Writing a Book Review at an Academic level
There are two keys to writing a good book review. First, you must summarize the author’s position on the topic so that the reader has a basis for evaluating your critique. The key is to say enough so that the reader has a firm understanding of the author’s argument, but avoid adding so much detail that there is insufficient room for the critique. The second and most important key to the paper is the analysis of the author’s opinion. The student should discuss whether, based on the author’s logical and evidentiary support that his or her position is justifiable. For example, consider the article entitled “Is Business Bluffing Ethical” from the Harvard Business Review. The author argues that a number of practices that society considers unethical are not unethical in the business world. His evidence for this argument is that business people routinely engage in such practices and do not consider them unethical. Two examples of such practices he cites are deceptive labeling of food packages and the neglect of known safety hazards when corporations manufacture products. The author’s case is defective on two grounds:
- Many of the practices he cites, including those noted above, are in fact considered unethical by many people in business. Therefore, his basic factual premise is incorrect. Here, I am challenging the author’s evidence. I would cite evidence disputing the author’s statement that businesspeople consider such practices ethical.
- Even if it is true that businesspeople consider such practices ethical, that does not mean that in fact they are ethical. One could conclude alternatively that many business practices are not ethical. To conclude that the practices are ethical, one must cite ethical principles, not merely common practice. Here, I am challenging the author’s logic.
In your paper you would expand on these two points with additional evidence and argument. Note again that the above points critique the author’s evidence and his logic. That should be the focus of your paper, whether you agree or disagree with the author (and critiquing an author does not mean that you must disagree): merely saying that you agree or disagree, or that the author’s points are valid or invalid, is unhelpful. You need to ask yourself why you agree or disagree: how is the author’s logic coherent or flawed; do his or her examples and evidence stand up to scrutiny, or does other evidence contradict them? Although you are not required to do additional research on the topic of the article, you may do so, and you may turn up evidence that either supports or contradicts the author’s point. Or you may have evidence from your own experience and knowledge of the topic.
After you have written your paper, review the conclusions you have drawn. Then take the “why” test. For each conclusion ask yourself, Why is this conclusion true? Why do I know this to be case? Then ask yourself, is the answer in your paper? If it is not, you have not supported your conclusion. Supporting your conclusions with persuasive argument or evidence is the key to writing an effective paper. The following are common mistakes in writing a paper such as this:
- Making assertions (conclusions) without supporting them. This is the most common flaw in such papers; always use the “why test.
- Writing a summary of the article but not critiquing it.
- Writing an essay on the topic rather than specifically critiquing the author’s position.
- Not summarizing the article sufficiently so that the reader can understand your critique (or, putting in too much detail).