Essay Writing Critically

Content of this article

  1. How to write a critical essay
  2. Preparation process
  3. Research
  4. Structure
  5. Finalizing an essay
  6. How to choose topic for a critical writing
  7. Samples

1. How To Write A Critical Essay

A critical essay seeks to provide an analysis or interpretation of either a book, a piece of art or a film. A critical essay is not the same as a review because unlike a review, it encompasses an academic purpose or goal. Students should not just aim at reviewing a book or a film, but should have an argument and include scholarly observations within their essay. Contrary to popular belief by a significant portion of students, critical essay writing is not about criticizing or focusing on the negative aspect of analysis. It is possible to have a critical essay which supports an idea or an author’s or director’s view regarding a particular theme. A critical essay is thus an objective analysis of a particular subject whose aim is to analyze the strengths or weaknesses of text, art, or a film. The above is of great importance, especially to students who think that critical essays are supposed to focus on the negative aspects of a subject.

The goal or purpose of a critical essay is to provide readers with an explanation or an interpretation of a specific idea or concept that an author, a painter or director included in their work. Additionally, writers can be asked to situate a certain theme in a book or film within a broader context. Essentially, critical essay writing involves weighing up the consistency of an author or director in trying to convey a particular message to their audience. It is thus vital to be keen and observant and note the different feelings as well as emotions conjured within a text, a film, or a painting. Writing a critical paper or criticizing might seem easy at first, but it can also be challenging.

Some of the purposes of a critical essay writing are as shown below:

  • Provide an objective account of an author’s, director’s or painter’s work.
  • Analyze the consistency of an author’s work in presenting their ideas.
  • Assess the consistency of an author’s work in maintaining and supporting their main argument or idea.
  • Present the strengths as well as weaknesses of an article.
  • Criticize the work of an author or a painter.

2. Preparation For Writing

Step 1: Understand the requirements

Students are often at fault for starting their essays without clearly understanding the instructor’s requirements. Instead of starting an essay immediately after reading the requirements, it is wise to seek any clarification from the teacher.

Step 2: Familiarize yourself with the primary source

The primary source is the book, film, or painting a student has been asked to write a critical essay about. Here, students are always advised to be careful and note everything within the source for purposes of making their essay better. If asked to write a particular book, film, or painting, students should read the book more than once, watch the film more than once, or look at the painting from different perspectives to understand the underlying themes.

Step 3: Take notes when reading/watching/assessing the primary source

Note taking is also vital to identifying the different patterns and problems within a text, film, or painting. While reading the text, or watching the movie, it is important to note the important concepts and ideas that an author or director or painter decided to incorporate within their work. The important points or aspects can indeed be overwhelming, and it is thus essential to ensure none will skip or escape the writer’s mind.

Step 4: Identify the main problems or patterns within a text, movie or art

After reviewing a text, or watching a movie or keenly analyzing a piece of art and taking notes, the next step is to identify the main problems or patterns that emerge from the notes. While noting the important aspects, certain issues or points are bound to emerge and stand out. Students thus need to be keen and identify these patterns and problems.

Step 5: Find solutions to the identified problems and patterns

The next thing after this is to try and find solutions for the identified problems and patterns. At this point, the writer should be developing their thesis statement and have their perspective clearly outlined.

3. Performing Research

Critical Essay writing is heavily dependent on how much research an individual does. In some instances, students make the mistake of depending on their primary source to write their critical essay. Unless otherwise specified by the instructor, it is always advisable to find other sources to help expand and increase the essay’s depth in content. Secondary sources help to increase an essay’s credibility and thus if needed should always be included.

Finding the right sources can be a problem and students often find themselves at fault for using unreliable sources. It is important to find genuine sources which offer reliable and accurate information lest one’s essay is filled with lies and inaccurate information. Just like how one is advised to take notes while reading or watching the primary source, it is also essential to take notes while going through the secondary sources. The notes help to determine or find patterns and points of correlation between the primary and secondary source. Understanding the relationship or the connection between the primary and secondary source is key to writing a decent critical essay. Below are some criterions for choosing the right secondary source:

  • Assess the timeliness of the source, that is, how current is the material.
  • Accuracy of the information. How reliable is the information within the source.
  • Coverage or relevance to the topic under study. Assess whether the material is of any importance or adds any value to the topic.
  • Evaluate the source of the information, that is, the author, painter, or director’s credibility.
  • Examine the objectivity or purpose of the information presented within a source. Here one assesses the possible bias within a text.

4. Critical Essay Structure

All essays follow a particular standard or format which includes an introduction, body, and a conclusion. These parts must be included in an essay to be termed as complete. However, before tackling these sections, it is important first to develop an outline for a critical essay. Critical essay outlining is essential because it provides students with a step by step guide to developing their essay.

If, for example, the topic under study is “the use of ethnic music by mainstream musicians” the outline should be as shown below:

The Use of Ethnic Music by Mainstream Musicians

Introduction

–    Explain how music keeps changing.

–    Provide a brief description of the use of ethnic music in mainstream music.

–    Pick an artist and explain why their music is of interest in this paper.

Body

–    Assess the change in music production of the artist.

–    Provide an analysis of how the artist has managed to use ethnic music.

–    Include the reception of the music of the above artist and how fans find his music.

Conclusion

–   Restate the argument or thesis statement while also mentioning why the focus was narrowed to the specified artist and their music.

–    Provide a summary of the main points.

Writing a Critical Essay Introduction

An introduction provides a description of the topic under study. While some students like providing a lot of information in the introduction, it is advisable to be brief and direct. An introduction should be specific and short but usher in the readers into the topic under study. Readers should be able to determine the writer’s focus or perspective without much fuss or without the need of reading deep into a text.  Background information is indeed of the essence, and it is thus important to include some information which will help readers to understand the entire essay.

Writing a Thesis Statement for a Critical Essay

A thesis statement reveals the main focus of the essay. Readers need to know the writer’s focus and hence the importance of a thesis statement. On many occasions, students often have flat and simple thesis statements which even though is not against any rules only help to reveal the lack of imagination or research involved. A thesis statement should be argumentative and provide readers with an assurance that they will indeed enjoy what they are reading.

Below are some tips to writing a good thesis statement:

  • Always include it in the introduction. A thesis statement should be provided early in the essay.
  • Avoid ambiguity and be as clear as possible.
  • Cliché sentence structures should be avoided. For example, “The main point of this paper is…” or “The focus of this article will be…”
  • Be specific and narrow down the statement’s scope.
  • Be original.

Writing a Critical Essay Body

While writing an essay, each sentence in the body should communicate its point. The above is almost a cliché, but it is indeed crucial to being a good critical essay writer. Each paragraph should support the thesis statement by including a claim or an argument and following it up with supporting evidence or sentences. Unless otherwise stated, critical essays should have three to six paragraphs and each of these is supposed to have five to six sentences.

Writing a Critical Essay Conclusion

A critical essay conclusion is not any different to other essay conclusions. When writing a conclusion for a critical essay, one should reiterate their stance or main argument followed by the main supporting arguments or points. Only a summary is needed here, and hence writers are asked to be brief and only include what is necessary. Readers should feel directly linked or impacted by the topic under study. An essay should leave the readers with the need or urge of finding out more about a topic.

5. Finalizing Essay

Once the paper is complete, it is essential to revise, proofread, choose a captivating title, and make appropriate citations. Revising an assignment is important because it helps to clarify the main point as well as ensures the readers’ needs are met. Having a purpose is indeed essential to writing a decent critical essay and it is important to outline it clearly. Proofreading helps one to correct grammatical errors and maintain their stance throughout their essay.

A reader’s interest is always enticed from the title and developing one is indeed an important aspect of an essay. Citations are also of the essence and help to avoid issues of plagiarism. Paraphrasing, and in-text citations should hence be taken seriously, lest a student’s work graded poorly.

6. How to choose topic for a critical analysis

Choosing a topic can be a challenge. Writers are, however, often advised to select a topic that they are familiar with and that will gift them with enough information to write the entire essay.

Below are some examples of critical essay topics:

  • Examine the literary and cultural context of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
  • Examine the use of satire in John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight Show.
  • How accurate is the assertion that satirical news shows offer people more credible news than some news channels?
  • How is the movie 21 Jump Street accurate in its depiction of high school life?
  • How does the recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre horror film use the aspect of suspense to create horror?
  • What makes/made comedy series such as The Big Bang Theory, Friends, and How I met Your Mother popular?
  • What unique features did the directors of The Big Bang Theory, Friends, and How I met Your Mother include that made their shows standout?
  • Video games contribute to a significant reduction in attention span of both children and adults.
  • Adoption of children by gay couples.
  • How does exposure to violent videos impact the temperament of young children?
  • How is fashion a central part of a person’s identity?
  • Analyze the role of women characters in the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
  • Examine the cultural and historical accuracy of the TV series Merlin.
  • How does the director and producer of Merlin make use humor throughout the TV series?
  • Examine how well the Game of Thrones books have been adapted into the TV series Game of Thrones.

7. Samples

7.1 First sample

7.2 Second sample

7.3 Third sample

For a printer-friendly PDF version of this guide, click here

It is common for feedback on student writing to focus on the need to engage more critically with the source material. Typical comments from tutors are: ‘too descriptive’, or ‘not enough critical analysis’. This study guide gives ideas for how to improve the level of critical analysis you demonstrate in your writing. Other study guides you may find useful are: What is Critical Reading?Using Paragraphs and The Art of Editing.

What is critical writing?

The most characteristic features of critical writing are:

  • a clear and confident refusal to accept the conclusions of other writers without evaluating the arguments and evidence that they provide;
  • a balanced presentation of reasons why the conclusions of other writers may be accepted or may need to be treated with caution;
  • a clear presentation of your own evidence and argument, leading to your conclusion; and
  • a recognition of the limitations in your own evidence, argument, and conclusion.

What is descriptive writing?

The most characteristic features of descriptive writing are that it will describe something, but will not go beyond an account of what appears to be there. A certain amount of descriptive writing is needed to establish for example:

  • the setting of the research;
  • a general description of a piece of literature, or art;
  • the list of measurements taken;
  • the timing of the research;
  • an account of the biographical details of a key figure in the discipline; or
  • a brief summary of the history leading up to an event or decision.

The difference between descriptive writing and critical writing

With descriptive writing you are not developing argument; you are merely setting the background within which an argument can be developed. You are representing the situation as it stands, without presenting any analysis or discussion.

Descriptive writing is relatively simple. There is also the trap that it can be easy to use many, many words from your word limit, simply providing description.

In providing only description, you are presenting but not transforming information; you are reporting ideas but not taking them forward in any way. An assignment using only descriptive writing would therefore gain few marks.

With critical writing you are participating in the academic debate. This is more challenging and risky. You need to weigh up the evidence and arguments of others, and to contribute your own. You will need to:

  • consider the quality of the evidence and argument you have read;
  • identify key positive and negative aspects you can comment upon;
  • assess their relevance and usefulness to the debate that you are engaging in for your assignment; and
  • identify how best they can be woven into the argument that you are developing.

A much higher level of skill is clearly needed for critical writing than for descriptive writing, and this is reflected in the higher marks it is given.

Finding your academic voice

When you engage in critical writing you are developing your own academic voice within your subject. Wellington et al. (2005, p.84) offer some suggestions for distinguishing between the academic and the non-academic voice. They suggest that the academic voice will involve:

  • “healthy scepticism … but not cynicism;
  • confidence … but not ‘cockiness’ or arrogance;
  • judgement which is critical … but not dismissive;
  • opinions … without being opinionated;
  • careful evaluation of published work … not serial shooting at random targets;
  • being ‘fair’: assessing fairly the strengths and weaknesses of other people’s ideas and writing … without prejudice; and
  • making judgements on the basis of considerable thought and all the available evidence … as opposed to assertions without reason.”

Wellington J., Bathmaker A., Hunt C., McCulloch G. and Sikes P. (2005). Succeeding with your doctorate. London: Sage.

Try to get into the habit of writing critically, by making sure that you read critically, and that you include critique in your writing.

Stringing together of quotes

It can be tempting to string together quotes to support an argument, feeling that the more quotes you include, the stronger your argument. It is important, however, to remember that you also need to interpret the quotes to the reader, and to explain their relevance, discuss their validity, and show how they relate to other evidence.

Strategic use of paragraphs

There are several ways in which you can use the paragraph to enhance your critical writing.

You can use paragraphs to make a clear and visual separation between descriptive writing and critical analysis, by switching to a new paragraph when you move from description to critical writing, and vice versa. This can help in:

  • emphasising to the reader that you are including both description and critical analysis, by providing a visual representation of their separation; and
  • pushing you to produce the necessary critical writing, especially if you find that your description paragraphs are always longer, or more frequent, than your critical analysis paragraphs.

A paragraph break can provide a brief pause for your readers within a longer argument; giving them the opportunity to make sure they are keeping up with your reasoning.  Paragraphs that are overly long can require readers to hold too much in their mind at once, resulting in their having to re-read the material until they can identify the point you are making.

You can also use paragraphs to push yourself to include critical writing alongside descriptive writing or referencing, by considering each paragraph almost as an essay in miniature. Within each paragraph you would:

  • introduce the point you want to make;
  • make the point, with supporting evidence;
  • reflect critically on the point.

If it’s worth including, it’s worth telling us why

A certain amount of descriptive writing is essential, particularly in the earlier parts of the essay or assignment or dissertation. Beyond that, however, there is a danger that too much descriptive writing will use up valuable words from your word limit, and reduce the space you have for the critical writing that will get you higher marks.

A useful habit to get into is to make sure that, if you describe some evidence relevant to your argument, you need then to explain to the reader why it is relevant. The logic of your explanation contributes to the critical component of your writing.

So, a sentence or two might describe and reference the evidence, but this is not enough in itself. The next few sentences need to explain what this evidence contributes to the argument you are making. This may feel like duplication at first, or that you are explaining something that is obvious, but it is your responsibility to ensure that the relevance of the evidence is explained to the reader; you should not simply assume that the reader will be following the same logic as you, or will just work out the relevance of the quote or data you have described.

Line of argument

So far this study guide has considered the detail of what you write. The other key element in critical writing is the overall structure of your piece of writing. For maximum effectiveness, your writing needs to have a line, or lines of argument running through it from the Introduction to the Conclusion.

Just as you have used paragraphs on a micro scale to present your critical writing, so you need to consider the ordering of those paragraphs within the overall structure. The aim is to lead your readers carefully through the thread of your argument, to a well-supported conclusion.

Example of effective critical writing

The text below is an example of good critical writing, and is based on essay material supplied by University of Leicester’s School of Psychology.

The author refers to the available evidence, but also evaluates the validity of that evidence, and assesses what contribution it can realistically make to the debate.

There are a number of inherent methodological difficulties in evaluating treatment efficacy in this area, and this has contributed to controversy within the research literature surrounding treatment outcomes for this group of offenders (Marshall, 1997). Firstly, while there is no doubt that the primary criterion of treatment success is a reduction in the rate of re-offending (Marshall et al., 1999), reconviction data does not, in isolation, provide a realistic representation of actual levels of re-offending by this group. It is well established that there is a discrepancy between re-offending and reconviction rates: the latter underestimating the number of offences committed (Grubin, 1999). Indeed, a significant proportion of offences committed by offenders are either unreported, or do not result in the offender being convicted (Abel et al., 1987).

You can see how the author is considering the available evidence, but also the limitations on that evidence, and will be taking all of this into account in drawing conclusions.

Checklist for an overall review of your writing

It is always worth taking a critical look at your own writing before submitting it for assessment. The kinds of questions that might be useful to ask at that stage are:

What is the balance between descriptive and critical writing?

While a certain amount of description is necessary to set the context for your analysis, the main characteristic of academic writing is its critical element. A useful way to check this balance in your own writing is to use two coloured pens and to mark in the margin whether the lines are descriptive or critical. The balance will change at different points, but you need to make sure there is enough of the colour that represents critical writing.

Why should the reader be convinced by what I’ve just written?

Remember that, just as you are asking ‘Why should I believe what I’ve just read?’, the readers of your work will be asking the same question of your writing. A critical read through your own writing may reveal gaps in your logic, which you can rectify before you submit it for the critique of others.

Is my conclusion trailed and supported sufficiently well by my preceding analysis and argument?

Check out the conclusions that you have drawn, then locate and check the supporting evidence you provide earlier on. This is a good way of making sure you haven’t forgotten to include a crucial piece of evidence. It is also a way of checking that, when your reader comes to the end of your writing, the conclusions make sense, rather than being a surprise, or an unconvincing leap of logic.

Have I included any unsubstantiated statements?

Sometimes a generalised, sweeping statement can slip through: the kind of statement that might be acceptable on conversation, but not in academic writing. There are three main ways of dealing with such statements:

  • present the evidence to support the statement
  • re-phrase the statement to sound more cautious e.g.: ‘it could be argued …’ or ‘this suggests that …’
  • remove the statement

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