Writing Critical Essays



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Writing Critical Essays

Writing a critical essay requires making an argument which defends or supports a thesis about some text(s), author(s), or school(s) of thought. The terms "argument, "thesis," and "critical" are not easy to define, but I will give it a try.

An argument defends or supports a thesis . . . An argument thinks through a problem or issue in a careful, informed, and logical fashion. This requirement distinguishes an argument from an opinion. Opinions are an expression of the intuitions or feelings we have about something, which are unsupported by reasoning or other evidence. The addition of "reasons" transforms an opinion into an argument, possessing a "narrative line," telling a plausible story, involving an explanation, or deducing conclusions from premises. Thus, a critical essay is not an opinion paper; it is an essay developing an argument. Don't ignore your feelings or intuitions; they may be the inspiration or source of an argument. Your task is to transform your feelings or intuitions into arguments by grounding them in reasoning and evidence.

A thesis is the point of the argument, the claim you want to make about an author, text, school of thought, or some topic. In a thesis, you state the view you wish to defend in contrast to other views. A thesis might involve the defense of a specific explanation of some feature of political life. You might develop a thesis as your specific answer to some controversial question. Or, a thesis might identify your particular critique of an author or school of thought. It is often helpful to state the thesis clearly in an introductory paragraph. By anticipating the conclusion you will reach, you make it easier for a reader to follow your argument because she knows the point of it from the beginning.

What makes an essay critical? I think a critical essay involves at least three tasks:

(1) an analytical task. Critical analysis requires you to take apart the apparent wholeness or unity of your subject/topic, and then to reassemble it in your own terms. Therefore, you should state clearly the argument or position of the author or school of thought in question. The point, however, is not to summarize an author's thesis, listing the main points of the argument. Rather, analysis involves an appreciation of the interrelation of the points; it involves judgment and selection. You need to show how the major points are interlinked to try to form the logical structure of an argument, supporting a particular thesis. Or, you can show how the points are interconnected into a more or less coherent way of understanding political life.

(2) an evaluative task. As a critical reader, you must determine the importance of an author's argument or point of view as well as its soundness. Important arguments help us "make sense" of our experience and our lives. You need to ask of the author, text, or perspective: (1) does it reveal some important feature of political life formerly hidden to us" And/or (2) does it help us understand the reasons for certain features of political life about which we were unsure or confused. The soundness of an argument depends on how well it is defended. A sound argument "compels" your judgment. It is easiest to define sound argument in the negative--in terms of the weaknesses it avoids. Important kinds of weaknesses you need to look for include: (1) faults in reasoning, where conclusions do not follow from prior steps in the argument, where steps in the argument are missing, where assumptions are not credible, or where an argument requires us to accept contradictory statements; (2) gaps in coverage or a concern with what is overlooked, ignored, not adequately accounted for by the author or school of thought--the silences in the argument; (3) faults in evidence, where there is little or no evidence to support the argument or where the evidence contradicts the statements made as part of an argument; and (4) prescriptive weaknesses, where the author fails to acknowledge his/her normative commitments or where normative commitments cloud the author's clear judgment or where ethical commitments or prescriptions for action are confusing or self-defeating.

(3) a constructive task. You should suggest alternative ways of looking at the issue(s) of concern and the advantages or importance of the alternatives. Even better, show how to correct mistakes in reasoning, evidence, and coverage. Fill in gaps and show the importance of doing so; suggest how to avoid a particular contradiction and how this changes the line of argument; note plausible alternative assumptions and the implications of these; fill in silences and suggest what we can now see that was hidden before; provide lacking evidence and highlight new and important conclusions we might then draw. Here, you must draw upon your theoretical or political imagination. By this phrase, I don't mean to suggest that you create alternatives or fill gaps out of thin air. Rather, your capacity to create or construct is grounded in the breadth of knowledge and depth of analytical skills you possess. Sometimes these three tasks may need to be performed comparatively across authors or schools of thought. That is, you may be called upon to evaluate the relative plausibility of assumptions, adequacy of definitions, quality of reasoning, and/or efficacy of plans for action in comparing authors, texts or perspectives.

When thinking about your own writing, you need to keep in mind that an excellent critical essay performs all three of these tasks very well. But, how do you know if you have performed these tasks well? The easy, but unhelpful, answer is that you just know a good essay when you see one.

The best strategy is to test drafts of your own essays using these criteria. Ask yourself: What is the point (thesis) of your essay? Is it stated clearly? Is it an important and interesting thesis? Is it challenging and deep? Hint: a thesis containing an evaluative and constructive element is normally more challenging and deep than one without. Have you defended the thesis well? Have you given "reasons" to support your case? Have you reasoned well? Does your presentation follow a logical progression? Or Does the story flow in the right order? Have you left out important steps? Does the "evidence" you bring to bear make your case?

When you put together or try to re-think an outline or when you re-read the first draft of your essay, think about how the various parts of it fit together. The introduction should inform the reader of the point and plan of the essay so that the reader can follow where you are going. In the body of the essay, each sentence and paragraph should do its work. What I mean by this is that each sentence should contribute its part to making the point of the paragraph. Each paragraph, likewise, should make its own small point which works as a segment of the larger argument you are making. Signposts that tell the reader what work a paragraph or two are going to do are often quite helpful. If some sentence or paragraph does not seem to be doing any work, why is it there? If some paragraph or sentence seems to depend on an idea you have placed later in the essay, consider adjusting the order of your presentation. Jokes told in the wrong order aren't funny. Arguments developing in the wrong order are often confusing and unconvincing. Re-thinking outlines and re-writing drafts accordingly should improve the quality of your final work.

Finally, a good conclusion is part summary and part drawing things together for the reader so she is reminded of the point of the essay, the major steps in getting to that point, and why that point is an important one. No one writes an excellent critical essay in a first draft. An essay that performs the analytical, evaluative, and constructive tasks well takes several drafts, as you critically evaluate your own work. Also, while writing is in part a solitary activity, it is intrinsically social in that it is normally meant to be read by others. Thus, you may want to share drafts with your peers, involving other readers in the process of critically evaluating drafts.

Borrowed from "Writing Critical Essays in Political Science," by David Blaney, Associate Professor of Political Science, Macalester College

http://www.cherin.net/AncientCiv/ACcritical.html



101 EVALUATIVE ESSAY
Text Analysis: Useful Words and Phrases
Overall Subject:
This text is mainly about ...................................

The overall subject of the text is .............................

The author is writing about ......................................

In his text Karen Horney explains her views about ..........................

Overall, the text deals with .........................................

In his text Karen Horney deals with the problem/topic of ................................

The subject dealt with in this work/text is .............................
Examining Arguments:
The main point of the first paragraph is ..................

The writer starts by explaining/talking about .......................................

First we are told why .................... /what the writer thinks about .................................

The first point made is about ................... /that ...................................

Karen Horney first focuses on .....................................................................
Further Arguments:
Another point that the writer makes is that .........................................................

After this Karen Horney talks about/discusses ...................................................

The next reason given for her view is that . ..............................................................

The second argument she produces is that . ..........................................................

Following this she goes on to discuss .......................................................................

This is followed by another/ a new argument .............................................................


Supporting Argument:
The author refers to .......................................

The writer supports this with figures/facts/statistics about ....................

To support this idea Karen Horney quotes the words/ideas of ....................., an expert in this field, who...............................

This is backed up by ...............................

Examples of .............are given to support this idea.

To strengthen her opinion Horney gives the example of ..........................................

The figures quoted by the author about ................ help to confirm her point of view.
Evaluating Arguments:
This is a very strong argument because .....................................

In view of ......................... it is difficult to agree/disagree with Horney.

This argument will be a lot more convincing if ......................................

The biggest weakness of this argument is that ......................................

This idea based on the writer’s assumption that/prejudice that .....................................

Horney supports her view well by.........................................................

We have to agree with this because........................................

There is strong evidence/support for this view in.........................................


Overall Evaluation/Thesis Statement:

Although I agree with the writer that ................., my opinion is that................................

I completely disagree with the author because I believe/think that .........................................

I agree with the writer because.................However although I agree with ................, I think that the writer is wrong when she says..................................

In my opinion this fails to mention several points such as/namely.............

In order to reach a definite opinion on this subject we need a lot more information about .............



Organization of the Essay
Introduction

Any background information

A short summary of the text; the author’s argument

Your thesis


Body


First point-What the author says


What you think-why the author’s point is valid or invalid




Second point-What the author says


What you think-why the author’s point is valid or invalid




Third point-What the author says


What you think-why the author’s point is valid or invalid




Fourth point-What the author says


What you think-why the author’s point is valid or invalid


Conclusion


Restatement of the author’s thesis followed by your own thesis

Final remarks (Optional)

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