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Joe Moxley, Founder, WritingCommons.org

Joe Moxley

Founder
WritingCommons.org

Dear Colleagues and Students,

At Writing Commons, we are happy with the overall success of our project. Since 2011, when we launched at WritingCommons.org, we have hosted 6,315,882 users who have reviewed over 11 million pages. We are thrilled that students and faculty find our site to be helpful. Our ongoing mission is to be the best writing textbook possible. We also happen to be free. While we cannot perhaps claim yet that we are the best possible textbook for technical writing or creative writing courses, we are working on that.

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Learn to write convincing evaluations and improve your critical thinking abilities. Evaluate a performance (such as a movie, speech, or play), a visual (such as an ad or artwork), or a text (such as a Web site). Read exemplary evaluative texts, define appropriate assessment criteria, and write a convincing and well-researched evaluation.

Reviews present an author's opinion or interpretation. Writing an evaluative text involves defining criteria and then applying these criteria to assess a subject. Writers of effective evaluative texts go beyond making global proclamations--statements such as "I think the movie is boring" or "The musician stinks." Instead, effective evaluative texts provide the background information and evidence that readers need to understand their assessment.

Why Write Reviews and Recommendations?

In school, you will be asked to evaluate instructors, other students, textbooks, theories, and research studies. As part of your everyday life, you will conduct evaluations and read others' evaluations of products to make informed consumer decisions. Just about anything can be evaluated, including:

  1. Consumer goods (e.g., consumer electronics, cars, boats)
  2. Places (e.g., homes, restaurants, ski resorts, vacation destinations)
  3. Performances (e.g., movies, CDs, music videos, plays, speeches)
  4. Web sites
  5. Events
  6. People (e.g., politicians, writers, co-workers)
  7. Ideas/theories
  8. Photographs, paintings, etchings
  9. Advertising
  10. Careers or academic degree

Conducting evaluations is a fundamental way to better understand and improve our world. When you write evaluative texts, you are asking critical questions, such as: Is this the right college or academic degree for me? Was the movie suspenseful, entertaining, worthwhile? Should I wear these clothes?

Evaluation texts are typically acts of persuasion. Beyond entertaining you with their wit and intelligence, critics of movies, restaurants, and music want you to accept their judgment. As experts, these critics want to be arbiters of good taste--and, often, they want to help you by sharing the results of their experience and research.

Even when authors attempt to present an objective, detached tone/voice, they often want readers to agree with their analyses. At times, writers may even be deceptive about their biases. Remarkably, some reviews are pure fictions, created by marketing executives. For example, Sony Pictures was harshly rebuked for creating David Manning, a fictional critic, who (not surprisingly) energetically and positively reviewed their films. [David Manning, Imaginary Film Critic by Robert Fulford]

Occasionally, however, the topic isn't contentious. The author may not be attempting to persuade readers one way or another, focusing, instead, on informing readers or analyzing a complex topic. For example, the building inspector may not care whether the buyer purchases the home; his report applies preset criteria to judging the market value of the property (comparables, quality of construction, condition of roof, appliances, plumbing, etc.). In turn, the medical examiner wants to discern the cause of death and write an objective report.

Diverse Rhetorical Situations

As illustrated in the chart below, people write and read evaluative texts for a variety of communication situations, and they employ a variety of media. The driving purpose of most reviews is argument; even when writers adopt a detached, formal, and objective voice, they are asserting that their interpretation is accurate and reliable. Occasionally writers assume other voices--perhaps adopting a satirical or irreverent tone.

Usually, writers base their reviews on personal experience and informal "primary research" (questionnaires, interviews, or ethnographies), perhaps explaining their reaction to a movie, play, or exhibition. They may or may not conduct formal secondary research--i.e., actually research or see what others have said about the subject they are reviewing (library or Internet research). In general, though, they are well read on the topic they write about.

Sampling of Rhetorical Situations

Purposes Audiences Voices Media
  • Persuade
  • Inform
  • Analyze
  • Consumers
  • Decision makers
  • Scholars
  • Curious people
  • Objective
  • Thoughtful/
    Reflective
  • "Sales"
  • Reviews of books, music, restaurants in newspapers, magazines, and Web sites
  • Formal reports submitted to decision makers
  • Interactive Web sites
  • Video

Rhetorical Analysis of Online Readings

Consider the context, audience, purpose, and media invoked by the following readings. Also examine how ideas are developed in these texts. Are assertions grounded in personal experience, interviews with authorities, questionnaires, Internet and library research, or empirical research? As demonstrated below, people write critical reviews for many different reasons, addressing a variety of audiences.

For years, professional columnists have written reviews of movies, music, film, and restaurants in newspapers and magazines. Today, many reviews can easily be found online:

  • AllMusic.com provides thousands of reviews of musician's works: "Our experts use a 1 to 5 star system with 5 being considered the best rating. It is important to note that our album ratings are localized; we only compare a release to other releases by the same artist. We won't compare a Britney Spears album to the latest release by Incubus."
  • AllGame.com provides thousands of reviews of games.
  • AllMovie.com reviews movies.

More recently, Internet sites have empowered people to add their two cents. In other words, users can complete surveys or write reviews. Consider, for example, the following sites that provide a forum for people to review movies, Web sites, and music:

  • The National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television provides many film reviews and presents an easy online form by which users can submit their own reviews. Reviews range from informal and incomplete to professional and thorough.
  • Magdalena Ball created The Compulsive Reader, an interactive Web site, to encourage people to discuss books and movies.
  • Targeting an academic audience, H-Net Reviews presents reviews on books, articles, games, and multimedia. H-Net Reviews invites participation from readers; editors proof and copyedit submissions.
  • Readerville.com provides free, subscription-based forums that enable users to discuss serious fiction and nonfiction.
  • Amazon.com encourages reviews of books and CDs, yet it requires users to log in before submitting their reviews.

Companies, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations often bring in outside consultants to evaluate and improve work flow, written documents, or decision-making processes. Occasionally, a whistle blower will write an internal document that forces insiders to reconsider their practices. For example, in a classified 13-page memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller, Coleen Rowley, an FBI veteran of 21 years, critiqued FBI headquarters, suggesting FBI's upper management ignored the advice of field agents regarding the possibility of terrorists using commercial airliners to destroy buildings. Rowley's whistle blowing letter resulted in Senate hearings in Washington, D.C.

Internet users sometimes debate the value of particular Internet browsers (e.g., Internet Explorer vs. Netscape Navigator), operating systems (Windows vs. Macintosh), and search engines:

  • ShareWareJunkies.com provides hundreds of software reviews. Readers are invited to apply to be reviewers. The site contains advertisements but the reviews are free.
  • Based on users' feedback and well-defined criteria, Danny Sullivan created the 2001 Search Engine Watch Award.

Architects frequently critique the design of buildings. For example, in the Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative Quarterly, the editor critiques Frank Gehry's controversial new building at Case Western Reserve.

The Internet Scout Report provides summaries and reviews of Web sites likely to interest "researchers, educators, and anyone else with an interest in high-quality online material."

PickaProf.com enables students to share their evaluations of their professors.

Medical Matrix provides a free, subscription-based, peer-reviewed, ranked assessment of medical Web sites: "Medical Matrix is a free directory of selected medical sites on the Internet. The Medical Matrix search engine is available by subscription. Each site listing has been carefully evaluated by reviewers from our panel of physicians and medical librarians." Clearly, professionals in the medical field are the targeted audience for this Web site.
Medical Resource Database identifies its target audience as "Nurses, Physicians, Dentists, Students, Health consumers/Patients." It reviews Web sites that provide information in the following areas: "Anatomy, Physiology, Internal Medicine, Physical Therapy, Exercise Therapy, Pharmacology, Dermatology, Dentistry, Acupuncture, Nursing, Gastroenterology, Surgery, Obstetrics/Gynecology, Urology, Pulmonology, Cardiology, Ophthalmology, Prevention, Naturopathy, Sports Medicine, Radiology, Lab, Psychology, Neurology, Psychiatry, Pediatrics, Infectious Diseases, Primary Care, Endocrinology."

Books Dealing With Children's Mental Health Topics. Written for parents and child-development psychologists, this review site focuses on texts on a variety of issues and topics.

Evaluation texts address a range of audiences, purposes, and media and use a variety of methods to generate knowledge, including Internet and library research, and interview, questionnaire, and ethnographic research methods. Accordingly, the following analysis of key features is presented as a series of considerations as opposed to a comprehensive blueprint.

Focus

Writers bring focus to their evaluations by revealing the criteria they are using to judge the topic being evaluated. They often present their argument up front, providing readers with a good roadmap of their argument and reasoning.

As demonstrated by Readings > Evaluative Texts, writers routinely define the criteria they will employ to evaluate a subject. As an example, consider AllMusic.com's criteria, which they provide to engage users in an evaluation of musicians.

Music Expert Check. If you know this artist well, your help in answering the following questions is much appreciated and will assist the AMG staff in improving the database. Do you feel this artist is:

Energizing, Exciting X Some of Both Soothing, Relaxing X N/A
Dense, Thick Light, X Some of Both Free, Transparent X N/A
Harsh, Aggressive X Some of Both Gentle, Peaceful X N/A
Cold, Firm X Some of Both Warm, Soft X N/A
Bright, Dynamic, Ornate X Some of Both Low Key, Calm, Melancholic X N/A
Popular, Plain, Simple X Some of Both Elaborate, Sophisticated X N/A
Dark, Pessimistic, Bitter X Some of Both Light, Cheerful, Sweet X N/A
Emotional, Sensual, Playful X Some of Both Sober, Arranged, Proper X N/A
Your name(optional):   Some of Both     N/A
           

Development

You can develop your evaluation report by conducting library/Internet or field research. For example, to write a movie, music, or restaurant review, you could watch the movie, listen to the CD, or go to the restaurant. You might read reviews of a movie, music CD, or restaurant. By researching your topic, you will have a better understanding of appropriate criteria to use to judge it.

Reading sample evaluative texts can help you find and adopt an appropriate voice and persona. By reading samples, you can learn how others have prioritized particular criteria.

Below are some additional suggestions for developing your evaluation report, including advice on how to create an appropriate voice, provide background material, establish the criteria for judging the topic, and use visuals to develop and convey your message.

Establish an Appropriate Voice

First person is commonly used in arts reviews, while reviews of products tend to stifle the personal voice, adopting more of an objective tone.

If you appear overly biased or emotional, readers are likely to dismiss your reasoning. Readers of reviews expect authors to be courteous and temperate. If you've identified important problems with the movie, CD, book--whatever you're critiquing--you should be honest and thorough, yet you need to provide a compassionate tone, remembering that it's easier to critique than create.

If you critique a matter severely, some readers may hope to dismiss your interpretation as idiosyncratic. Under such circumstances, in addition to providing the evidence needed to substantiate your opinion, you need to be careful about presenting your voice/persona. You need to establish your credibility. Consider, for example, Coleen Rowley's letter to FBI Director Robert Mueller. In this letter, Rowley provides evidence that the FBI "did fully appreciate the terrorist risk/danger posed by Moussaoui [one of the 9/11 terrorist hijackers] and his possible co-conspirators even prior to September 11th." Throughout her letter, Rowley vigorously details what the FBI knew about Moussaoui, including his training at flight schools, his role as a terrorist, and affiliations with radical fundamentalist Islamic groups associated with Osama bin Laden. Then, in the conclusion, perhaps looking over the shoulder of Director Mueller to members of the press and public, she asserts her lifelong commitment to the FBI, providing personal details that narrate her loyalty:

I have been an FBI agent for over 21 years and, for what it's worth, have never received any form of disciplinary action throughout my career. From the 5th grade, when I first wrote the FBI and received the "100 Facts about the FBI" pamphlet, this job has been my dream. I feel that my career in the FBI has been somewhat exemplary, having entered on duty at a time when there was only a small percentage of female Special Agents. I have also been lucky to have had four children during my time in the FBI and am the sole breadwinner of a family of six. Due to the frankness with which I have expressed myself and my deep feelings on these issues, (which is only because I feel I have a somewhat unique, inside perspective of the Moussaoui matter, the gravity of the events of September 11th and the current seriousness of the FBI's and United States' ongoing efforts in the "war against terrorism"), I hope my continued employment with the FBI is not somehow placed in jeopardy. I have never written to an FBI Director in my life before on any topic. Although I would hope it is not necessary, I would therefore wish to take advantage of the federal "Whistleblower Protection" provisions by so characterizing my remarks. [Coleen Rowley's Memo to FBI Director Robert Mueller]

Provide Necessary Background Information

Readers expect you to be knowledgeable about the topic. They appreciate a summary where you describe the significance of the work and relate it to previous works by the author or other significant works. If you're discussing a musician's work, for example, you should refer to other works produced by the musician and place the work within a music tradition. If you're discussing a movie, you should be aware of the genre of the movie (suspense, drama, comedy, romance, etc.) as well as other works created by the director.

Establish Evaluative Criteria

When evaluating consumer goods, writers explicitly define their evaluative criteria. In more informal circumstances or when the topic is particularly emotionally charged, writers may choose to imply their criteria. In general, clarity is enhanced by an explicit statement of evaluative criteria in your introduction.

Below are some examples of evaluative criteria presented by the authors to introduce their topics:

  • Why Open Source Software/Free Software by David A. Wheeler: This paper provides quantitative data that, in many cases, using open source software / free software is a reasonable or even superior approach to using their proprietary competition according to various measures. This paper examines market share, reliability, performance, scaleability, security, and total cost of ownership. It also has sections on non-quantitative issues, unnecessary fears, usage reports, other sites providing related information, and ends with some conclusions.
  • How We Evaluated the OWLs by Beth Balkus et al: Ease of Navigation, Feedback on a Submitted Paper, Handouts

Use Visuals

Wherever possible, provide visuals to help readers understand your reasoning:

  1. If you're critiquing a Web site, use screenshots and callout to clarify your interpretation (see, e.g., The Paladin Newspaper Redesign by Danae Shell or Critique of /placeholders/external_placeholder.html?http%3A%2F%2Fextremegen.org).
  2. Use photographs to illustrate your analysis. If you're critiquing a restaurant or a place, take pictures. For example, note the thumbnail pictures in Sarah R. Stein's The '1984' Macintosh Ad or the pictures of the building critiqued in Frank Gehry as Urbanist?.
  3. Use tables and figures to summarize evaluative criteria and the results of your interpretation. Note, for example, how David Wheeler provides summary tables for each criteria he evaluates: Why Open Source Software/Free Software. Below is an example of one of the figures used in Wheeler's reports, which supports his argument regarding the popularity of Open Source Software (see image below)
  4. Market Share for Active Web Servers, June 2000 - April 2002

Organization

Evaluative texts aren't written like mystery novels: You don't bury your conclusions at the end of the story. Instead, provide your argument up front, clearly define why the evaluation is important, what evaluative criteria were used, how the evaluation was performed, and what your conclusions are.

Consider numbering the evaluative points you are addressing. If it's an online document, you may wish to create internal hyperlinks so readers can jump from point to point in your text. At the very least, use headings and subheadings.

Style

As always, you need to:

  1. Use unambiguous, concrete language.
  2. Appeal to the reader's senses.
  3. Relate the subject or concept to information that the reader already understands, moving from given to new information.

*Some articles are used across multiple genres and disciplines.

Cassandra Branham, Editor-in-Chief WritingCommons.org

Cassandra Branham

Editor-in-Chief
WritingCommons.org

Dear Colleagues and Students,

Welcome to Writing Commons, an open-education resource for instructors and students of writing across the disciplines. Our mission is to provide a high-quality, cost free resource to support students in the development of writing, research, and critical thinking practices.

This summer, we have been working on a site redesign in an effort to increase the usability of our site for both instructors and students. Our most significant change has been the inclusion of additional categories and subcategories to create a more intuitive hierarchy within the site.

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