Characteristics of a Critical Essay

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A critical essay is a form of academic writing that analyzes, interprets, and/or evaluates a text. In a critical essay, an author makes a claim about how particular ideas or themes are conveyed in a text, then supports that claim with evidence from primary and/or secondary sources.

In casual conversation, we often associate the word "critical" with a negative perspective. However, in the context of a critical essay, the word "critical" simply means discerning and analytical.

Critical essays analyze and evaluate the meaning and significance of a text, rather than making a judgment about its content or quality.

What Makes an Essay "Critical"? 

Imagine you've just watched the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. If you were chatting with friends in the movie theater lobby, you might say something like, "Charlie was so lucky to find a Golden Ticket. That ticket changed his life." A friend might reply, "Yeah, but Willy Wonka shouldn't have let those raucous kids into his chocolate factory in the first place. They caused a big mess."

These comments make for an enjoyable conversation, but they do not belong in a critical essay. Why? Because they respond to (and pass judgment on) the raw content of the movie, rather than analyzing its themes or how the director conveyed those themes. 

On the other hand, a critical essay about Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory might take the following topic as its thesis: "In Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, director Mel Stuart intertwines money and morality through his depiction of children: the angelic appearance of Charlie Bucket, a good-hearted boy of modest means, is sharply contrasted against the physically grotesque portrayal of the wealthy, and thus immoral, children." 

This thesis includes a claim about the themes of the film, what the director seems to be saying about those themes, and what techniques the director employs in order to do so. In addition, this thesis is both supportable and disputable using evidence from the film itself, which means it's a strong central argument for a critical essay.

Characteristics of a Critical Essay

Critical essays are written across many academic disciplines and can have wide-ranging textual subjects: films, novels, poetry, video games, visual art, and more. However, despite their diverse subject matter, all critical essays share the following characteristics.

  1. Central claim. All critical essays contain a central claim about the text. This argument is typically expressed at the beginning of the essay in a thesis statement, then supported with evidence in each body paragraph. Some critical essays bolster their argument even further by including potential counterarguments, then using evidence to dispute them.
  2. Evidence. The central claim of a critical essay must be supported by evidence. In many critical essays, most of the evidence comes in the form of textual support: particular details from the text (dialogue, descriptions, word choice, structure, imagery, et cetera) that bolster the argument. Critical essays may also include evidence from secondary sources, often scholarly works that support or strengthen the main argument.  
  3. Conclusion. After making a claim and supporting it with evidence, critical essays offer a succinct conclusion. The conclusion summarizes the trajectory of the essay's argument and emphasizes the essays' most important insights.

    Tips for Writing a Critical Essay

    Writing a critical essay requires rigorous analysis and a meticulous argument-building process. If you're struggling with a critical essay assignment, these tips will help you get started.

    1. Practice active reading strategies. These strategies for staying focused and retaining information will help you identify specific details in the text that will serve as evidence for your main argument. Active reading is an essential skill, especially if you're writing a critical essay for a literature class. 
    2. Read example essays. If you're unfamiliar with critical essays as a form, writing one is going to be extremely challenging. Before you dive into the writing process, read a variety of published critical essays, paying careful attention to their structure and writing style. (As always, remember that paraphrasing an author's ideas without proper attribution is a form of plagiarism.)
    1. Resist the urge to summarize. Critical essays should consist of your own analysis and interpretation of a text, not a summary of the text in general. If you find yourself writing lengthy plot or character descriptions, pause and consider whether these summaries are in the service of your main argument or whether they are simply taking up space. 
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    Valdes, Olivia. "Characteristics of a Critical Essay." ThoughtCo, Apr. 16, 2018, thoughtco.com/what-is-critical-essay-1689943. Valdes, Olivia. (2018, April 16). Characteristics of a Critical Essay. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-critical-essay-1689943 Valdes, Olivia. "Characteristics of a Critical Essay." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-critical-essay-1689943 (accessed April 24, 2018).