Writing a Critical Review
So you have to write a critical review; what is that exactly?
Critical reviews offer the writer a good amount of creative freedom but there are some key components of the structure and content of the review that differentiate it from other forms of writing. The most common mistake made by students who are new to critical writing is summary writing. A critical review is not a summary of the work that was done. Within the first paragraph of the review you can briefly state what the paper or other writing works was about. Only the specifics about the work that are relevant and directly related to your main arguments are necessary. The point of the critical review is not to see that you can re-iterate and demonstrate that you understand a paper.
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The point of a critical review is to teach you how to see how data/information is collected and interpreted, and how these interpretations are used to make predictions, draw conclusions, prove hypotheses or generate theory. Basically, how to “read between the lines”.
Critical reviews are integral to science, without them anyone could claim to prove anything. Academic journals are peer reviewed before publishing. Despite this, published work still needs to be questioned by the public, mistakes can be made, information may be missing and conclusions may not always adequate. Questioning and further testing other researchers’ theories is part of the scientific process until these theories can be accepted as fact.
Critical reviews are also integral to media and journalism. Recognising the biases a reporter or a publisher may have will help you to better perceive the way media are presented to you. Additionally, considering the writers’ information sources and their associated biases is also critical.
Completing a Critical Review
Where do I start?
- Read the paper like a detective. Be sceptical, get out your magnifying glass and look for flaws in the work. Use a highlighter or pen to help you target the flaws in the paper. Most research will have some flaws but if you have given a paper a good critique and you conclude that it is essentially flawless, you must justify this. Flaws can be found:
◦ Methods of data collection
◦ Methods of data analysis
◦ Linkage between results and conclusions
◦ Plausibility of predictions
* Read your assignment details carefully.
And then what?
- What is your main point and what are you going to prove? That’s right, the critique is about pointing out issues (or the lack of issues) with the paper/writing/research but it is also about proving your own argument(s) and convincing the reader that what you have written is either likely or true. A useful approach is to have a main thesis statement/point and then have 2-3 arguments that you use to prove this point.
- Make sure your arguments sound convincing. How to make your arguments more convincing:
◦ Is what you are writing verifiable? Are your claims valid? Sometimes citing other research/writing can significantly enhance your arguments if it is not common knowledge. This is highly encouraged because it shows you went above and beyond to decipher the situation and that you are aware of other literature on the topic.
◦ Is your argument logical?
How do I structure this writing?
Critical reviews have a flexible writing format because you may have one point with anywhere from 2-5 arguments that you use to support it. One argument is not enough, 5 arguments are great but can be challenging to condense into 300 words, so think about grouping them within another argument.
The first paragraph should contain:
- Mention of the paper you are reviewing. This is the only time you will need to cite the paper under review because we know what you’re talking about. For example.
◦ In the paper by Smith (2012) the author claims that forests are the best, better than all the rest.
◦ In the article entitled ”Forests are the Best” by Smith (2012) the author claims that forests are better than oceans.
- A sentence or two describing what the paper was about.
- A sentence or two describing your main point/thesis or your conclusion that you will prove or your point/thesis plus three arguments or the question that you are going to answer. Basically, what is your reader about to read?
The body of the review should contain:
- Clearly defined and justified arguments. It is much easier to figure out what these are if you put them in separate paragraphs.
The final paragraph should contain:
- A concluding statement that ties everything together and leaves the reader satisfied with your review.
I want to cite the author(s):
- If you are paraphrasing the writing of the paper being reviewed, just put the page number at the end of the sentence. For example: Smith identified that forests were the favorite ecosystem of 99.5% of grade school boys in the Kootneys and the South coast (p.3).
- If you are quoting the writers directly, use quotes and the page number. For example: The authors state ”forests were identified as the favourite ecosystem of 99.5 % of grade school boys in the Interior and the South coast” (p.3).
I want to cite a paper that the author used:
- The paper you are reviewing uses other literature to provide background and context to the research and to justify and compare results. Do not cite this literature as work from the paper under review, instead cite the original source.
Can I cite Dr. Innes and the notes I made from class?
- Try to avoid this. Use what you learn in class to help develop your ideas for the paper but don’t use what Dr. Innes says as an argument. If he has claimed something that is a major part of your arguments and you don’t know where he got this information from you can ask him. However, be aware that he is also providing you with his own perspective and opinions. Although these are derived from years of experience and education it is important to develop your own opinion on issues and topics.
What citation style should I use?
- You should follow the style used by the Canadian Journal of Forest Research.