A friendly, step-by-step guide to writing a critical essay, so
DON’T LOSE THIS!!!
1. Browse and choose your selection(s) of literature.
Remember, your primary selection must be first cleared with me. You should choose a work of short fiction or poetry. I advise against using a novel, as they are much too long to handle in a 2-3 page paper. In college or AP class, however, novels will be fair game.
2. Read your chosen literature.
I’d read through it a couple of times (assuming it’s not a novel!). For the first time, just read for an overall sense of the selection to get an idea what it’s about. Record your initial impressions and observations of it.
Read through again, looking for what caused your impressions and taking notes on the specific details that influenced those impressions. The odds are high that these details are actually the literary elements such as imagery, symbolism, tone, characterization, etc. that will serve as evidence for your thesis.
3. Choose a working thesis.
A THESIS IS NOT A GENERIC OBSERVATION ABOUT LIFE AND LITERATURE. A THESIS CONSIDERS AN ISSUE AND/OR INTERPRETATION RELEVANT AND SPECIFIC TO THE WORK YOU HAVE CHOSEN—
IT IS AN INTERPRETATION OF THAT TEXT.
Ask specific questions of the text or author. These questions should begin with “why” and/or “how.” For example, remember your initial impressions? How did the author use language to create that impression or observation (remember those pesky literary devices)? How does he or she create imagery and what does that imagery symbolize? How does this symbolism contribute to the meaning of the text. Why does it mean this??? You might also ask how the writer handles characterization or setting and what effect this has on the overall meaning of the work.
These are just two examples. Remember, your thesis shouldn’t be a bland observation, but rather it should reveal insight and understanding, be specific and unique to your chosen subject, and, above all, NOT BE A STATEMENT OF FACT. A THESIS IS NOT TRUE UNTIL YOU PROVE IT SO.
4. Build your case.
Go back to the text and find language that supports and contextualizes your thesis.
Provide quotes so your reader can see what you see, then analyze those quotes so your reader can think what you think. This will form the body of your essay.
At all times your discussion should be mindful of your thesis, should refer back to your thesis, and should directly develop your thesis. When analyzing evidence, always analyze in the context of your thesis—never let your reader forget the purpose and focus of the essay. If you only mention your thesis twice, once in the introduction and once in the conclusion, you are not doing your job as a writer. Finally, don’t assume a reader will make the connections you make. Like in math or science, show your work! And don’t forget to save the best argument/evidence for last. Readers remember best what they read first and last.
5. Provide the Packaging.
Like in any court case, even with all the testifying and analysis of evidence, the jury often is influenced by the opening and closing arguments. A good introduction provides all the background and context necessary for understanding the relevance and appropriateness of the thesis and therefore the paper as a whole. This is where you provide any information you deem helpful for understanding your subject. Think of it as bringing your readers up to speed so they may effectively join a conversation. Consider writing the introduction after your write the body of your paper. That way you will know what you need to introduce.
Write the conclusion last. Sometimes you will find your initial thoughts were not supported by the evidence. This is acceptable. Either reflect on your change of mind or go back to the beginning and change your initial premise. Most people have short attention spans, so consider reviewing the key points you made in your body. Avoid mechanical repetition of your thesis; rather, reword it to reflect your new understanding of the subject. Finally, provide any closing thoughts you think relevant to the paper. This is a good place to provide any evaluation of or personal response to the subject you have chosen.
6. Global revision.
Don’t confuse a complete paper with a finished paper. When you feel you have a complete paper, run it through the following checklist to confirm. If you can say no to any of these questions, then you need to revise until you can say yes.
1. Is the thesis clearly identified in the introduction?
2. Is the thesis complex and specific enough to provide the necessary focus to guide your
analysis to the required length?
3. Does your introduction provide the necessary context to do this?
4. Does the body of your essay provide a significant variety of direct quotes as evidence
as well as the analysis of those quotes?
5. Does your analysis directly develop and defend your thesis?
6. Are your paragraphs (and therefore your evidence) organized in a coherent and logical
manner so as to best convince the reader your argument is valid?
7. Does your conclusion provide thoughtful and satisfying closure?
7. Proofread. Only now is it safe to correct spelling, punctuation, etc. If you proofread first, what if you decide to make significant changes to your paper? Think of all that wasted work!
8. Submit paper, and don’t be surprised if you need to revise again!