by Rev. Isaac Boaheng
It is common in academia for people to review the works of other scholars. Reviewing a book, journal article, a book chapter or any other text requires some skills which one needs to be familiar with. Scholars often distinguish between descriptive and critical reviews. The former simply summarises the text read but the latter goes beyond simple summary to evaluate and critique it.
What is a Critical Review?
A critical review is an overall critique of a text, its argument, its use of evidence and its contribution to historical understanding. It provides a fair evaluation of a secondary historical source so that someone who has not read the source can understand its key contributions to the study of a historical topic or period. It is a form of literary criticism in which a text is analysed based on content, style, and merit. It is usually brief, about one to two pages. A good review is expected to have one main point/thesis.
Reviewing a text requires the reviewer to think critically about the text to ascertain the author’s argument and to give a critique. Therefore, no proper review can be done without an adequate understanding of the text. This requires reading the text at least twice. The first reading should help the reviewer to familiarize him/herself with the overall content of the text and to note any impressions formed. The initial impressions are then tested in the second reading, confirmed and conclusions drawn. As the reviewer goes through the text he/she must ask questions such as:
- What seems to be the author’s main purpose or point?
- Is this purpose aimed at any particular group of readers?
- What information or knowledge does the text convey?
- What personal or practical meaning does the text have for the reader?
- What are the most appropriate terms by which to evaluate the text?
- How successfully did the author carry out the overall purpose(s) of the text?
It also requires the ability to comment on the text as a whole and to summarise the main content without losing meaning. A good understanding of the essential purpose and overall flow of thought of the text will go a long way to enhance the work of the reviewer. In addition to the material under review, the reviewer needs to read other related texts to enable him/her present a fair and reasonable evaluation of the text being reviewed.
Why a Critical Review?
A critical review has at least four purposes. First of all, a critical review ensures that students develop a reading habit and at the same time acquire the skills of engaging in intellectual discussion on what they read. Secondly, it fosters independent and critical reading and thinking about historical sources. A critical review involves analytical skills that push reviewers to read and think about a text more deeply, moving beyond a “book report.” Thirdly, it prepares students to evaluate historical sources and arguments. Lastly, it allows others to keep track of the latest research without necessarily having to read the entire document.
Suggested Structure a Critical Review Paper
Before the introduction, the reviewer must give bibliographic information about the text. This includes title of publication, author, publisher, place of publication, date of publication, and the total number of pages in the book. Price(s) of book and the International Standard Book Number (ISBN) or Library of Congress Catalog (LCC) number, if listed may be added. This forms something like a heading.
An introductory paragraph identifies the work, its author and purpose, and presents a statement of your evaluation of the text (thesis statement), and gives some indication of whether the author achieves the stated purpose of the study or not. A strong introduction shows a solid grasp of the issues and provides a clear outline of the scope of the review.
The body of the review must give a clear overview of the contents of the book, the special purpose for the audience of the book, and the reviewer’s reaction and evaluation. It presents a summary of the main argument/evidence/ findings/conclusions/implications of the text. Use reporting speech (verbs) to make clear you are presenting the author’s views. A statement about the place of the study in a wider field—other studies of the same genre, other studies by the same author—and explanation of the points of similarity or difference. It gives an evaluation or a critique, indicating the strengths/usefulness of text and the weaknesses/limitations/problems of the text. Support your critique with evidence from other literature and the text. Each of these should be presented in a paragraph.
A conclusion that summarises the previous discussion, restates your final judgment on the usefulness and scholarly value/contribution/importance of the text to the understanding of the topic (whether or not it is valuable for adding insight, and if so, why, if not, why not). Comment on the future of the issue/topic or implications of the view expressed. Solid concluding section drawing together important points made in the essay is very necessary. Finally, a list of works cited in the review under the heading “References.”
This article presents a general approach to writing a critical book review. There may be other elements required depending on one’s discipline, institution, publisher, etc. It is therefore important to seek further clarification from an appropriate source if need be.
Rev. Isaac Boaheng is an ordained minister of the Methodist Church Ghana, a Master of divinity graduate of the Trinity Theological Seminary, Legon Accra -Ghana and a Translator with the Bible Society of Ghana.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.