Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates. 3rd Edition. Mike Wallace and Alison Wray. Sage 2016

Published in August 2017

Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates. 3rd Edition. Mike Wallace and Alison Wray, SAGE Study Skills, London.0 2016. xiv + 278pp. £22.99 (paperback) 978-141296182-0

Sadly, the phrase ‘new and improved’ is becoming more and more associated with products that are neither, but the 3rd edition of Wallace and Wray’s Critical Reading and Writing for Postgraduates contravenes this trend. Building on the success of the second edition of this volume, which established it as a core text for many postgraduates, the new edition adds to the original material.

Two key additional chapters are included. One focuses on ‘Interrogating Abstracts’. A worked example is given, which exemplifies the points that the authors make about reading and, in combination with materials later in the book, writing abstracts. Although this chapter is relatively short, it is a very rich resource. As well as being of benefit to postgraduate students, many undergraduate students would benefit from becoming familiar with this material. The other considers the relationship between the approach to critical reading and writing espoused in the book, and alternative dissertation structures. Here the authors respond to the development of a range of different dissertation structures, providing guidance to the writer in moulding their critical reading and writing to a variety of shapes and styles of dissertation, including specifically cumulative structures, parallel structures and combined structures.

Throughout the volume there are clear diagrams and tables, a range that is expanded in this edition. The layout assists in focusing on the text, rather than distracting from it; for example there are a series of ‘mental maps’ to help the reader to focus on specific aspects of critical reading and writing, including the ‘tools for thinking’ (p84) and ‘reasons for conducting the research’ (p99). Sometimes the same diagram is used in a number of places, but with different parts highlighted or greyed out, thus enabling the reader to immediately understand the contribution of that section to the overall argument. The case studies and examples provided throughout are engaging and appropriate; chapter 12, for example, being a very detailed ‘worked example of a critical analysis’ in which the principles which have been set out are put into practice.

The focus of the book is clearly on reading AND writing, and the relationship between these two. The reader is guided through the overarching process of engaging critically with what has been written, the analysis of that, and the production of a new writing in a very clear and systematic way.  One of the key topics covered is the ‘anatomy of a convincing argument’. The authors guide the reader through worked examples, differentiating between opinion on the one hand, and convincing argument on the other. Key to this, they argue, is that a convincing argument is supported by adequate warranting; something which is achieved ‘when you, as the reader are satisfied that there is sufficient evidence and that this evidence is of an appropriate kind’ (p39). It is comforting, and reassuring, to see that Wallace and Wray have clearly followed this advice in their own work here; there is a clear coherence between their suggestions and the structure and style of the book itself.

The companion website (the URL is given prominently in the book) hosts a range of materials, including videos of the authors discussing key concepts, some useful templates and checklists, and a number of worked examples of critical analysis. These resources are of good quality, and support the content of the book very well.

Overall then, this third edition, which really is new and improved, is an excellent book, which will be of interest – like its antecedents- to postgraduate students and their supervisors. As the authors suggest, the book could very well be used as a class text book, as a ‘handbook from which supervisor and student can work side by side’ (pxi) and as a self study guide. However, the book has a wider readership than postgraduates within the social sciences alone. Certainly, there are many parts of the book, and topics covered, that would be helpful to undergraduate students, especially those engaged in their dissertations. Additionally, the book would appeal to those who are early in their careers as researchers who perhaps want to hone specific skills within their critical reading and writing. Although aimed ‘primarily at social sciences’ (pxi), many of the topics covered could equally be applicable to students and researchers in other related disciplines, including, perhaps including history, philosophy, theology and others.


Author profiles

Dr Jonathan Doney

British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow

Jonathan Doney has a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellowship which focuses on the introduction and continued presence of compulsory Religious Education (RE) in the English school curriculum in the period between 1944 and the early twenty-first century. He is based at the University of Exeter.

University of Exeter