Getting Started with a Critical Book Review

This week’s post is going to look at another writing assignment that many DACC students have to complete during their studies–the critical book review (or CBR).   Since most of the students we see in the center who need help with this assignment are completing it as part of their HIST 151 or HIST 152 classes, we’re also publishing a second post today to deal with specific concerns of writing in the discipline of History.  First, though, let’s look at what a critical book review actually entails. These tips will also help you if you are in a class where you have to write critical reviews of scholarly or trade articles.

Many of us grow up having to write summaries of books we read for various classes.  Some of us also use social media sites such as Goodreads to recommend or find recommendations of books to read (or perhaps avoid).  Most of us are used to just about every facet of our life being open to review of some sort whether it’s the restaurant we went to on Yelp! or someone ♥ing a picture we posted on Instagram. These real world experiences enlighten us as to what a critical book review does, and yet at the same time they tell us very little about what one does. How can this be true?

Think about what each of those situations in the previous paragraph have in common–the book summary for class, a review on Goodreads or Yelp!, someone liking your picture on your Instagram…hmmm…at first, it might seem hard to see that they have anything in common.  However, if we look at the rhetorical situation  (the context of a rhetorical act) of them, we can see in a broad sense they are very similar.

In each, you have a community of people with similar interests whether that’s your fourth grade classroom, people in Central Illinois who are looking for a good BBQ restaurant, or your friends who are following your social media.  They are brought together by their common interest in the topic being discussed (the book in the summary, the meal or meal options in the restaurant, and you as the topic of your own posts on social media).  They have their own thoughts and ideas about the topic or general category, but they have engaged the piece of rhetoric in each (the summary, the review, your picture) wanting to learn something.  Your piece of rhetoric makes some statement or argument as does the comment or “like” a person posts on your account whether that’s “Don’t waste your time reading this book!” “This is the best BBQ north of Kentucky!” or “Wow! That’s a great picture of you!”

When you look at the CBR assignment you have for your class, you will see that the rhetorical situation–the context, the occasion for writing your review is very similar to these situations.

Just as in the examples above, the instructor is assuming you are writing your review for a group of people who have common interests-usually this is defined by the discipline you are working in based on your class as well as the topic of the book you are reviewing.  If you are writing an article review for a psych class, it’s assumed you are evaluating the article for it’s usefulness for people who are studying or working in the field of psychology.  Are you in an early education class? Then your instructor is asking you to use a particular set of criteria given to you in the assignment to evaluate what a source says and how it would or wouldn’t be useful to people in that field.  Are you in a history class? Then your instructor is asking you to think and write as an historian would and to write a review that would be helpful to other historians or students in the field.

Those other students or working professionals are going to use the advice you give them to either consult or avoid the work you are reviewing.  Therefore, it’s important to understand that your instructors aren’t interested so much in whether or not you liked or enjoyed the book or article you are reviewing as they are in seeing how you analyze and evaluate a work based on acceptable standards and conventions of scholarly work in their field.  Failing to understand this difference or the scope of it is what often leads students to do worse on an assignment than they otherwise would.

Think about the following questions in relation to the discipline you’re writing for: What makes an author credible? What types of arguments are generally accepted on the topic he or she is writing about?  What kind of sources or studies are needed in that field to back up what someone says?  What have other scholars said on this topic?  Does this work offer anything new or offer a new way of looking at something?  If not, why?  Understanding what you should expect will help you from having to fall back on “I liked it,” or “I didn’t like it,” type of reviews. Often, in freshman and sophomore level classes, instructors give you hints in the assignment guideline (meaning they tell you what to write about in the guideline) to help you understand how to avoid this.  If they don’t, or if you are unsure, come see us in the center.

Remember, your CBR, just like most other formal academic writing you do, should be fact-based rather than opinion or an emotional response.  It should create an argument, and it should be written from an objective point of view.  Here are some more specific tips to help you:

  • This may seem obvious, but you are going to have to read the work you are reviewing. Yes, the entire work.  And yes, sometimes more than once to really understand it enough to write a review.  As I said, that may seem obvious, but I’ve had many conferences with students in the center who are “lost” when it comes to the assignment, and through a brief discussion, it comes out that they’ve skimmed the book, read the first and last chapter, or have “only read a few pages because it was taking longer than they thought it would to read it” but are still trying to write a review because, well, deadlines and all that.
  • The word “critical” in CBR does not mean you are being negative or pointing out what’s wrong with the work.  To be critical, in academic writing, means to take something apart, to look at the components, and to see how they function as part of the larger whole and/or how they measure up against some objective criteria. If there are things which do not work, then it’s fair to point them out. However,  you can also discuss things which work well.
  • Usually, reviews are brief.  Those which are published rarely exceed 1000 words.  If you don’t have a minimum length given by your instructor, use this as a guide. If your instructor asks for a longer review, that’s what you should give them.
  • Reviews generally start with a short summary of the work and some background information about the author which focuses on why he or she is a credible writer in this field or on this topic. There’s no set number of words to use to accomplish this, but remember, the key here is that it’s short but also comprehensive.  Tell us everything we need to know about the work to understand what you will say in the rest of your review, and use as few words as you need in order to do this.  Don’t let the summary take over the review or try to use it as filler because you don’t know what else to write about. Make sure you include the author’s thesis in the summary. If writing summaries aren’t your strong suit, come to the center for help or contact us for a resource on writing them.
  • You must offer a critical assessment of the work.  If your instructor gives you specific topics to discuss, then these are often clues to how they expect you to proceed with this.  If not, then you want to discuss what you found especially effective or persuasive about the case the author is making.  You also want to discuss how it furthered your knowledge in the area.  It would be helpful to have other works to compare and contrast this one with to accomplish this, but be sure to keep the focus of the review on the work you are reviewing.  Some instructors require sources beyond the text or ones they have assigned the whole class to read; others do not require you to do your own research, but they do expect that you can discuss the work in relation to others covered in class.
  • Your analysis should be structured thematically. Try to deal with one topic per paragraph, as you would in other academic writing.  You do not have to work your way chronologically through the book as you discuss it.
  • Avoid extended quotations (unless asked for them).  Try to summarize (put the author’s ideas in your words) whenever you can.  Avoid paraphrasing or patch writing.
  • Whenever you use an idea from the work, even if it’s in your own words, you still have to cite where it came from.  How you do this will depend upon if you are using MLA or APA, but generally, you have to provide the particular page or range of pages where the information was in the original work.
  • Reviews generally conclude with a recommendation of whether or not this work would be helpful, and if so, to what academic audience.
  • As with other types of academic writing, make sure that you have a clear thesis (main idea), and that the topic of each paragraph is clear. Don’t rely on your teacher having read the work in order to understand what you are saying in the review.

Understand what your review should entail, but not sure where to begin so you have something to write about?  Here are some questions that should help you gather some thoughts.  Make notes about the answers, and then try to organize them into a draft that follows the bullet points above. (Be sure to make notes about where you found any information either from the work you are reviewing or other sources as you go so that it will be easier to cite your sources when you need to.)  If you’re still stuck after that, talk to your instructor or come to the writing center for help.  That’s what we’re here for!

 

  1. Who is the author? Where did they go to school? What degrees do they have? Do they hold an academic or professional position that makes them a credible writer in this field? What other works have they written in this area? Have they won any awards for their writing, research, or teaching? Has this particular work won an award?
  2. If the author wanted you to get one thing out of the book or article, what would it be? How is that similar to or different from what you knew about this topic before you read the source? What are the main supporting ideas that the author addresses in the work?
  3. What particular evidence does the author give to support the main point of their argument?  Is it convincing? What type of evidence to they provide (statistics, anecdotes, research results, etc)? How does that make them seem more or less credible?
  4. How does this match up with what you’ve learned about the topic in class?  Don’t just think about the general topic, but try to look at particular concepts you are learning or vocabulary words/terms that might apply to both.  If there are differences, what do you think about that? How do you decide who is “right”? Does one source have to be “right” and the other (s) wrong? Is one author more persuasive than another? If so, why and how?
  5. How does it match up with other sources you have read outside of class about this topic?
  6. Do they provide alternative theories to theirs? Do they tell you what other people who study this topic think? If so, how do they address the fact that people don’t agree with them?  If they don’t do this, does that make them less credible to you?
  7. What is the general topic or subject of the book or article?  Does the author give you enough information to understand the topic?  If not, where do you get confused?  Does the author cover the topic in a balanced way?  Do they seem to have a bias?  Are writers in their field expected to show a bias or be objective? What does that make think about their credibility?
  8. What stood out as memorable (in a good way) about the work? Why?
  9. When you read through the work, was there anything that was particularly confusing or that you wanted to know more about? Was there anything that you found to be factually inaccurate (because you verified that it was, not because you have a different opinion)?
  10. Who would find this work to be informative or useful? Other students in your class? Instructors? Researchers in the field? Other professionals? (Don’t just try to avoid making a choice here.  Think about who could use it most.) Why would you recommend it to this group? What would they get out of it that they couldn’t get from other sources on the topic?

 

 

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