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Creating A Literature Review That Hits The Mark

Understanding our professors isn't always as easy as it ought to be. Sadly, "Teacher Talk 101" still isn't an available course anywhere we've checked, so we're here today to break down what your instructors are really looking for when assigning you a high-level literature review. We'll be waltzing through five important elements at breakneck pace to get to the heart of the matter – so feel free to print this one out and stuff it next to your schoolbooks as needed!

Treat your book like it's Wikipedia

These days, it's hard to imagine a world without all the various "Wikis" circulating the net. We snap to a page for a swift refresher on how to navigate what's under the hood of our cars or what a certain character did in the latest episode of a popular television series. Why not look to your book with that same level of usefulness? It may sound silly, but one of the biggest recurring mistakes students make when writing literature reviews is to read the source material once, close it up, and leave it at home while slaving away at a word processor.

Turn your book into a science experiment

Invest in several colors worth of highlighters and pop open a separate document which will be your little reminder on what exactly each of those colors means. Use them to point out pertinent text from page one to infinity. Fold the corners of key points in the reading and use bookmarks for only the most imperative chapters of all. Your book may end up looking a bit like Frankenstein's monster, but you'll be able to thumb back to whatever you need as quickly as if you were browsing the web. Your essay is going to have a keen eye for detail and your professor is sure to notice.

Here's an easier-to-read list of things to consider grabbing from your local bookstore:

  • Several highlighters.
  • Multiple bookmarks.
  • A composition book to store in-depth notes.
  • Post-it notes to stick to the book's pages for all those shorter ones.
  • Probably another copy of the book if you enjoyed it – your old one's a bit of a mess now!

Get inside the heads of every character

If your assignment involves a work of fiction, it almost certainly contains characters. Know those characters. Learn their quirks. You need to be able to identify with them – and identify their strengths and flaws, too. Make another blank document and begin listing the characters in the book. We wouldn't recommend copying and pasting from a preexisting source; take the mandatory time and really do it yourself. Afterward, you can cross-reference with an online help article, but let that first version be yours and yours alone.

Be able to verbalize the plot in 30 seconds or less

Here's a fun technique: practice reciting the book's events aloud. This simple exercise helps us to wrap our minds around the narrative and boil it down to its main purpose and overarching themes. We don't expect you to have an easy time of it if you're writing about Tolstoy's War and Peace, but keep the glass half full – consider how amazingly well you'll be able to say you grasped the text if you can shorthand that epic! The reason we suggest this is because your professors want something well-articulated but not overwrought. The very best papers get to the point without stopping on too many detours. Supportive information is always welcome but take care you don't lose focus along the way.

Go nuts

Don't be intimidated! Do something a little edgy with your essay. Take a glance at internet literature review samples and look for trends in the writing style. Most of these trends will help enable you to pen your perfect paper, but stick too close to the norm and you may wind up looking a bit too basic. Instead, we urge students to try something different with their structure or flow whenever appropriate. If you think your professor's especially "straightedge" you might want to be subtle about this, but if they come to school dressed in all plaid with a thick beard and a fedora, you might just be in the clear. For a quick example of thinking outside the literary box, consider Animal Farm. Any good essay on that one will talk up the political rhetoric and rampant allegory, but an essay to truly remember might decide to include a hypothetical snippet involving a made-up scene between characters representing modern-day political leaders – just to drive home a point. Teachers notice this and tend to smile.

And smiling teachers tend to give savvy students high grades.