Writing an A+ Literature Review

While it may be one of the most commonly used methods of qualitative analysis, the literature review is also the method that most students (and researchers) get wrong. This is one of the most common causes of bad grades and paper rejections, as the basic theoretical framework of your paper simply isn’t in a fit shape. While many researchers and students with e-mails anywhere online will likely have received thousands of e-mails citing proofreading as the key reason for manuscript rejection (and a quite expensive offer by companies willing to proofread them), understanding the existing literature and analyzing it properly are a far more significant concern.


What is a Literature Review?


A literature review is a qualitative analysis tool that seeks to summarize existing knowledge from existing reputable sources and identify why there are discrepancies between different. Unlike most quantitative forms of analysis, there are no precise numeric tests involved with a literature review. The only thing you need to be cautious about is how to avoid some common pitfalls.


Where to Start a Literature Review?


Without getting this website backlisted for violating piracy laws, there are several completely free websites where you can access articles. Perhaps the most famous are Google Scholar, JSTOR, and the social media network Research Gate. While it is true that not all journals on Google Scholar are free, JSTOR requires you to register for a limited access to some articles, and Research Gate requires you to make a profile, it is still much better than randomly trying to find peer-reviewed quality content on a simple Google search. The first problem many students make is populating their reference list with many blogs, websites, and similar sources. This should be avoided at all cost – it is ok to reference a relevant government agency or reputable news site, but the majority of your sources for a research paper should be articles from peer-reviewed journals and books.

You should decide beforehand roughly how many sources you need. This is sometimes specified in the assignment itself or your teacher will provide you with instructions. If he does not, a safe bet is never to use less than 3-5 sources. Anything less than that just doesn’t give you a solid overview of where current research is at the moment.


Using Relevant Sources for a Literature Review


While Adam Smith is integral to the development of economics and Sigmund Freud is certainly relevant to the development of psychology, that doesn’t mean you have to reference them in every paper. Unless your topic is historical and completely somehow connected to key theoretical concepts, you should use sources that are, on average, not older than 10 years. If you need to reference a theory from the 1970s, of course you should use the original source, but you should still aim that the remainder of your sources be as up-to-date as possible. While this may seem like academic elitism or something professors do to make it more difficult, it is undoubtable that the scientific field is changing all of the time and that some findings have become completely outdated.


Writing a Literature Review


The best way to write a literature review is to include these three key elements for every source you are referencing. Please not that this only applies to books and articles from peer-reviewed journals. If you are referencing a website or statistic from the FRED or the World Bank, you should only indicate the key finding.

On the other hand, when you are writing a review of credible sources such as peer-reviewed journals, you should follow these steps. Firstly, explain the methodological approach of your source in no more than 2 sentences. Secondly, list the key findings of the source. Finally, you should aim to compare it with other sources.


Common Mistakes in Writing a Literature Review


By far the most common mistake when writing a literature review is to provide a dry and unclear paragraph of unconnected findings. You need to establish logical connections within your literature review and, most importantly, provide a summary of the key findings from your literature review at the end. This should be done regardless of whether your entire paper is a 5-7-page literature review or you are just writing a 1-page-long literature review that will serve as a small portion of your paper.

Another common mistake is providing sources that have completely different findings without providing any commentary on the differences. It is completely fine to use sources that have different findings, but you need to provide a short comment on what could have contributed to the researchers finding different results. This can be anything from their methodology to the time period they were observing to using different methods of analysis.

You should also remember that it is important to connect the findings from your literature review to your discussion later on in your paper. Provide a comparison between your findings and the sources you analyzed in the literature review. Based on these findings, you can expand on your discussion section. Using such an approach will almost certainly ensure that your paper gets a few points more.


Referencing Obsession in Academic Circles


Some people believe that correct referencing has become an obsession in academic circles. Regardless of whether you agree with that or not, you can be sure that most professors will tend to mark down your paper for such mistakes. To play the devil’s advocate, you should understand that teachers and professors grade close to a thousand papers annually. Referencing errors are a pet peeve for many of them. Regardless of whether you think it is academic elitism or not, avoid losing a couple of points on your essay and paper by consulting the relevant guide for the referencing style you have to write in.

All of these guides are available free online. For example, if you’re looking for the APA guide, it’s only a Google search away. Another common error in referencing is being lazy when a source is something you do not usually reference and have not encountered thus far. For example, it may be difficult to cite a book that has no author credited because it is a government publication. Instead of avoiding to using it as a source or (even worse – and something I have encountered too often) referencing it in a way that feels correct, just input the following in your search browser: ‘’How to reference a book without an author using APA’’. This search will immediately yield the correct result and it can help you avoid losing a few points in your essay.

While writing a literature review is perhaps the most commonly used qualitative method of analysis, frequent errors contribute to a lower grade. By following this simple advice on how to write a literature review, you can be sure that your professor will be impressed with the quality of your writing.