How to Write a Critical Review

In this course you will be asked to write reviews of a variety of “texts,” from written essays, to websites, blogs and blog posts, archive portals, image catalogues, and digital tools. Use the following basic instructions to shape your review:

First, BRIEFLY describe the work and its topic. What medium or format does the text take (website, novel, newspaper article, etc.)? What is the basic subject matter, and why should people be interested in it? Briefly summarize the essence of the material in 2-3 sentences and move to part two. . . .

Second, explain what the author(s) are trying to accomplish–what is the goal of the piece–and how do they go about trying to accomplish it? What decisions have they made about presenting information or communicating their argument? Questions you might ask in this section include:

  • Who is the intended audience?
  • How does the author/creator try to entice or convince that audience? Using what resources or rhetorical techniques (word choice, repetition, symbolic imagery, etc)?
  • What sources are used, and are they sufficient to convince? Is anything missing, over-emphasized, fairly or unfairly portrayed, etc.?
  • What other sorts of resources are used to convince: pictures, maps, graphs, videos, sound clips, hyperlinks, etc. How effective are these resources? Are they just window dressing, or do they add substantively to the message?
  • Rhetorically, how is the idea presented in a memorable way? Are there patterns to the use of words, images, or design elements? Does the author/creator, attempt to appeal to emotion, and if so how and with what effect?

Finally, evaluate the goals and achievements.

  • Is the author’s goal limited in some way? Could the author(s) have aspired to do more? Or should he/she/they have aspired to do less?
  • How effective are the strategies outlined in Part 2? What might the author have done differently or better?

Before submitting your review, consider this advice from historian Zachary Schrag:

“While you do not need to like the work you are reviewing, please remember that criticism is more than complaint. Book authors have a limited number of pages, curators have a limited amount of exhibit space, and everyone is constrained by finite time, money, and sources. Before demanding that a historian take on an additional task, you might think about what portions of a book, exhibit, or film could have been eliminated to make room. Before complaining that the historian focused only on one group of people, ask if other groups left the records the historian would need to tell their stories as well. It may help to imagine that you are giving advice to a historian about how to create a work similar to the one you are reviewing. What constructive lessons can you provide?”[1]

[1]Zachary Schrag, “How to Write a Review,” HistoryProfessor.Org (blog) September 2003.