General Requirements for Article and Book Reviews

The following rules and guidelines apply to all written reviews of chapters, articles, and books that I may assign for class. I may add specific requirements to, or make departures from, these rules.

1. As always, reviews must be typed, double-spaced, with a title page. Use standard one-inch margins and twelve point fonts. Pages of the review should be numbered and the sources of quotations and paraphrases must be cited in footnotes. The Chicago Style is used for footnotes and bibliographical entries.

2. Reviews should consist of approximately one-half synopsis and one-half critique. The critique portion should never amount to less than one-third of the review. One or two paragraphs of your personal opinion at the end of the paper are certainly not enough commentary.

3. The synopsis should (1) present evidence that you read the whole work and (2) clearly and correctly identify the thesis or main point(s) of the author. What evidence you present to satisfy the first requirement is up to you, but references to material that appears in the middle and end of the work are advisable. Describing how the author supports his argument—what examples are used, what sub-arguments are made, what counter-arguments are addressed—is not only helpful to demonstrate your reading of the whole work, but should always be part of the synopsis.

4. In a short review of one to three pages, the critique should focus on the author's thesis; in longer reviews, you may wish to focus on a substantial sub-argument or theme that is not the principal theme, or you may be asked to respond to specific questions about the work. "Critique" or criticism does not necessarily mean negative criticism. The critique is your analysis, evaluation, critical assessment, or judgment of the work.

Your evaluation may be positive or negative. It may be based on internal or on external criticism. "Internal criticism" focuses solely on the argument of the author: its logic or internal consistency, its comprehensiveness, its response to cited counter-arguments, and so forth. Internal criticism is most popular with students, but keep in mind that very few of the articles and books assigned are "ridiculous" or "absurd" or are written by stupid authors. Condemnation of the writing style of John Stuart Mill or the logic of Thomas Hobbes reflects more on the judgment of the reviewer than on the work of the reviewed. Similarly, all the books and articles reviewed should be interesting to serious students—we would not assign or suggest them if they were not. You need not indicate that you find this or that to be "interesting." If you do not find it interesting, the problem is with you, not the work being reviewed.

"External criticism" uses material from outside the work for evaluative purposes. You may use either your own experience or, more likely, other works that you have read in order to compare and contrast what the author says to other examples, arguments, and considerations. Or you may apply a concept or set of criteria to the work and analyze its conformity to and departure from the criteria. Again, "criticism" need not be negative criticism. It is usually easier to criticize and get a handle on something that you do not agree with, because counter-arguments and counter-examples have already come to mind. Works with which you strongly agree present more of a problem. In agreeing with the author, you must cite and refer to independent evidence—other works, other examples, or even your own experience—that offers an objective basis for your agreement.

By "your own experience," I do not mean recording your impressions and feelings about the book. They should not be explicitly mentioned in the review. "Your own experience" may be a personal event that contrasts with or confirms similar events in the book. In commenting on someone's prediction about future elections or events in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example, you may refer to recent events of which you are aware for contrast or confirmation: this kind of personal experience, not personal feelings, is relevant.

5. In longer critiques of five or more pages, you may also be asked to address specific questions or issues in the review. Keep in mind that a review is not a take-home exam; you should still identify the author's thesis and method of supporting that thesis before addressing specific issues and questions. The specific questions or issues will determine the focus of the critique portion of the review.