A critical essay may examine the work of another writer, artist or creator and judges how successful that work is in achieving its aims. Alternatively it may be based around a quote, piece of legislation or some other particular topic and require the student to examine that critically.
It is similar in some ways to both a review and a literary analysis, but it differs from those essay forms as well. It is more formal than a review and may examine things like other essays that are outside the scope of reviews. It differs from a literary analysis in that a literary analysis focuses more on how a work does something rather than assessing the work.
A thesis for a critical essay should state whether or not the work examined is effective and give a brief reason. Here’s an example. This is a thesis statement for a critical essay examining another essay:
The essay “Schools Must Change Now” argues ineffectively for more standardized testing because it cites flawed studies and contains several logical fallacies.
It’s important that a critical essay use specific examples from the work in question to illustrate its points. For the critical essay on “Schools Must Change Now,” for example, the writer would need to present some examples of logical fallacies from the work.
When writing about something more subjective such as a work of art, the writer must be careful to use concrete language. For example, it’s not enough to say that something is good or interesting. Words like that only tell about the writer’s own reaction to the work, not about the work itself or why it is good or interesting. A better approach would be to discuss how a particular painting technique is expertly done to make a painting good or that an essay introduces facts the writer was not aware of to make it interesting.
A critical essay may give a mixed assessment of a work, pointing out both its strengths and weaknesses. It’s more likely, in fact, that some aspects of a work will be stronger than others than that the work will be entirely good or entirely bad.
Although the writer may be describing at times a very personal reaction to a work, a critical essay is generally a formal piece of writing. This means that colloquial language as well as “I” and “you” should be avoided. For example, rather than writing “I didn’t buy the arguments in ‘Schools Must Change Now,'” the writer might explain than “The arguments in ‘Schools Must Change Now’ are poorly constructed.”
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