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March 19, 2024

Writing a Critical Essay

Writing a Critical Essay

A critical essay is different from a regular essay in that it focuses on a critical analysis of a work of literature and your interpretation of it.

Elements of a critical essay:


  • You should introduce the author and the title of the work to be discussed.
  • Know when to italicize titles and when to use quotation marks around titles (see The New McGraw-Hill Handbook).
  • You should have a thesis statement (position/argument about the literary work).


  • Begin body paragraphs with topic sentences. They must relate to thesis statement and connect to the literary work being discussed.
  • Include details, events, and quotes from the story or work being discussed

You must be selective in determining which events relate to your thesis statement. Avoid a plot summary.  Remember, you will not tell your reader everything that happens in the literature.  Rather, you must focus on your thesis statement. The heart of the essay is you – your ideas.  The events from the story merely explain how your interpretation is valid.

Writing a Critical Essay

Writing a Critical Essay


  • You must rename the author and work in a rewording of your thesis statement.

The Writer as Reader:  Reading and Responding

Reading as Re-creation:  When you read something, you, in a sense, re-create it according to your own experiences.

Making Reasonable Inferences:  You should attempt to understand what the author is trying to say.  Look up unfamiliar words.  “Tante,” for example, in Kate Chopin’s short story “Ripe Figs” might be unfamiliar to you.  You must look up words and language if you do not understand them.

Look for indeterminacies (passages that are open to various interpretations) and gaps (things left unsaid).

Since you will be studying the works I have assigned and writing about some of them, you need to be sure you have some understanding as to what they are about.  You may want to make notes to help you understand the connections between events during the story or certain images.  This is called being a critical readerMAJOR HINT FOR THE RESEARCH PAPER: as you read, take notes or mark pages that you think may be significant or have information that you may want to use in your paper.  This step will save you time when you are drafting the body paragraphs of your research paper.

Writing a Critical Essay

Some things to consider while you are reading

Writing is very personal.  When you write, you make the private self become public.  Consider this in regard to the author of the work:

  • Read a biographical sketch of the author, if one is available. Many of the works in the Literature for Composition textbook contain brief biographical sketches of literary figures.
  • Try to determine the “speaking voice” in the work (voice of the speaker).

In normal conversation, you can determine the “speaking voice” of someone through inflections in the voice, the volume, the pitch, and also through body language.  However, when it comes to writing, the use of language does not always properly convey feelings.

The “speaking voice” in any work of literature is the role or player’s part chosen by the author in the drama he is creating.  When you read something, ask yourself, “What kind of voice is addressing me?”

Other things to consider:

  • Tone – the relationship between the speaker and the audience
  • Attitude – the relationship we sense between the speaker and his subject- matter (how he feels about it)
  • Audience – can be the reader, something, or someone else mentioned (Sometimes, in poetry another character is introduced and the speaker is addressing that character.
  • Things to consider when reading “Ripe Figs” in Literature for Composition, pages 3-4:

What kind of voice is addressing you?

Describe Babette.  What about Maman?

What is the subject matter of the story?

Who is the audience?

Writing a Critical Essay

The Reader as Writer:  Drafting and Writing

The Process of Writing a Critical Essay

Ways of Formulating Ideas for a Thesis Statement:

  • Annotating a Text – marking up the book with your own personal notes
  • Brainstorming – writing whatever comes to mind; not necessarily in paragraph format
  • Focused Free Writing – having a prompt (question) and you respond by writing on that prompt
  • Listing
  • Asking Questions – asking questions about plot, characters, or things that puzzle you
  • Keeping a Journal

Being a Critical Thinker:

  • Scrutinize your assumptions
  • Test the evidence you have collected (even looking for counter-evidence)
  • Revise your thesis if necessary. The thesis statement is the idea that will be asserted and argued.  See Chapters 1 and 2  in the Literature for Composition book for a discussion of weak and strong thesis statements. Also see the PowerPoint on Writing about Literature in your Course Documents folder. APA.

Writing the Draft:

  • Make an Outline
  • Revise when necessary, focusing on unity, organization, clarity (quotes/details), polish (language)
  • Use a computer if at all possible