The Art of Criticism

In my experience, students tend to find the idea of writing a critical review – or in fact of writing in any unfamiliar format – a nerve-racking one. Yet, in both of the Russell Group universities where I’ve taught, I’ve found those worries tend to be misplaced. Most students do better than they expect the first time they’re faced with an assignment of this kind. That said, I’ve also seen some very bright students stunned by a disappointing mark after not putting the same amount of effort into this as they would a standard essay. So perhaps it’s the fact they find it worrying and therefore take it seriously that enables them to do well.

A review is not an easy-option assignment and it’s worth knowing what you need to do and how to approach it, in what ways that’s the same as for a standard essay and in what ways it’s different.

One of the most common questions is how much to read. As ever, follow the instructions – this trumps all else. However, should those instructions be unhelpfully brief or unclear, you can also take a hint from the length of the assignment as set:

  • If you’re being asked to write under 1,000 words, chances are you’ll be expected to read and comment on the piece alone.
  • If it’s in the region of 1,000-2,000 words, I would expect to see a few wider readings brought in to help with the discussion.
  • If this is really a full-length academic essay of over 3,000 words, then I would be inclined to treat this as a normal essay but with the text under review providing a focal point or case study. For a standard essay I tend to say something like 8-12 items (books, articles, chapters in edited volumes, etc.) gives you a decent basis for your discussion. You may find you draw upon less for a review essay, but do bring in your wider reading when you need to. As in any essay, the key is making sure you have the evidence you need to back up each point you make. The difference from a normal essay is that much of your evidence will come from same place, not that you don’t need supporting evidence.

In terms of what to read, we can identify two different types of useful wider reading.

  1. As in any essay, one is a general text that will give you a broader view of what you’re looking at, helping you to put it into context. In this case that might be a textbook or general overview of the subject in question, but could equally be a methodological, theoretical or historiographical reader or some kind. These are all the sorts of things you’re likely to already be reading for seminars. In either case, the purpose is for you to get an idea of whether the text you’re reviewing is approaching a standard topic in a familiar way or doing something new and different, and if so how.
  2. The second useful form of wider reading is that for comparison – other books or articles on the same or a similar topic. And here it can be useful to go and read for yourself key works mentioned by the author. Do they make the same argument, use the same sources, adopt the same theoretical approach, etc.?

Knowing whether your wider reading is for context or comparison will help you speed up your reading and take notes useful to the assignment you’re writing.

Once you’ve done this reading, the next question is how to structure your review. Rather than following the structure of the original text and responding to each section, most good reviews are essentially summary then commentary. Whether or not you preface this with a recognisable introduction will depend on the assignment’s length. Even if not, you should try to open with a mention of the type of text and give some idea of your overall verdict – for example by referring to it as a “ground-breaking monograph”, “problematic research article”, etc. If you have more words to play with you might go a little further: Is it part of a series or collection? Does it present new research findings or discuss methodological or theoretical approaches? Who is the author and what else have they written? Likewise, a full conclusion paragraph is only worth the precious words in a longer review essay. In a really short review assignment, the conclusion might simply be a matter of a final sentence that wraps up the discussion, giving the verdict in one clear sentence.

Although this is not a standard essay, remember you’re still presenting an argument, and that’s your verdict. This should guide you throughout, including your summary, where you should make sure you emphasise its most significant aspects and only follow the structure of the original if it helpfully fits what you want to say. The commentary section is more like writing a standard essay. For both, you should avoid splitting up your discussion into arguments for and against or strengths and weaknesses, but aim instead for developing a clear and consistent argument throughout. This may be less obvious with a review essay, where a range of quite disparate questions might be addressed: To what literature does the author refer? What primary sources do they use? How successfully do they present their argument? What contribution do they make to the field? However, what ties these seemingly disparate questions together is that you’re answering them in order to help answer your key question.

It’s an easy mistake to think there is no essay question for a review essay, but there is. The question is: how successfully does the author make their case?

One question students often ask, and maybe professional academics should ask more often, is how to strike the right balance between praise and criticism. Probably the best advice I’ve heard on this is to remember that being critical doesn’t have to mean being negative. Hostile reviews can be funny – personally I can’t help but smile at James Lorimer saying of Wuthering Heights that “the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is that it will never be generally read” – but they’re  hardly helpful. Unfortunately academia is not beyond hatchet jobs, as I was reminded when reading a recent review by a very senior historian in a top scholarly journal. Reading a litany of what were clearly typos or editorial oversights presented as if they undermined the intellectual content of the book left me planning to wait for the second edition, but also left my respect for the reviewer dramatically reduced.

Laurie: “And of course it also falls into the trap of being essentially self-referential.”

Fry: “And by ‘self-referential’ you mean?”

Laurie: “I mean to make myself sound like an interesting and impressive person.”

The best reviews, in my opinion, do two things:

  1. They judge the text on its own terms. Far too often reviewers make the pointless comment that it would’ve been better to write a different book.
  2. They treat it as part of something ongoing. This is much the same as feedback on a student essay – you won’t be rewriting that same essay, but the comments should be focused on the next piece of work you’ll be doing. Meanwhile, each academic publication is part of a wider research agenda for the author, so we might consider how their future work, or that of others, might further progress the core ideas. Half a century or so ago we might have been more likely to treat a scholarly tome as the final word on a subject, but far less so today. Each academic’s work is part of wider scholarly conversation, often picking up each others’ lines of inquiry. Keeping this in perspective can turn criticism into constructive comment. Although there are times when it’s necessary to say a piece of academic writing is plainly wrong-headed, there is almost always some scope to engage with what the author is trying to do – and the willingness to do this is the difference between a negative review and a critical review.

The easiest way to produce a poor review assignment is to pay less attention than you would in a standard essay to gathering your evidence and using it to support a nuanced yet clear and consistent argument. Much of doing the basics is the same as for any essay, and understanding the differences will allow you to approach this similar job with the same level of confidence. Yet when it comes to handing out the very best marks, I tend to be looking for something specific to this type of assignment. To put it simply, the art of criticism lies in intellectual generosity.

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