How to Write Academic Reviews
- What is a review?
- Common problems with academic reviews
- Getting started: approaches to reading and notetaking
- Understanding and analyzing the work
- Organizing and writing the review
A scholarly review describes, analyzes, and evaluates an article, book, film, or performance (through this guide we will use the term “work” to refer to the text or piece to be reviewed). A review also shows how a work fits into its disciplines and explains the value or contribution of the work to the field.
Reviews play an important role in scholarship. They give scholars the opportunity to respond to one another’s research, ideas and interpretations. They also provide an up-to-date view of a discipline. We recommend you seek out reviews in current scholarly journals to become familiar with recent scholarship on a topic and to understand the forms review writing takes in your discipline. Published scholarly reviews are helpful models for beginner review-writers. However, we remind you that you are to write your own assessment of the work, not rely on the assessment from a review you found in a journal or on a blog.
As a review-writer, your objective is to:
- understand a work on its own terms (analyze it)
- bring your own knowledge to bear on a work (respond to it)
- critique the work while considering validity, truth, and slant (evaluate it)
- place the work in context (compare it to other works).
A review is not a research paper
Rather than a research paper on the subject of the work,an academic review is an evaluation about the work’s message, strengths, and value. For example, a review of Finis Dunaway’s Seeing Green would not include your own research about media coverage of the environmental movement; instead, your review would assess Dunaway’s argument and its significance to the field.
A review is not a summary
It is important to synthesize the contents and significance of the work you review, but the main purpose of a review is to evaluate, critically analyze, or comment on the text. Keep your summary of the work brief, and make specific references to its message and evidence in your assessment of the work.
A review is not an off-the-cuff, unfair personal response
An effective review must be fair and accurate. It is important to see what is actually in front of you when your first reaction to the tone, argument, or subject of what you are reviewing is extremely negative or positive.
You will present your personal views on the work, but they must be explained and supported with evidence. Rather than writing, “I thought the book was interesting,” you can explain why the book was interesting and how it might offer new insights or important ideas. Further, you can expand on a statement such as “The movie was boring,” by explaining how it failed to interest you and pointing toward specific disappointing moments.
Pre-reading helps a reader to see a book as a whole. Often, the acknowledgments, preface, and table of contents of a book offer insights about the book’s purpose and direction. Take time before you begin chapter one to read the introduction and conclusion, examine chapter titles, and to explore the index or references pages.
A reverse outline helps a reader analyze the content and argument of a work of non-fiction. Read each section of a text carefully and write down two things: 1) the main point or idea, and 2) its function in the text. In other words, write down what each section says and what it does. This will help you to see how the author develops their argument and uses evidence for support.
In its simplest form, the double-entry notebook separates a page into two columns. In one column, you make observations about the work. In the other, you note your responses to the work. This notetaking method has two advantages. It forces you to make both sorts of notes — notes about the work and notes about your reaction to the work — and it helps you to distinguish between the two.
||Based on reader’s knowledge of the world, the topic, the discipline, associations and connections based on discourse conventions.|
Whatever method of notetaking you choose, do take notes, even if these are scribbles in the margin. If you don’t, you might rely too heavily on the words, argument, or order of what you are reviewing when you come to write your review.
It is extremely important to work toward seeing a clear and accurate picture of a work. One approach is to try to suspend your judgment for a while, focusing instead on describing or outlining a text. A student once described this as listening to the author’s voice rather than to their own.
Ask questions to support your understanding of the work.
Questions for Works of Non-Fiction
- What is the subject/topic of the work? What key ideas do you think you should describe in your review?
- What is the thesis, main theme, or main point?
- What major claims or conclusions does the author make? What issues does the work illuminate?
- What is the structure of the work? How does the author build their argument?
- What sources does the author consult? What evidence is used to support claims? Do these sources in any way “predetermine” certain conclusions?
- Is there any claim for which the evidence presented is insufficient or slight? Do any conclusions rest on evidence that may be atypical?
- How is the argument developed? How do the claims relate? What does the conclusion reveal?
Questions for Works of Fiction
- What is the subject/topic of the work? What key ideas do you think you should describe in your review?
- What is the main theme or message? What issues does the book illuminate?
- How does the work proceed? How does the author build their plot?
- What kind of language, descriptions, or sections of plot alert you to the themes and significance of the book?
- What does the conclusion reveal when compared with the beginning?
Being critical does not mean criticizing. It means asking questions and formulating answers. Critical reading is not reading with a “bad attitude.” Critical readers do not reject a text or take a negative approach to it; they inquire about a text, an author, themselves, and the context surrounding all three, and they attempt to understand how and why the author has made the particular choices they have.
Think about the Author
You can often tell a lot about an author by examining a text closely, but sometimes it helps to do a little extra research. Here are some questions about the author that would be useful to keep in mind when you are reading a text critically:
- Who is the author? What else has the author written?
- What does the author do? What experiences of the author’s might influence the writing of this book?
- What is the author’s main purpose or goal for the text? Why did they write it and what do they want to achieve?
- Does the author indicate what contribution the text makes to scholarship or literature? What does the author say about their point of view or method of approaching the subject? In other words, what position does the author take?
Think about Yourself
Because you are doing the interpreting and evaluating of a text, it is important to examine your own perspective, assumptions, and knowledge (positionality) in relation to the text. One way to do this is by writing a position statement that outlines your view of the subject of the work you are reviewing. What do you know, believe, or assume about this subject? What in your life might influence your approach to this text?
Here are some prompts that might help you generate a personal response to a book:
- I agree that ... because ...
- I disagree that ... because ...
- I don’t understand ...
- This reminds me of …
- I’m surprised by …
Another way to examine your thoughts in relation to a text is to note your initial response to the work. Consider your experience of the text – did you like it? Why or why not?
- What did I feel when I read this book? Why?
- How did I experience the style or tone of the author? How would I characterize each?
- What questions would I ask this author if I could?
- For me, what are the three best things about this book? The three worst things? Why?
A reviewer needs to examine the context of the book to arrive at a fair understanding and evaluation of its contents and importance. Context may include the scholarship to which this book responds or the author’s personal motive for writing. Or perhaps the context is simply contemporary society or today’s headlines. It is certainly important to consider how the work relates to the course that requires the review.
Here are some useful questions:
- What are the connections between this work and others on similar subjects? How does it relate to core concepts in my course or my discipline?
- What is the scholarly or social significance of this work? What contribution does it make to our understanding?
- What, of relevance, is missing from the work: certain kinds of evidence or methods of analysis/development? A particular theoretical approach? The experiences of certain groups?
- What other perspectives or conclusions are possible?
Once you have taken the time to thoroughly understand and analyze the work, you will have a clear perspective on its strengths and weaknesses and its value within the field. Take time to categorize your ideas and develop an outline; this will ensure your review is well organized and clear.
A review is organized around an assessment of the work or a focused message about its value to the field. Revisit your notes and consider your responses to your questions from critical reading to develop a clear statement that evaluates the work and provides an explanation for that evaluation.
X is an important work because it provides a new perspective on . . .
X’s argument is compelling because . . . ; however, it fails to address . . .
Although X claims to . . ., they make assumptions about . . . , which diminishes the impact . . .
This statement or evaluation is presented in the introduction. The body of the review works to support or explain your assessment; organize your key ideas or supporting arguments into paragraphs and use evidence from the book, article, or film to demonstrate how the work is (or is not) effective, compelling, provocative, novel, or informative.
As with all scholarly writing, a well-organized structure supports the clarity of your review. There is not a rigid formula for organization, but you may find the following guidelines to be helpful. Note that reviews do not typically include subheadings; the headings listed here serve to help you think about the main sections of your academic review.
Introduce the work, the author (or director/producer), and the points you intend to make about this work. In addition, you should
- give relevant bibliographic information
- give the reader a clear idea of the nature, scope, and significance of the work
- indicate your evaluation of the work in a clear 1-2 sentence thesis statement
Provide background information to help your readers understand the importance of the work or the reasons for your appraisal. Background information could include:
- why the issue examined is of current interest
- other scholarship about this subject
- the author’s perspective, methodology, purpose
- the circumstances under which the book was created
Within educational research, much attention has been given to the importance of diversity and equity, and the literature is rife with studies detailing the best ways to create environments that are supportive of diverse students. In “Guidance Matters,” however, Carpenter and Diem (2015) examined these concepts in a less-studied source: policy documents related to leadership training. Using discourse analysis, they explored the ways in which government policies concerning the training of educational administrators discussed issues of diversity and equity. While their innovative methods allowed them to reveal the ways in which current policy promotes superficial platitudes to diversity rather than a deep commitment to promoting social justice, their data analysis left many of their identified themes vague and their discussion did not provide a clear explanation of the applications of their findings.
What works in this sample introduction:
- The nature of the larger issue, how best to create diversity and equity within educational environments, is clearly laid out.
- The paragraph clearly introduces the authors and study being reviewed and succinctly explains how they have addressed the larger issue of equity and diversity in a unique way.
- The paragraph ends with a clear thesis that outlines the strengths and weaknesses of the work.
Summary of the Work
Keep the summary of the work short! A paragraph or two should be sufficient. Summarize its contents very briefly and focus on:
- the purpose of the work
- the main points of the work
- the ideas, themes, or arguments that you will evaluate or discuss in the review
Analysis and Evaluation
Analyze and explain the significance of the main points of the work. Evaluate the work, answering questions such as the following:
- Does the work do what its author claimed it would?
- Is the work valid and accurate?
- How does the work fit into scholarship in the field?
- What are your reasons for agreeing, disagreeing, liking, disliking, believing, disbelieving?
Note that this section will take up the bulk of your review and should be organized into paragraphs. Because this form of writing typically does not use subheadings, strong paragraphing, particularly the use of clear topic sentences, is essential. Read more on paragraphing.
Reviews are informed by your critical reading or viewing of a work; therefore you need to include specific evidence from the work to support your claims about its message and its impact. Your writing and your assessment of the work will be most effective if you paraphrase or summarize the evidence you use, rather than relying on direct quotations. Be sure to follow the rules for citation in your discipline. Read more on paraphrasing and summarizing.
Sample Body Paragraph
One of the strengths of Carpenter and Diem’s (2015) study was innovative use of and nuanced explanation of discourse analysis. Critiquing much of the research on policy for its positivist promises of “value neutral and empirically objective” (p. 518) findings, Carpenter and Diem (2015) argued that discourse theory can provide an important lens through which to view policy and its relationship to educational outcomes. By interrogating the “inscribed discourses of policy making” (p. 518), they showed how policy language constructs particular social meanings of concepts such as diversity and equity. Significantly, this analysis was not simply about the language used within documents; instead, Carpenter and Diem (2015) argued that the language used was directly related to reality. Their “study examine[d] how dominant discourses related to equity, and their concretization within guiding policy documents, may shape the ways in which states, local school districts, and educational leaders are asked to consider these issues in their everyday practice” (Carpenter & Diem, 2015, p. 519). Thus, through the use of discourse theory, Carpenter and Diem (2015) framed policy language, which some might consider abstract or distant from daily life, as directly connected to the experience of educational leaders.
What works in this sample body paragraph:
- The paragraph begins with a clear topic sentence that connects directly to a strength mentioned in the thesis of the review.
- The paragraph provides specific details and examples to support how and why their methods are innovative.
- The direct quotations used are short and properly integrated into the sentences.
The paragraph concludes by explaining the significance of the innovative methods to the larger work.
Conclusion and Recommendation
Give your overall assessment of the work. Explain the larger significance of your assessment. Consider who would benefit from engaging with this work.