Writing Critiques

Writing a critique involves more than pointing out mistakes. It involves conducting a systematic analysis of a scholarly article or book and then writing a fair and reasonable description of its strengths and weaknesses. Look for a “manuscript reviewer guide” in your own discipline to guide your analysis of the content. Use this handout as an orientation to the audience and purpose of different types of critiques and to the linguistic strategies appropriate to all of them.

Types of Critique

Article or book review assignment in an academic class

Text: Article or book that has already been published
Audience: Professors
Purpose:

  • to demonstrate your skills for close reading and analysis
  • to show that you understand key concepts in your field
  • to learn how to review a manuscript for your future professional work

Published book review

Text: Book that has already been published
Audience: Disciplinary colleagues
Purpose:

  • to describe the book’s contents
  • to summarize the book’s strengths and weaknesses
  • to provide a reliable recommendation to read (or not read) the book

Manuscript review

Text: Manuscript that has been submitted but has not been published yet
Audience: Journal editor and manuscript authors
Purpose:

  • to provide the editor with an evaluation of the manuscript
  • to recommend to the editor that the article be published, revised, or rejected
  • to provide the authors with constructive feedback and reasonable suggestions for revision

Language Strategies for Critiquing

For each type of critique, it’s important to state your praise, criticism, and suggestions politely, but with the appropriate level of strength. The following language structures should help you achieve this challenging task.

Offering Praise and Criticism

A strategy called “hedging” will help you express praise or criticism with varying levels of strength. It will also help you express varying levels of certainty in your own assertions. Grammatical structures used for hedging include:

Modal verbs
Using modal verbs (could, can, may, might, etc.) allows you to soften an absolute statement. Compare:

This text is inappropriate for graduate students who are new to the field.
This text may be inappropriate for graduate students who are new to the field.

Qualifying adjectives and adverbs
Using qualifying adjectives and adverbs (possible, likely, possibly, somewhat, etc.) allows you to introduce a level of probability into your comments. Compare:

Readers will find the theoretical model difficult to understand.
Some readers will find the theoretical model difficult to understand.
Some readers will probably find the theoretical model somewhat difficult to understand completely.

Note: You can see from the last example that too many qualifiers makes the idea sound undesirably weak.

Tentative verbs
Using tentative verbs (seems, indicates, suggests, etc.) also allows you to soften an absolute statement. Compare:

This omission shows that the authors are not aware of the current literature.
This omission indicates that the authors are not aware of the current literature.
This omission seems to suggest that the authors are not aware of the current literature.

Offering Suggestions

Whether you are critiquing a published or unpublished text, you are expected to point out problems and suggest solutions. If you are critiquing an unpublished manuscript, the author can use your suggestions to revise. Your suggestions have the potential to become real actions. If you are critiquing a published text, the author cannot revise, so your suggestions are purely hypothetical. These two situations require slightly different grammar.

Unpublished manuscripts: Present unreal conditional
Reviewers commonly point out weakness by pointing toward improvement. For instance, if the problem is “unclear methodology,” reviewers may write that “the methodology would be more clear if …” plus a suggestion. If the author can use the suggestions to revise, the grammar is “X would be better if the authors did Y” (would be + simple past suggestion).

The tables would be clearer if the authors highlighted the key results.
The discussion would be more persuasive if the authors accounted for the discrepancies in the data.

Published manuscripts: Past unreal conditional
If the authors cannot revise based on your suggestions, use the past unreal conditional form “X would have been better if the authors had done Y” (would have been + past perfect suggestion).

The tables would have been clearer if the authors had highlighted key results.
The discussion would have been more persuasive if the authors had accounted for discrepancies in the data.

Note: For more information on conditional structures, see our Conditionals handout.


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