Critiques are formal evaluations based on thorough and systematic investigation. They’re often performed on:
- Creative works – fiction, poetry, creative non-fiction, film, works of art, or art exhibits
- Research – book length academic or public scholarship, journal articles, presentations, or studies
- Concepts, theories, or philosophies – prevailing philosophical or social trends (Ex. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit).
Your task in writing a critique is to do more than deliver a personal thumbs up, thumbs down or mixed results assessment. Successful critiques present responsible, critical thinking to deepen the audience’s understanding of a particular work and exemplify how to engage with works of that type in general.
Successful critiques start with a thorough and accurate understanding of a work. Before you begin to write, read/view the work carefully (you may need to do this several times), take notes, and make a plan.
You’ll need to collect some important information about the work you’re critiquing.
- What is the basic thesis or claim? Can you summarize it in a few sentences?
- Who is the intended audience? Is this target audience identified explicitly or implicitly?
- Is the work’s purpose successfully achieved? Why or why not?
- What unstated assumptions underlie the argument?
- What issues or arguments are overlooked? Are the facts presented accurate, relevant and current?
- What is the work’s significance? How does it add to our knowledge or understanding of a subject?
Once you have a thorough understanding of the work you are critiquing and how it is constructed, you are ready to write a draft. The sections below explain the basic parts of most critiques, in the order in which they generally appear: an introduction, body, and conclusion. (Of course, you should follow any specific guidelines from your instructor if writing for a class or consider sample critiques if you’re targeting your work for a particular publisher or journal.)
An introduction to a critique should contain the following information:
- what you are critiquing
- its author(s)
- its main point
- your thesis, which should state your position on the work and indicate your main supporting points
The thesis in the example below takes the position that Jerke’s claim about a holistic approach to urban development is believable. The main supporting points are that his evidence is (1) adequately researched and (2) is convincing.
Ex. Jerke provides adequate research and convincing evidence to support taking a holistic approach to future urban development projects.
Besides the thesis, use your introduction to provide context to help your readers understand the relevance or appeal of the work and your critique of it. This background material might include the following:
- a brief summary of the source; state the work’s main claim and describe the most important supporting point of evidence used to support the claim
- an explanation of why the subject is of current interest
- biographical information about the author(s)
- an account of the circumstances that prompted the production of the work
- a reference to the intended audience
Once you have informed your readers of your thesis and provided enough context for them to easily understand your critique, you are ready to move on to the body of your paper.
The body of a critique generally consists of two sections, an analysis and an assessment.
The analysis should be a fair and objective evaluation of the work based on its effectiveness in achieving its purpose or proving its thesis given its target audience. Avoid using language that sounds like a personal attack. To keep the analysis manageable, focus on two or three specific major points. Base your analysis on one (or more) of the following criteria:
- Is the information accurate? Current? Significant? Interpreted fairly?
- Were terms defined clearly?
- Is the argument logical?
- Does the author include sufficient evidence in support of claims?
As the example below shows, an impartial analysis reveals that Jerke omitted notable failures in his discussion of urban development.
Ex. Jerke claims that good design can revitalize a run-down urban area, providing some dramatic examples of buildings that changed whole communities for the better. But he only mentions exceptional projects, omitting some notable failures.
The assessment is your judgment of the work. What do you agree or disagree with? Why? When possible, tie these reasons to assumptions—both the work’s and your own. What you say in this section develops your thesis, which you stated in brief form in the introduction.
Ex. Jerke delivers a convincing argument that future planners should take a holistic approach to investment in new projects. He enumerates the benefits of holistic design to the community, the most import of which is enhancing the economy and improving the quality of citizens’ lives.
Once you make an assessment, in this case that the argument is convincing, provide supporting evidence from the work. In this example, how does Jerke convince you that the holistic design approach will lead to economic growth and improve citizens’ quality of life?
State your conclusions about how well the work achieves its aims and your reactions to it. Present a final summary on the work’s strengths and weaknesses and consider its overall value in the field.
Behrens, Laurence, ed. Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. New York: Harper Collins, 1994.
Wilhoit, Stephen. A Brief Guide to Writing from Readings. 2nd Ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2001.