How to Write a Critical Essay

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

critical essay
English journalist William Cobbett (1763-1835), quoted by Judith Woolf in Writing About Literature (Routledge, 2005). (artpartner-images/Getty Images)

A critical essay is a composition that offers an analysis, interpretation, and/or evaluation of a text.

Usually intended for an academic audience, a critical essay often takes the form of an argument. Educators J. Richards and T. Farrell remind us that in this context "the word critical does not connote negativity as it does in everyday conversation; rather, it is used in its original Greek meaning, 'to separate' and 'to discern'" (Professional Development for Language Teachers, 2005).

See the examples and observations below. Also, see:

Examples of Critical Essays


  • Critical Reading and Critical Writing
    - "Reading critically means asking questions about what you are reading--questions about the meaning of the text and how that meaning is presented or about the author and his or her purpose for writing, for example. A critical reader does not simply accept what the author says but analyzes why the text is convincing (or not convincing)."
  • Writing Critically About Literature: Providing Evidence
    - "When you write about a literary work you will often attempt to convince others that what you see and say about it makes sense. In doing so, you will be arguing for the validity of your way of seeing, not necessarily to the exclusion of all other ways, but to demonstrate that your understanding of the work is reasonable and valuable. Since your readers will respond as much to how you support your arguments as to your ideas themselves, you will need to concentrate on providing evidence for your ideas. Most often this evidence will come in the form of textual support--details of action, dialogue, imagery, description, language, and structure. Additional evidence may come from secondary sources, from the comments of experienced readers whose observations and interpretations may influence and support your own thinking."
  • Evolution of the Critical Essay in English
    "[Samuel] Johnson was content to express personal opinions, and indulge strong prejudices, and among the early critical essayists of the 19th century, the same habit of thought was dominant. The critical essay was often an extended review of a book, in which the critic did not disguise his own personal rancor, and made little effort to interpret his author. In many instances, a book was used merely as an excuse for the publication of the critic's own opinions. Matthew Arnold was the first man to lay down the principle that no criticism of an author ought to be attempted without sympathy in the critic; that, in fact, criticism was less a polemic than an interpretation."
  • John Updike on Writing Criticism
    "Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea."
  • The Lighter Side of Critical Essays
    "ENGLISH: This involves writing papers about long books you have read little snippets of just before class. Here is a tip on how to get good grades on your English papers: Never say anything about a book that anybody with any common sense would say. For example, suppose you are studying Moby-Dick. Anybody with any common sense would say that Moby-Dick is a big white whale since the characters in the book refer to it as a big white whale roughly eleven thousand times. So in your paper, you say Moby-Dick is actually the Republic of Ireland. Your professor, who is sick to death of reading papers and never liked Moby-Dick anyway, will think you are enormously creative. If you can regularly come up with lunatic interpretations of simple stories, you should major in English."


Andrea Lunsford, The St. Martin's Handbook. Bedford/St. Martin's, 2008

Robert DiYanni, Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 5th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2002

W. J. Dawson and C. Dawson, The Great English Essayists. Harper, 1909

John Updike, Foreword to Hugging the Shore, 1983

Dave Barry, "College Admissions." Dave Barry's Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book. Doubleday, 1985

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Nordquist, Richard. "How to Write a Critical Essay." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, April 5). How to Write a Critical Essay. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "How to Write a Critical Essay." ThoughtCo. (accessed January 24, 2018).