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 eleven or twelve point fonts. Pages of the review should be numbered and the sources of quotations and paraphrases must be cited in footnotes (or, if expressly permitted, in parentheses at the end of the sentence in which they appear). You will be specifically directed which method to use. Generally, the Chicago Style (linked here and on my main webpage) is used for footnotes and bibliographical entries. Proofread carefully! Writing is always a significant element of the grade.

2. Reviews should consist of approximately one-third to one-half synopsis and at least one-half critique. 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, (2) clearly and correctly identify the thesis or main point(s) of the author, and (3) describe how the author supports his argument—what examples are used, what sub-arguments are made, what counter-arguments are addressed . 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 under review, not just the beginning, are advisable.

4. In a short review of one to three pages, the critique should focus on the author's thesis; in longer reviews of five-to-seven pages, 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 should never, ever indicate that you find this or that to be "interesting." If you do find it interesting, whoopee. 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, though 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.

Finally, if the author does not discuss something that you would have like him to cover, this is not a reason for negative criticism. The author has discretion in what to discuss. If, however, the author does not include something that is an essential element of the subject of the work, then you may mention it and give the reasons for your opinion.

5. In longer reviews 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.