Critical Review

A critical review is a piece of writing that takes an evaluative stance of a piece (e.g., a book, an essay, a movie, a painting, etc.). Critical reviews include both a summary and analysis. Don’t be fooled by the word “critical”—it doesn’t mean that your analysis focuses only on what you feel is wrong. Being critical involves an evaluation of both strengths and weaknesses. You get to decide what’s good, what’s bad, and why.

PURPOSE. The purpose of a critical review is to evaluate a work and, in so doing, to increase your reader’s understanding of it. Critical reviews are subjective because they are written from your point of view, supported by evidence.

NOTE. There are general principles of critical reviews, but there’s more than one way to write one and the specific elements depend on your discipline. When in doubt, or if something conflicts, check with your professor or TA.

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Critical Review

Understand your assignment

This should take about 1% of your time

What are you being asked to do? Think about

  • the requirements (e.g., stick to the primary source or reference external sources),
  • the amount of integration between the summary and analysis,
  • the grading criteria, and so on.

If you still have questions after reading through the assignment write-up and the syllabus, ask your professor or TA.

Preview the piece

This should take about 2% of your time

Get a general sense of the piece and the context in which it was written or created (e.g., where and when it was made, what you know about the author/director/artist, how it is organized or presented, the goal or subject, what it is related to, etc.).

Having an overview of the piece will help you make connections when you read it more carefully (see Step 4).

Develop evaluation criteria

This should take about 7% of your time

Develop the criteria on which you will base your analysis. The criteria you select will depend on your discipline (i.e., sociology, business, literature, film); the number of criteria will depend on the length of your review.

If you need a starting place, here are some general criteria for evaluating texts. For each criterion, brainstorm some possible questions to help focus your analysis. For example,

Criteria: Significance and contribution to the field


  • What is the author’s aim and to what extent has it been achieved?
  • What does this text add to our body of knowledge?
  • What is missing or unstated?

Critical reviews are improved when you also have a central purpose or thesis to contain the evaluation criteria.

Carefully read/watch

This should take about 20% of your time

To write a critical review it is essential that you both understand the piece and challenge it.

Read, watch, or examine the piece carefully. Think about what the piece means as well as what you think and feel about it. Ask questions, make comments. Take extensive notes. That is, do a close reading of the piece (even if it’s not a text).


Here are some examples of questions to ask yourself if you are conducting a critical review of a book or a journal article, as well as some more general critical reading questions.

Draft analysis

This should take about 15% of your time

Start by organizing your notes. Categorize themes and make connections between ideas. Consider using a mind map or another visual organizer to help.

All aspects of the piece (structure, methodology, reasons and evidence, conclusions, logic) should be considered.

Consult related text and additional sources if necessary. Not all critical reviews require you to go beyond the primary text; if you’re not sure, check with your professor or TA.

Organize the review

This should take about 8% of your time

Develop an outline or plan the organization of your review. Try to avoid presenting your points in a laundry-list style; your goal is to synthesize the information as much as possible.

Use your evaluation criteria to inform the presentation of your ideas. Don’t forget to provide specific examples from the work for each of your points.

Here are some guiding questions to help you write your critical review and some specific recommendations for the structure of a critical review.

Write a first draft

This should take about 20% of your time

Don’t worry about making your first draft perfect—just get words on the page! Remember, a critical review requires

  • a summary (the basic features, including the work’s central point, areas of interest or importance, supporting arguments, and context). Keep it brief—much shorter than your analysis!
  • an analysis (your assessment of the piece; includes both points of agreement and disagreement or strengths and weaknesses).


Stuck? See this list of summary, evaluation, and conclusion language for writing prompts.

If you’re having trouble writing, explore some of the reasons why that might be, or try some of the strategies listed here (e.g., free writing, goal setting, positive reinforcement).


Revise, Edit, Proofread

It is a common mistake to rush this crucial part of the writing process. When you revise, you’ll focus on higher-order concerns like purpose, audience, source integration, organization, and paragraph structure. When editing and proofreading, you will narrow your focus to grammar, spelling, and word choice.

To help you get perspective on your work, take some time between writing and revising (e.g., have lunch, take a walk, or wait until the next day).

Reverse outline

This should take about 5% of your time

Start the revision process by constructing a reverse outline to make sense of what you’ve written.

Now review the expectations of the assignment. Did you do what you set out to do? Does what you’ve written match what your professor asked for? Can you tweak something to better align it with the criteria set out in the assignment description?

Revise / write a second draft

This should take about 15% of your time

Revision is the time to focus on the big picture of your assignment, for example, the balance between summary and analysis, how effectively you synthesized the information across your review, your use of the evaluation criteria, the logic flow and readability of the paper, etc.

Papers usually require multiple revisions. Think of it as happening in stages: to focus the task and make it more useful, pick a specific goal each time you revise (e.g., “This time, I’m only paying attention to content—next time I’ll check the structure”).

If you plan to get feedback from others, always revise your own paper first, at least once.


This should take about 5% of your time

Once you’ve finished revising, you can narrow your focus to your paper’s sentence structure, word choice, and grammar. You’re aiming to improve style and coherence, reduce awkward phrasing, ensure transitions are clear, etc.

Here are some of the most common errors in style, grammar, and punctuation.

Finalize your critical review

This should take about 1% of your time

Time to proofread! This is your last chance to find those typos that always turn up right after you hand in your paper.

Sometimes it helps to proofread your paper backwards (e.g., sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph); you’re more likely to catch typos by focusing on form, not content.


This should take about 1% of your time

Congratulations—you did it!

If possible, take a moment to reflect. How did it go? Think about what went well, what didn’t, and how you might like to do it the next time you are asked to write a critical review.