The Art of the Review Essay: David H. Aaron

How this hybrid form is a work of scholarship and how to produce it.

Scholars frequently regard writing reviews as a ‘service to the profession’. Three forms have dominated reviews in traditional print media: the extremely short notice of publication, the journalistic-like short review, and the subject of this piece, the review essay. Notices of publication rarely do more than provide a sophisticated blurb for recent publications. Nonetheless, they serve an important purpose in helping scholars keep pace with the rapidly expanding venues in which scholarly monographs appear. The short review, a journalistic-like article of 800-1200 words, still dominates the field of Religious Studies. Short reviews offer the reviewer a moderate amount of space to consider the strengths and weaknesses of a new work and permit reader to gain a basic sense of what is covered. The confines of short reviews require more or less rigid formats and permit little opportunity for a scholarly engagement with broader issues raised by a work. Virtually every major scholarly journal includes both notices and reviews.

With innovations unique to internet publications, review structures continue to proliferate. Length is becoming less an issue than it was for print media. Web publications offer a dynamic platform for a reviewer to link the reader to extensive excerpts, images, and other reviews, potentially transforming even a notice or short review article into an intertextual experience. Despite these formalistic and technological innovations, the genre known as the review essay still enjoys considerable esteem and serves an important function. This is the only review genre that yields a freestanding work of scholarship, paralleling the length and depth of a standard journal article.

But length and depth are only part of what differentiates a review essay from its cousins. In a review essay an author enjoys the freedom to write extensively and creatively. The confines of her subject matter are not limited by the book that evokes the review; instead she can use a reviewed book as an entry point into a broader discussion of a field’s history of scholarship. Alternatively, a review essay may focus on micro-aspects of a work to explore issues that the reviewer believes are inadequately considered in a field of specialization. This genre may invite an author to integrate a discussion of multiple related works into a single extended comparative essay. The length, depth, and intellectual breadth of a review essay permit an author to pen a substantive scholarly article that can praise, criticize, and promote alternate approaches to the work, which serves (in some sense) as the article’s raison d’être.

These guidelines seek to offer a very basic rubric for the structuring of a review essay.

General Overview and Statement of Subject Matter

On the basis of a book’s introduction, it is usually possible to establish the general thematic concerns of a study.  A general overview should concisely express the book’s purpose and thesis and a reviewer should be attentive to the history of scholarship so that a book is situated within a field.

Briefly Discuss the Organization of the Book and its Methodological Profile

Provide a concise survey of the book’s contents, as well as the methodological principles that govern the contents.  Avoid, however, the chapter by chapter description that is typical of short reviews. A review essay does not require such a pedantic outline since content rather than form is the principal concern. When an author’s methodology is not explicitly outlined, the reviewer must endeavor to establish it inductively. How a book is organized often reflects the author’s methodological practices. Sometimes the methodology offered constitutes a major contribution to a field of study; other times, an author simply adopts the methodological assumptions prevalent in a given field. Being attuned to the relationship between methodology and the goals of a given work can provide a basis for demonstrating the strengths or weaknesses of a study.

The Core of Your Review: Reiterate the Thesis and its Implications

The core of a review essay should be a detailed consideration of the book’s thesis, using what the author believes to be his strongest examples in support of the thesis. It is particularly important to identify what material best supports the argument of the book; if you bring weak cases at this point in your review, you compromise your credibility as a reviewer. Once you have provided coverage of some significant instances of exegesis or supporting arguments, you should try to typify the character of other supporting materials offered in the study.  It is not possible to list every issue covered in a book, so you must establish – first for yourself, but ultimately for your reader – which examples proved most instructive and supportive of the author’s thesis.

It is at this point in your essay that you might decide to address a specific aspect of the book as your paradigmatic concern.  Perhaps you will choose to focus on one or two of the sections for the purposes of summary and critique.  Or you might choose to focus your concerns on the basis of a theme, one that enables you to touch upon multiple sections of a book. Tell your reader explicitly what you are going to do. You must be able to justify your own methodology, while making sure that it does not distort the intent of the book’s author.

Critique and Questions

When and where in a review essay one launches into critique is always a sensitive matter. No reviewer should begin to critique either a thesis or particular instances of argumentation until an author’s position(s) have been presented soundly. In other words, don’t mix presentation with critique. The reviewer must endeavor to offer the reader guidance concerning the strengths and the weaknesses of a work. Writers of review essays (in contrast to short reviews) should see themselves as serving a broader audience because readers consider review essays in a variety of fields outside of their own areas of expertise. No book is written without flaws; but the preponderance of a book’s contributions should dominate a reviewer’s attention.  That being said, it is true that periodically you will be asked to review a work that has little merit; or you may find an outright error in an otherwise sound study.  Obviously, in such contexts, you will write what you have to write. Always write from a spirit of charity and kindness.

Critique of a book can happen at multiple levels.  A thesis may have great merit but not be adequately supported.  Sometimes a reviewer can point to missed opportunities.  An author may have some material that greatly supports the thesis but ignore other material that contradicts his/her position.  An author may misconstrue the meaning of a text or overlook an aspect of a document that proves more significant than had been recognized.  But it could also be that an author writes a very solid work that leaves relatively few reasons to question what has been proposed.  While rare, there are such books. Usually they concern issues that are not terribly controversial (e.g., philological studies, surveys of a field, or critical editions that are exemplary in the genre).  Books that make significant contributions to a field will involve material that, by its very nature, breaks with previously accepted approaches or interpretations.  Thus, there are bound to be positions taken that will prove challenging to those working in the discipline. A review essay permits an author to understand the importance of a work within a field of scholarly discourse, even if specific aspects of a book remain questionable.

Stating Conclusions and Considering Implications

Once a critique is put forth, you should reestablish what remains of value.  In a concluding statement, you should reiterate which aspects of the book constitute significant contributions, even in the face of the criticisms or questions you have raised.  Truly important works will spawn shifts in a field of study.  You might choose to explore the question of how a book will influence future studies more robustly than how an author related to this or that aspect inadequately.

A review essay also provides you with room to offer an alternative to a book’s approach—that is, an authentically original thesis. This is rarely done, as most authors choose to use different literary forms for such proposals; but a review author should be aware of the potential of this genre for situating a new approach that is based on their own research.

Some General DOs and DON’Ts

Be concise with regard to specific issues.

Don’t harp! Be direct and get on to the next issue.

Don’t be pedantic. For instance, don’t point out typographical (printing) errors unless a publication is truly plagued by such errors, indicating poor preparation. Even then, mention it and move on. If you find a particular reference to be incorrect, offer a correction from a posture of charity. If you find references to be sloppy and misleading throughout, then integrate your concern into the body of your discussion, but again, gently.

Don’t conduct separate discussions and arguments in the footnotes. Reserve footnotes for references. If you have something important to say, place it in the body of your essay.

Always keep summary and critique separate.  Complete the former before going on to the latter.

Try to avoid quotations as much as possible; paraphrase instead.   Quotations, to be kept to a minimum, are to be used when the particular wording of an author may prove relevant to the critique section of your essay.

Be humble, even when you find the author’s work problematic.  Try to avoid blanket value judgments, positive or negative (such as, ‘He doesn’t do this well’, or ‘I think she is right!’).  Evaluate specific instances of exegesis or textual analysis and then, if you think it leaves something to be desired, you do it better!  In fact, never criticize without showing the alternative approach you believe to be superior. If relevant, draw upon ideas offered by other scholars. Criticism is easy and cheap; performing the task better makes you credible.

Organize, organize, organize! Make sure you have a comprehensive plan for structuring your presentation.

Make sure every single paragraph counts.  There must be a clearly identifiable act taking place in each of your paragraphs.  In a single paragraph, you should avoid mixing multiple functions (although, admittedly, sometimes it is necessary, such as when a critique includes summary and counter examples contiguously).  You should be able to go through your essay and provide a two or three word characterization of each paragraph’s function.  Make sure that your paragraphs follow a logical sequence.  For example, you obviously do not want specific examples to precede a summary or a statement of the thesis.  When your essay involves one work, you want to try to avoid moving back and forth among functions.[1] 

Concluding Sentiment

Experiment and don’t be afraid to take creative approaches in a review essay. While the guidelines offered here might provide you with a check-list to make sure you cover core responsibilities adequately, the length and freedom implicit in the review essay genre provide an author with the opportunity to produce a substantive work of scholarship. If you start by thinking of a review essay as a work of scholarship rather than a standard short review (exclusively), you may just end up offering your field a paradigm worthy of emulation.


[1]Obviously, this cannot be done if you are reviewing multiple works.  See, for instance, the long review essay on the state of the field in archaeology, historiography and religion, by William G. Dever: ‘“Will the Real Israel Please Stand Up?” Archaeology and Israelite Historiography: Part I’; ‘“Will the Real Israel Please Stand Up?” Part II: Archaeology and the Religions of Ancient Israel’, BASOR (1995) 297:61-80; 298:37-58.  Dever reviews numerous works seriatim, which requires that he move back and forth between summary, critique, and his general discussion.