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Writing a Review of a Critical Biography

You can write an excellent review of a critical biography if you follow these four steps:

  1. Gather pertinent information about the biographer.
  2. Plan the content of the review.
  3. Draft the introduction, main body, and conclusion.
  4. Revise the review, and write a final draft. 

How to Write a Review of a Critical Biography

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What is a critical biography?

A biography is a nonfiction book that recounts the story of someone’s life. A critical biography, however, offers a deeper examination of someone's life by placing it in the context of the times in which the subject lived. A critical biography of a literary figure does both, but it also examines the writer’s works, critiquing them and placing them in the context of the experiences and relationships that influenced the writer’s novels, plays, short stories, or poems. 

What should a review of a critical biography accomplish?

A review should familiarize readers with the biographer, the book, and the book’s subject while providing an overview of the content of the biography. Additionally, the review should evaluate how effectively the biographer presents the subject of the book. 

How is a review of a critical biography structured?

Like many essays, a review is structured with an introduction, a main body, and a conclusion. 

  • The introduction is the first paragraph of the review; its primary purpose is to identify the biography being reviewed and its author.
  • Following the introduction, the main body of the review consists of a series of paragraphs that describe and evaluate the biography.
  • The conclusion is the final paragraph of the review; its purpose is to bring the review to an end, leaving readers with a sense of closure.   

How to Write a Review of a Critical Biography in 4 Steps:

1. Gather pertinent information about the biographer.

In reading a critical biography, readers hear the voice of the book’s author. Pertinent information about the author establishes to what extent readers can trust the author’s research and commentary within the biography. Locate information to answer these questions, take notes, and answer these questions:

  • Who wrote the critical biography you are reviewing? 
  • What is the biographer’s relationship to the subject of the book, if any? 
  • Is the biographer an authority on the book’s subject? If so, what are the biographer’s qualifications or experience that indicate knowledge and expertise in writing about the subject? 
  • Have any of the biographer’s published works been recognized with awards or prizes?

Sometimes this information is found in a preface or introduction to the biography; it also can be gathered by researching the biographer online or with library sources.

2. Plan the content of the review. 

In order to determine the content of your review, you have to research within the critical biography and taking notes. Use these questions as a guide in researching:

  • When and where did the subject of the biography grow up? What were the subject’s circumstances while growing up? How did they affect the subject’s life and personality? 
  • Was the subject’s life influenced by historical events? Was it shaped by social or cultural influences? If so, how?
  • How did the subject’s life develop in adulthood? What were the subject’s most important relationships? What path did the subject follow in seeking an education and/or entering a profession? 
  • What did the subject achieve in life? For what is the subject most remembered?
  • What are some examples of anecdotes and descriptive writing in the biography that bring the subject to life?
  • How would you describe the biographer’s voice, tone, and writing style? Is the biographer’s voice personal or objective? What seems to be the biographer’s attitude and feelings about the subject? Is the biographer’s writing style conversational or scholarly?

In reviewing a critical biography of a literary figure, research these questions, as well:

    • Did the subject of the biography primarily write novels, plays, short stories, or poetry? What are some of the subject’s most famous or celebrated works? Did the subject win critical acclaim while living or only after death? 
    • Does a geographical setting and/or a particular time period figure prominently in the subject’s works? Are the subject’s works associated with a particular literary movement, such as Romanticism, realism, naturalism, neoclassicism, transcendentalism, or anti-transcendentalism? 
  • Does the subject’s writing often develop the same literary themes? If so, what are they?
  • What is the relationship between the subject’s life and works? How are the subject’s life, personality, and experiences reflected in the subject’s novels, plays, short stories, or poetry? 
  • Which of the subject’s works does the biographer critique? Is the literary criticism authoritative, scholarly, and fair? Does the biographer cite sources consulted in critiquing the subject’s works? 

3. Draft the introduction, main body, and conclusion.

In writing the review, employ the third-person point of view and maintain an objective tone. In recounting the subject’s life, writing in past tense is appropriate, but in discussing the biography itself or the subject’s writing, use present tense.

Writing the introduction

Include this information in the introductory paragraph, presenting it in this order: 

  • the title of the biography, the author, the book’s publisher, and the publication date
  • the subject of the biography and some brief general information identifying the subject
  • background information about the biographer
  • a thesis statement expressing your impression of the biography 

As the last sentence in the introduction, the thesis statement indicates your general evaluation of the biography. Consider these questions in drafting your thesis:

  • Does the examination of the subject’s life seem fair and objective? 
  • Is the biography thorough and well researched? 
  • Does the biography provide insight into the subject’s personality and character?

Writing the main body

Refer to the notes you took in planning the content of the review, and work them into the main body paragraphs. 

  • First main body paragraph: Briefly summarize the biographical facts of the subject’s life, presenting them in chronological order. The summary should provide readers with an overview of the subject’s life and place in history. 
  • Second main body paragraph: Critique how effectively the biography captures the life and personality of its subject. Do readers feel that they have met the subject? Do they feel that they understand what influenced and motivated the subject? If so, what are some anecdotes and passages of descriptive writing that bring the subject to life? If not, what is lacking in the biography?
  • Third main body paragraph: Review the writing in the biography by describing the biographer’s voice, tone, and writing style. Include some specific examples from the text in your descriptions. Is reading the biography a pleasure or a challenge? Why?

In reviewing a biography over a literary figure, the main body should include two additional paragraphs: one regarding the subject’s literary work and another addressing the biographer’s literary criticism of the subject’s work. These additional paragraphs, also developed from your notes, should follow the first main body paragraph.

In writing the main body of the review, begin each paragraph with a topic sentence. Also, provide transitions within paragraphs and between paragraphs to guide readers smoothly through the text.

Writing the conclusion

In writing the final paragraph of your review, consider these questions:

  • What does the biographer accomplish in the book or fail to accomplish?
  • Does the biography satisfy readers’ interest in the subject or leave them with unanswered questions?
  • What is most memorable about the biography?

4. Revise the review, and write a final draft.

Begin the editing and revision process by evaluating the structure and content of your review. Use these evaluation questions as a guide. 

Structure:

a) Does your review have an introductory paragraph, 3 main body paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph? (Remember that if you are reviewing a biography over a literary figure, the main body should have 5 paragraphs.)

b) Does the introduction end with a thesis statement?

c) Do the main body paragraphs begin with topic sentences? Do they include smooth transitions within and between paragraphs?

d) Does the conclusion provide closure for readers so that they don’t expect the review to continue?

Content:

a) Have you followed the guiding questions in writing the introduction, main body, and conclusion?

b) Have you incorporated your notes appropriately into the content of the paragraphs?

c) Do the introduction and main body include facts and specific evidence to develop and support your discussion of the biography?

d) Have you written the review in third-person?

e) Have you used past tense and present tense verbs as directed?

f) Have you maintained an objective tone in reviewing the biography?   

After evaluating the structure and content of your review, edit and revise the paragraphs so that you can answer “yes” to each of the evaluation questions. Finish the final draft by writing a title for the review; the title should identify the subject of the book in an interesting way that suggests the nature of the biography. Here are some fictional review titles that would likely engage readers’ interest:

  • W. B. Yeats—Irish Visionary and Poetic Rebel 
  • Abe Lincoln’s Subtle Genius
  • Eleanor Roosevelt’s Conflicts in the White House
  • Hemingway Was Not a Man of Few Words

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