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

    - "When we write a critical essay on a text, we read the text over and over and look at it every which way in the hope of seeing something aslant that we could not see directly. Every further reading has to deal with our previous readings: we write, then, from impressions which are already a palimpset. We assume that the latest reading is best, richest, issuing from a greater experience of the text. . . . Most books are content to be read once, they do not claim to be worth reading twice. Literature claims to be worth reading twice."
    (Denis Donoghue, "The Good Soldier," in England, Their England: Commentaries on English Language and Literature. University of California Press, 1988)
  • 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."
    (Robert DiYanni, Literature: Reading Fiction, Poetry, and Drama, 5th ed. McGraw-Hill, 2002)

    - "A critic's work should be used only when it furthers your own understanding. You should quote or paraphrase a critic or scholar only in three situations:
    1. When the critic makes a point so well that it is worthy of repetition. . . .
    2. When the critic supplies you with an idea, a fact (not of common knowledge), a method of presentation, or an opinion that is not your own but whose truth you both recognize and need for your own essay. It is any scholar's duty to acknowledge the intellectual debt by quoting the critic and/or noting the source of the observation.
    3. When you believe your own evaluation needs support. By quoting a critic, you are saying indirectly, 'See, I'm not alone in this belief. X believes it too!'"
    (David Bergman and Daniel Mark Epstein, The Heath Guide to Literature. D.C. Heath, 1984)
  • 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 rancour, 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."
    (W. J. Dawson and C. Dawson, The Great English Essayists. Harper, 1909)

  • John Updike on Writing Criticism
    "Writing criticism is to writing fiction and poetry as hugging the shore is to sailing in the open sea."
    (John Updike, Foreword to Hugging the Shore, 1983)
  • 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."
    (Dave Barry, "College Admissions." Dave Barry's Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book. Doubleday, 1985)