What is a critical review?

Everyday several creative works are released into the society. These works have intended goals by the people that produced them. They could be aimed at informing, educating or entertaining the public. When you consume these works (read, listen, or watch them) with the ordinary eyes you might not see beyond the entertainment or information provided on face value. The critical eyes penetrate the surface of the work to expose any underlying content the audience members might not have seen. This underscores the pertinence of critical reviews in the society.

The critical reviewer objectively interprets, examines, and evaluates creative works in the society in the interest of audience members. They act as social critics, moral watchdogs, and help in making works more creative with the recommendations they make in their reviews.

Writing a critical review is a painstaking activity which requires thoroughness on the part of the writer. You can write a critical review of several works among which are books, movies, music, theatre performances, advertisement, art work, journalistic works, radio/television programmes, and research papers. To write a very good critical review you need to understand the meaning of the concept itself. Let’s look at the meaning of a critical review.

What is a critical review?

A critical review consists basically of appreciating, summarizing and evaluating a work. A critical review is sometimes called a critique, critical commentary, critical appraisal and critical analysis. A critical review consists of summarizing and evaluating the ideas and information in an article, song, movie, or any other work of art. It expresses the writer’s point of view in the light of what is already known on the work you’re reviewing and what is acquired from related texts. Reviewing critically means thinking carefully, objectively and clearly, including taking into consideration both the strengths and weaknesses in the material under review. A critical review is a research-based process that evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of a work and making recommendations on how it could be improved. Let’s quickly look at how to write a critical review by presenting the basic questions that guide that process.

10 basic questions to ask while writing a critical review

Preamble:

A critical review should have two goals: first, to inform the reader about the content of the book, and second, to provide an evaluation that gives your judgment of the book’s quality. It has major part: the head (preliminary information), the neck (first paragraph with thesis statement), the body (other paragraphs of the work apart from first and last paragraph which are referred to as the head and legs respectively), and the legs (concluding paragraph of the work with recommendations on hew to improve the work). Your introduction should include an overview of the book that both incorporates an encapsulated summary and a sense of your general judgment. This is the equivalent to a thesis statement (a thesis statement is a one-sentence summary of the reviewer’s main opinion or argument which he or she will support in the work). The review is a summary of the work. It shouldn’t be longer than the work itself. It deals with the highlights of the major arguments, features, trends, concepts, themes, ideas, and characteristics of the movie, song or book being reviewed. You can use verbatim or paraphrased quotes from the work but this should be brief.

The critical reviewer does an objective critique of a work. A critique consists of thoughts, responses, and reactions. It must not be negative, after all, there are very good works that need to be appreciate and possibly encourage the audience to see them. You do not also need to know as much about the subject as the author (because you hardly ever will). The skills you need are an ability to follow an argument and test a hypothesis. Regardless of how negative or positive your critique is, you need to be able to justify and support your position with factual presentations in your review.

Essence of research in critical review

Note that a critical review is much more than a simple summary of a work. It involves an analysis and evaluation of a movie, art work, book, article, or any other work you are reviewing. Writing a good critical review requires that you understand the material, and that you know how to analyze and evaluate that material using appropriate criteria. This means that you need to do a little bit of research on what you are reviewing to understand what is expected of such work. Research simply means fact finding. It means acquiring knowledge about something. Here it means reading about the kind of work you are reviewing to finding out what is required of such works. If for instance you are reviewing a novel, you need to know what a novel is and what makes it different from others so that you will use what you know about novels to do the analysis of the specific one you are looking at. If it is a memoir, you need to read about memoirs to understand what a memoir is and what it should contain. You cannot review a memoir using the same yard stick you would use in reviewing an educational textbook. You cannot review an epic movie with the same yardstick as science fiction movie. They are in two different categories. You have to do a research on each category of movie to develop the right yard stick for each review. So research, no matter how little, is very essential in critical review writing.

The questions:

Here are a number of questions that you can address as part of your critique. You need not answer them all, but questions one and two are essential to any book review, so those must be included. You don’t have to answer them one after another. You don’t have to devote one paragraph to one question. These questions serve as a guide to a very good critical review. The answers should be part of a carefully constructed essay, complete with topic sentences and transitions. The book review is used as example here but the questions apply to every other creative work.

1. What is your overall opinion of the book? On what basis has this opinion been formulated? That is, tell the reader what you think and how you arrived at this judgment. What did you expect to learn when you picked up the book? To what extent – and how effectively – were your expectations met? Did you nod in agreement (or off to sleep)? Did you wish you could talk back to the author? Amplify upon and explain your reactions.

2. Identify the author’s thesis and explain it in your own words. How clearly and in what context is it stated and, subsequently, developed? To what extent and how effectively (i.e., with what kind of evidence) is this thesis proven? Use examples to amplify your responses. If arguments or perspectives were missing, why do you think this might be?

3. What are the author’s aims? How well have they been achieved, especially with regard to the way the book is organized? Are these aims supported or justified? (You might look back at the introduction to the book for help). How closely does the organization follow the author’s aims?

4. How are the author’s main points presented, explained, and supported? What assumptions lie behind these points? What would be the most effective way for you to compress and/or reorder the author’s scheme of presentation and argument?

5. How effectively does the author draw claims from the material being presented? Are connections between the claims and evidence made clearly and logically? Here you should definitely use examples to support your evaluation.

6. What conclusions does the author reach and how clearly are they stated? Do these conclusions follow from the thesis and aims and from the ways in which they were developed? In other words, how effectively does the book come together?

7. Identify the assumptions made by the author in both the approach to and the writing of the book. For example, what prior knowledge does the author expect readers to possess? How effectively are those assumptions worked into the overall presentation? What assumptions do you think should not have been made? Why?

8. Are you able to detect any underlying philosophy of history held by the author (e.g., progress, decline, cyclical, linear, and random)? If so, how does this philosophy affect the presentation of the argument?

9. How does the author see history as being motivated: primarily by the forces of individuals, economics, politics, social factors, nationalism, class, race, gender, something else? What kind of impact does this view of historical motivation have upon the way in which the author develops the book?

10. Does the author’s presentation seem fair and accurate? Is the interpretation biased? Can you detect any distortion, exaggeration, or diminishing of material? If so, for what purpose might this have been done, and what effect does hit have on the overall presentation?

(These ten questions were first posted on Carlton website).

 

The Author

Chinenye Nwabueze

Nwabueze is a communication researcher with several years of lecturing experience in Nigerian universities.

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