I absolutely love film. But I don’t absolutely love bad films. So you can understand why I appreciate good film critics. They essentially save me from wasting my life in two-hour increments.
Although critics can be quite critical (read: negative) at times, they aren’t always this way. In fact, they can be downright gushing when a film deserves it. But when they go negative, it can be brutal(ly funny).
The critics tend to get a bad rap because of this, but they are just being honest—and well, the truth hurts sometimes. Perhaps this is one of the things your professor has taught you.
Like film critics, critical essays can be misunderstood because of the most common definition of “critical.”
1. expressing criticism or disapproval
2. of or relating to the judgments of critics about books, movies, art, etc.
3. using or involving careful judgment about the good and bad parts of something
Although the first definition is the most common, you will focus on the third when writing a critical essay. So let’s learn how to write a critical essay the most critical professor will love.
Focusing Your Critical Eyes
A critical essay is not a summary of a text. Instead, it’s a close analysis of what makes that text tick. This doesn’t mean there won’t be moments of summary. There will be.
However, summary will not be the main focus of your critical essay. That distinction belongs to your analysis of the work.
There are several ways to analyze a work for a critical essay, and they tend to fall into three common categories: evaluate, describe, and interpret.
This is your chance to be a critic in the most well-understood sense. When evaluating a text, you will be answering the basic question of whether the work is good.
Of course, this isn’t as easy as it sounds.
For example, you may believe, like Peter Keough, that the most recent Transformers movie was “the cinematic equivalent of being tied in a bag and being beaten by pipes,” but that doesn’t change the fact that the grunting guy doing squats at your gym saw it three times.
When evaluating a text for your critical essay, you will need to dig deeper, of course, focusing on the specific aspects of the text that you like or dislike, putting your evaluation into context, and using examples from other works to highlight the differences.
These types of critical essays can be a lot of fun, but your opinions and the reasons behind them must be clear to the reader.
A critical description will focus on the nuts and bolts of a text. In other words, you will analyze the strategies that the author used to tell his or her story.
This will involve focusing on certain elements of a story, such as the setting, characters, or themes. However, when describing something critically, you’ll often have to go deeper than this, focusing on the literary devices and techniques used in the text.
For example, how does Tolkien’s use of diction lend itself to The Lord of the Rings? Or how does Orwell use personification to better tell the story of Animal Farm?
Instead of focusing on whether the work as a whole is good or bad, you’ll be focusing on how the story works. This will often require some context, which means looking at the text through the lens of its genre and the time period in which it was written.
Instead of looking at the specific elements of a story or evaluating the quality of the work as a whole, an interpretation focuses on the message present in the text, which is usually the main reason the author wrote the piece.
When interpreting a text, consider these questions:
- What is the author trying to tell us, the readers?
- Is there something we can learn from this work?
- What was the author trying to say about the time in which the work was written?
- What does it say about the world we live in now?
These are all viable questions to answer when writing a critical interpretation of a text, but none of them are easy to answer—much like it’s hard to understand how anyone paid M. Night Shyamalan to make The Happening.
When tackling this type of a critical essay, you will need to read the text through a critical lens. This will add focus to your paper.
Want to see critical essays in action? Check out these examples for inspiration as you learn or work through the following steps on how to write a critical essay:
- A Critical Essay Analysis on the Catcher in the The Rye
- A Critical Essay on Billy Budd by Herman Melville
- Critical Essay – Jane Addams, Twenty Years at Hull-House
How to Write a Critical Essay the Most Critical Prof Will Love
In learning how to write a critical essay, you need to follow certain steps to writing that are, uh, critical to its success.
Choose the right text
Before you can decide how to write a critical essay that analyzes your text—as we talked about above—you have to choose the right text.
Some critical essay assignments include a specified text that will be the focus of your analysis. However, some professors leave the choice to you.
If this is the case, don’t procrastinate! Choosing the right text will require some thinking on your part, and most people don’t do their best thinking when they’re rushed. So start early, and ask yourself these questions:
- Am I already familiar with this text? If not, do I have time to start from scratch?
- Does the work have enough redeeming qualities to keep me from pulling my hair out?
- Do I find the subject matter engaging? Will my reader?
You don’t want to end up with a text that “does not improve on the sight of a blank screen,” as Roger Ebert once wrote about Mad Dog Time.
These essays take time, and you’re going to be much happier dedicating that time to something that you can focus your critical eyes on without weeping.
Read and take notes
The most important step in the process of learning how to write a critical essay doesn’t even involve actually writing the essay.
Once you decide on a text, it’s time to read and think critically about the text.
- What questions do you encounter while reading?
- What kind of impression does the text make on you?
- What techniques does the writer use?
Take your time. Read closely, pausing to think about what you’re reading.
It’s also extremely important to take notes. Mark or highlight passages that stick out to you so that you can come back to them later in the process. You will not regret it.
Write your thesis
While reading and taking notes may be the most important step in the learning process when you’re learning how to write a critical essay, the thesis is the most important sentence in the whole essay.
Now that you have read your text critically, you should have an idea of how you want to focus your essay. It’s time to decide whether you want to describe, evaluate, or interpret.
Your choice in this matter will affect your thesis statement.
- If you choose to describe, your thesis should make a claim based on the specific strategies the author used and how those strategies affect the text.
- If you choose to evaluate, your thesis will focus on the big question of whether the work is good and why.
- If you choose to interpret, your thesis will be a preview of the critical lens you used to analyze the text, as well as a preview of your findings.
Read again, seriously
Take the time to read the text again. And again. And again. You cannot read it too many times, especially if you’re learning how to write a critical essay for the first time. Each time you put your eyes to the work, you should be looking for answers to any previous questions that you had about the text.
Moreover, once you have a thesis statement, you can take an even closer look at the text for all important details related to the focus of your essay.
As you read the piece again (and again), continue to take notes, jotting down any thoughts or questions that arise, and highlight areas that can be quoted in your own writing.
Now it’s time to dive into everyone’s favorite part of writing: research! Love it or not, it’s necessary to a critical essay in the same way that bad date movies are necessary on Valentine’s Day.
“Valentine’s Day is being marketed as a Date Movie. I think it’s more of a First-Date Movie. If your date likes it, do not date that person again. And if you like it, there may not be a second date.” — Roger Ebert
Your research will focus on answering the questions you encountered while reading the piece, finding background information on the author or time period, and finding other works that can be used in comparison.
Outside research adds a level of legitimacy and context to your claims. You may also use research to find information that you believe should have been included in the original work.
Outlining is a great habit to get into as a student. No matter the assignment, an outline can give your ideas needed clarity before the writing actually starts. It’s like going to the grocery store—it’s easier to skip the list, but you’re more likely to forget something (or buy too much).
The outline is even more important with a critical essay, which involves many notes from the text and your own research. A simple outline will include the following.
Your opening paragraph should include the basic information about the text, including the title, author, and relevant background information.
You can also use this paragraph to include a brief summary of the text, focusing only on the points that will be relevant to the rest of your essay. Your introduction will end with, of course, the all-important thesis statement we talked about above.
The body paragraphs are where the magic happens in your essay. I like to use the PEER paragraph structure when writing a critical essay.
This includes the following elements:
- the Point of the paragraph (the topic sentence)
- an Example of the point (one of the quotes you highlighted in the text earlier)
- an Explanation of your example (an analysis of the quote, citing your research)
- a relevant Response (put your example in a broader context and relate it to your thesis)
The best conclusion paragraphs do not simply restate the thesis of the paper (though this will be part of your conclusion). Instead, you should use this space to expand on the broader significance of your argument—that is, why should we care?
Now that you know how to write a critical essay that even you’re most critical prof will love, let’s talk about crossing the finish line to get your essay hand-in ready.
When you’re writing an essay that picks apart the fine details of another person’s work, the last thing you want to do is make your own mistakes. Avoid this by taking the time to do a thorough edit.
Make sure that you double check your quotes and citations. I often edit papers at Kibin with misquoted sources.
There’s no excuse for this—unless, of course, you’re trying to simultaneously write your paper while watching Jean Claude Van Damme dance and dole out “inhuman amounts of comically exaggerated violence” in Kickboxer.
Moreover, you should take the time to become your own critic. What would someone write in a critical essay on your essay?
If you don’t have the time to do a good edit on your own, I highly suggest hiring a skilled editor at Kibin to do it for you. We’ll help you put the final touches on your essay before you must hand it over to your critical professor.