally a dozen or so of these, however the one that should never be forgotten is this: resist the great temptation of turning this paper into an annotated bibliography.
With quotes, references, sources being cited throughout the paper it is very easy to lose sight of the fact that this is a professional literature review. Keeping the goal in mind is key to success with this type of paper. And that goal is to highlight the relationship between the articles, sources and material that has been cited in the essay, and the topic being explored by the writer.