A critical essay is a kind of writing that requires its author to explore the strong and weak sides within a given subject.
Many students mistakenly think that critical essay writing is a task where they need to criticize a given subject (novel, poem, piece of art etc). In the meantime, criticizing the subject is not entirely the purpose of this essay type. As a matter of fact, you can write a critical essay that entirely supports and praises the subject of analysis. But this is not the purpose of this essay either – the true goal of the critical essay is an objective analysis of the subject and exposure of its strong and weak sides.
What is a Critical Essay?
A critical essay is a kind of writing that requires its author to explore the strong and weak sides within a given subject. This type of essay retains all the formal features of a classical 5 paragraph essay and consists of an introduction, several body paragraphs, and a conclusion.
The introduction should contain a thesis statement as well as catch the readers’ attention and provide some background on the problem. Body paragraphs expand ideas expressed in the introduction and provide more information to the reader on the writer’s stance. Finally, conclusion reiterates all the main ideas and shows how the introduction and the body paragraphs relate to the main topic of the essay. For a more detailed explanation of an essay structure, please see this article.
Why Is a 'Critical Essay' Called 'Critical'?
The critical essay has received its name because it requires its author to apply and demonstrate critical analysis while writing on a given topic. Critical analysis means that the author needs not only to make a claim, but also to back it up with a judgment from a reputable source or, better, scientific research. Putting it differently, the essay is not a highlighting criticism, but rather emphasizing critical thinking and critical analysis in the paper.
Critical essay writing is one of the important prerequisites for writing research papers. These two kinds of assignments are highly similar because both require research and preparation. Both of them need to be objective and back up all claims with arguments from reliable sources. Furthermore, research papers require that a theory should be analyzed from all aspects, including strengths and weaknesses (which is exactly the purpose of the critical essay). Therefore critical essay writing can be viewed as ‘training grounds’ for writing bigger project like research papers and dissertations.
The most critical differences in them are scope and sphere. Most typically, critical essays consist of 5 paragraphs, while a typical research paper often gets over 2 pages in length (10+ paragraphs). Another aspect to consider is that a critical essay is generally written on subjects like art, music, literature, while a research paper is written on a ‘hard-core’ research subject and requires a scholastic approach to writing, including language and formatting.
Critical Essay vs. Argumentative Essay
Both critical and argumentative essays are all about finding arguments to support a claim. Both of them take the basic essay format and structure. Both of them are objective and require linking to reputable sources to look more convincing. The core difference between these essay types is that they have difference objectives: the critical essay is expected to expose strengths and weaknesses of a paper, while the argumentative essay is meant to convince the opposition. Their core differences stem from their different purposes: critical essay highlights both sides of a problem (philosophically speaking, it uses the dialectic analysis), as it is meant to reveal the subject in its complexity; while the argumentative essay is looking for just ‘positive’ arguments, i.e. those that are meant to persuade the opposition.
The Structure of the Critical Essay
A well-formatted critical essay will succinctly state its thesis and then provide support for that thesis in a logical manner. It may be conceived of as a formal argument, with the conclusion stated early on in the paper as a thesis, and the evidence and logic that support the claim following the thesis. While the thesis and support are the two main components, the structure can be further broken down into five sections. In order, they are the following:
- an introduction
- a thesis
- a summary of relevant parts of the text being studied
- an argument that uses the text and supports the thesis
- a conclusion
The purpose of the introduction is to immediately introduce the subject at hand. The introduction should be succinct and state only the necessary information:
- the text or work being studied
- the author or creator of the text or work in question
- the main idea
All of this can often be stated in just one to three sentences, which provides room for including the thesis as the last sentence of the introduction. (The final sentence of the introduction is usually where the thesis is placed in any literary essay.) In just one sentence, a thesis should both define the scope of a paper and make an arguable claim.
Following the thesis, it's often wise to include a brief summary of the relevant parts of the text. The purpose of this summary is not to restate the text in a shorter form. Only pertinent passages or features should be included in this summary, as the primary aim of this section is to provide the evidence that will be used to form the argument in the rest of the critical essay.
The argument will form the largest portion of the critical analysis, comprising at least several paragraphs. In longer papers, the argument will take up several pages, possibly even several chapters.
Because a critical analysis is an objective study, the logical flow of the paper is of the utmost importance. To help readers of the essay follow the argument, each paragraph should make a specific point--and only one point--that advances the argument. Most paragraphs should start with a topic sentence and then have several sentences that support the topic sentence. In order to avoid extraneous details from clouding the logical flow, any paragraphs that do not directly support the thesis of the paper should be eliminated.
Once the argument has been made, the paper should close with a brief conclusion. There are several approaches to writing a conclusion. It may summarize the main points, explain how the thesis affects the reader, call the reader to an action or present a new question that the essay raises.
Language and Tone
Critical analysis essay requires the author to remain impartial and objective in the paper. The reader is not expected to see any of the personal beliefs of the author; if the author wants to make a claim, he or she is expected to make a reference to a reputable source. With the tone of the critical essay being objective, the use of first person pronouns (I, we, you etc) is discouraged, if not prohibited. Objective nature and tone of the critical essay can change depending on the audience (depending on the case, it can get lighter or even humorous).
While writing a critical essay, it is best to use the "claims and evidence" approach. The author should be specific about the points that are being made about a novel, play, poem or essay. Again, all claims need to be backed up with facts that your audience finds credible and appropriate.
Always refer to the original requirements. If they have not been explicated, ask your instructor to provide more details on them. Make sure you fully understand the purpose of this assignment and the set requirements. It’s always a better idea to ask questions before starting the actual writing. This part is critical to the overall project success, so please do not ignore the initial instructions. This stage is called pre-writing, and can be compared to laying the foundation of a building. If it’s solid, the entire building will be strong and will last forever; if it’s shaky and unstable, it will ruin the entire undertaking.
Once everything has been set and confirmed, proceed to the actual writing. Begin with the first draft and start a research in the background. Results of this research will then strengthen your argument and will make your critical essay effective. Once the backbone of your essay has been established, you can work on the wording. Ensure your essay flows and uses the language that is understandable to your target audience. In the end, run a spell checker to get rid of the typos and grammar mistakes. Finally, come back to read your paper again in a little while. If you like the final version and think you have expressed the ideas you were intending to express originally, - you are ready to submit your paper!
How Are Critical Essays Used
Critical essays are widely used outside of the classroom, although they go by other names. They're used in all of the following:
- article and book reviews
- critiques of political speeches
- written academic debates
- literary studies
Topic Ideas for Critical Essays
Critical essays can examine almost any text, as long as they make an interesting claim about a pattern or problem within the text. Here are a few examples of fruitful critical essay topics from a variety of works:
- how the politics of a political candidate are expressed in a particular speech
- how symbolism functions in a book
- how a fictional character's dialect affects your interpretation of them
- how the perspective of a book influences the way it's told
- how a particular work conforms to and differs from the standards of its genre
- what the meaning of a particular feature in a book is
These general ideas are just a few ways you may approach your text. As long as your paper makes an arguable claim and supports it with examples from the work you're studying, you'll have a good critical essay.
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