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How to Write a Critical Essay

A critical essay, put simply, is a scholarly composition in which one evaluates, interprets and analyses a subject. The critical essay is a staple of academic writing. Invariably critical writing engages in argumentation: in making logical connections between premisses and conclusions.

Asking Questions

A good way to begin think about critical writing is as an interrogative form of enquiry – in other words, it asks questions. Most of the time, the questions asked are: how and why? Say you are analysing a natural phenomenon on, the hibernation patterns of brown bears for instance. First of all we would ask how do bears hibernate (what are the biological processes at play); next we would ask why do bears hibernate in this way (what are the environmental causes which instigate these biological processes)?

Critical writing will adopt an analytical approach, delineating the broader details before progressing to more concise examination. In our current example of hibernating bears, we would detail the biological processes thus: a dropper body temperature; reduced heart rate; muscle atrophy; and protein recycling. Again, these are quite broad observations – yet they are more precise than simply to say “bears hibernate”. Note how we have broken down the overall concept of hibernation into various component parts. Next we would go into even closer detail, perhaps at biochemical processes at play in the above biological phenomena. Here we might cite processes of metabolic depression in endotherms, employed as a mode of energy conservation during periods of nutritional scarcity. We have thus progressed to a far more precise mode of expression, incorporating scientific jargon and terminology which demand some specialist knowledge to understand. This is exactly what you want to be doing with a critical essay.

Be Appropriate in Scope

Depending on the expected complexity of the essay, you need correctly to judge how much depth is required of you. For, the process of critical writing is cited allows for infinite layers of added complexity. It is perfectly possible to break down the biochemical processes of hibernation into molecular processes; to break molecular processes into atomic processes; to thereafter progress to quantum processes – and so on it goes.

However, we need to set boundaries the limits of relevance. While it would not be inaccurate to observe, of a bear’s heart, that electromagnetism induces the electrons within its constituent atoms to bind together, thus enabling the process of reduced heart rate to occur, this does not really help us to understand hibernation. While there is an irrefutable cause-and-effect relation between particle physics and biological processes, the distance between the cause and effect is so vast on this occasion as to be irrelevant to our scholarly concerns.

So, to recap, critical writing is all about dissecting a topic, examining the individual components, and, with an evaluative eye, explaining how these components fit together.

A Question of Style

Critical essays follow very well established conventions of style. The prose must be objective and analytical, using a passive voice which emphasises logical reasoning. This is not a place for voicing opinion or displays of emotion. A critical essay is written in a calm, collected voice.

Accordingly (unless expressly instructed to do so by your teacher) you will generally want to steer clear of constructions such as “I think”, “in my opinion”, “I believe”. These are all indicators of a subjective as opposed to objective point of view. Moreover they shift the emphasis onto the author as opposed to the topic being discussed. Similarly, you want to avoid informal or idiomatic language, terms such as “till” (until), “how come” (why), and the like – as well contractions, such as “don’t”, “won’t”, and so on. Basically you want to keep as close to standard, formal English as possible.

Content of a Critical Essay

Critical Essays are extremely common in scholarly work and follow much the same format across the board of disciplines.

Introductory paragraph

The introduction would certainly include a thesis statement, a brief outline of the paper’s main approach and argument, probably including a summary of the author’s overall objective. This paragraph sets up expectations for the reader which the rest of the essay must necessarily fulfil.

Argument body

The argument body is where we present our evidence and analyses; it is the meat of the essay. This is where we have the opportunity to go into detail, to unpack the argument at hand. This is where a mastery of critical analysis will be essential: the ability to pull the topic apart, thus to impose added layers of complexity upon it.

By “adding complexity”, we are essentially a nursing deeper and more nuanced layers of meaning; making more complex by adding detail. Make sure that your analyses are always geared toward the primary thesis objective (this is where issues of scope and relevance come in).

Each paragraph wants to connect logically to the next, pushing the overall argument in one overall direction (toward the conclusion).

The Conclusion

The purpose of the conclusion is to reiterate the main argument, reminding the reader of the core components, strengths and weaknesses. Hence it relates the most important evidence and analyses you have brought to bear. This is not, however, just a repetition or summary of the thesis statement; rather it is an affirmation of the thesis statement in light of the evidence which the argument body has presented. The conclusion should demonstrate how your essay has met the expectations which the introduction established.

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