Effective Critical Writing: An Introduction
Critical thinking delves beneath the surface of things, turning them into objects for study, interpretation, and judgement. The aim of critical writing is to express these thoughts.
My separate guide to close reading offers step-by-step instructions and a list of terms and principles.
In my YouTube video series, learn how to read and write about texts like a literary critic. There are videos on avoiding common grammatical mistakes, on turning ideas into arguments, and on quoting and citing other writing in your writing.
You might also find the writing-related posts throughout my blog worthwhile; they offer personal observations and unsolicited advice on the ideal writing environment, software, journals, mindsets, and habits.
1: Write a rigorous & thorough argument
- Always ensure that your argument deals with the terms and scope of the question posed to you.
- When you posit an argument, you need to illustrate it with strong and sustained textual evidence (and, often, secondary sources), linked together with your articulate and thoughtful analysis. Your personal judgments are only the beginning of an academic argument, when they are grounded in a sound knowledge of the text and its nuances, when they move from opinions to arguments.
- Literary criticism is neither wholly objective, nor wholly subjective. There are no right or wrong analyses, only well- and poorly-argued ones.
- A strong argument begins with an effective thesis statement.
- A paragraph should be like an essay in miniature, with a discrete (unique) purpose, and a beginning, middle, and end. It should begin and end with analytical statements, rather than with descriptions, paraphrases, or quotations.
- A strong argument uses clear and confident language to present its ideas and evidence, avoiding non-committal phrases like “perhaps” or “this might be interpreted to mean”. If you’re uncertain about your interpretation, buttress it with more (or better) textual evidence–or do some thinking about whether what you’re writing is what you truly think.
- When responding to a text, don’t simply retell the story or argument in your own words. Assume that the reader shares your well-earned mastery of the text. Weave the text’s narrative into the pattern of your argument and analysis. This usually means that you don’t need (necessarily) to stick to the author’s chronology of events: move laterally through the material, according to your own priorities. Make the plot serve your analysis, not the other way round.
- In sum, show the reader that you’re truly engaged with the both text and with the question(s) at hand.
- The thesis statement tells your reader (1) what you will argue, and (2) how you will argue it (what categories of evidence you will use).
- It is more than just a topic sentence or starting point.
- Here is a weak thesis:
- Shakespeare uses metaphors to express Romeo and Juliet’s feelings.
- Here’s a more effective version:
- Shakespeare uses the metaphors of beholding and reading, in Romeo and Juliet’s conversations, to express their desires and judgements.
- This is more effective because it’s explicit about which feelings you’ll discuss, and it tells the reader what evidence you’ll examine.
- In this YouTube video, learn more about writing an effective thesis statement. It’s the last of a four-stage process from annotating, to thinking, to filtering, to summarizing.
- Strong writers argue with the confidence that comes from resourceful use of evidence. Weak writers state and restate arguments to make up for faulty or absent evidence.
- One sure sign of weak argumentation is an abrupt shift at the end of a paragraph or essay from bland analysis and excessive quotation to over-confident assertions: “thus we see…” “therefore it is clear…”. This is too glib to be trusted: your job is to make it clear, transitioning smoothly between close readings of your chosen (few) quotations and natural conclusions.
2: Use clear, concise, & natural language
- Be active, engaging, and clear in your style. Critical writing is a highly self-conscious, if not paranoid, act: you write with an imaginary (and acutely critical) reader looking over your shoulder. Ensure that every word in a sentence needs to be there; superfluous words clutter the page and give the impression that you’re being evasive.
- The greatest challenge in critical writing is to present ideas you have spent many hours crafting and clarifying as if they occurred to you naturally, without excessive strain or effort. The same applies to the structure of your argument: while you need a logical argument, you must conceal the blueprints after you build the house. Avoid phrases which simply turn your point-form notes into prose, like “In this essay I will argue…” or “In conclusion…” or “The idea of appearance versus reality also appears in Act II, Scene 3.” Essays should show the product, not the gestation, of your ideas.
Analysis / Description / Paraphrase / Quotation
- Think of these four modes of writing on a spectrum: at one end, there’s a purely analytical statement (eg. “Hamlet is a play about epistemological uncertainty”).
- For more on selecting quotations, see here.
- At the other end of the spectrum, there’s pure quotation: words quoted directly from the text (“To be or not to be”).
- Description and paraphrase are modes between these two extremes: they tell the reader about the text in your own words–describing events and dialogue, paraphrasing speeches, and so on.
- You can see how these two modes allow for analytical leeway: you inform the reader what’s happening, and add your own analytical twist (eg. “Hamlet’s musings on Claudius’ guilt reveal his epistemological uncertainty”).
- What should you do with this information? Think of paraphrase and description as a way to balance analysis with description. All four modes of writing have a place in your writing, and both ends of the spectrum need each other: you need description to tell the reader what’s happening, and analysis to tell the reader what to think (or what you’re thinking). Use paraphrase and description to move between them, to make the distinction less overt.
Rather than saying, “In Hamlet, revenge is depicted as…”, say it outright: “Hamlet depicts revenge as…”.
Avoid the passive voice, where possible: don’t say, “Tybalt is killed by Romeo” when it’s more direct to say, “Romeo kills Tybalt.” Here are some resources on how to identify and avoid it, from the writing centres at Toronto and Purdue and UNC Chapel Hill.
There are exceptions to this rule, as to most: when you truly don’t know who did an action. It’s appropriate, even necessary, to ask (for example), “Where were these peaches grown?” If you don’t know where they grew, it likely follows that you don’t know who grew them.
Rather than writing, “It seems that Horatio is a loyal friend”, try the more direct, “Horatio is a loyal friend.” Avoid non-committal phrases like “perhaps” or “this might be interpreted to mean.” If you can’t strengthen an assertion with textual evidence, don’t bother making it.
Audience responses, which are notoriously unpredictable, are an exception to this rule. (eg. You can argue that a speech is designed to elicit sympathy, not that it will evoke sympathy from an audience.
Don’t shy away from your critical responsibilities, or pretend that you know something you don’t. Don’t tell your reader that “it is clear” or “it can be argued that” when your task is to make the argument or idea clear.
Ensure that every word in every sentence needs to be there. If you can remove it without changing the meaning, do so. The same goes for sentences within paragraphs.
The most elegant writing is also the most economical. Unnecessarily long words and wordy phrases strain the reader’s sense that you truly believe what you are writing, rather than cloaking it in unnecessary verbiage.
To improve the flow of your argument and the cadences of your sentences, try reading your early drafts aloud as you revise them. This technique also helps you avoid run-on sentences, in which you lose the original idea by the end of the sentence, a phenomenon I’m demonstrating in this very sentence, which is, if you are reading it aloud, already incoherent.
My assignments have maximum word-limits because it is far more difficult, and more important, to be concise than to be verbose.
Most writers love to fill space with words — the length of this web page is all the evidence you need. Many of those words are unnecessary verbiage, or words that merely take up space without contributing to your argument.
Here are some egregious examples:
- “For many centuries, Romeo and Juliet has been read by countless numbers of people.”
- Sure, and many of them have been reluctant undergraduates eager to impress their professors with claims of Shakespeare’s timeless genius or statements of self-evident literary history.
- “This play is an example of how society can dictate rigid lives and teaches us to step back and look at our lives apart from outside expectations.”
- Well, maybe. I appreciate the sentiment that literature can teach us to experience the world differently. But bland therapeutic pronouncements about text X teaching us moral lesson Y usually replace rigorous evidence-based arguments about that text.
- “For many centuries, Romeo and Juliet has been read by countless numbers of people.”
Specific terms & phrases to avoid
“This piece by Sir Philip Sidney…”
- Be precise and direct. In modern usage, ‘piece’ means a short article (“Your piece in the New York Times“) or brief artistic/literary compostion (a piece of music, of rhyme). Can everybody agree to use more precise words than ‘piece’?
“Through this text society learns valuable lessons.”
- No, individual readers read texts. They might together alter the social fabric, but society is not a hive mind: it cannot read or learn anything. As Margaret Thatcher said in one of her rare moments of critical lucidity, there’s no such thing as society.
These are words used mistakenly, in the place of a similar-sounding other words””often with amusing results. In Richard Sheridan’s play The Rivals (1775), Mrs. Malaprop commits this error all the time: “she’s as headstrong as an allegory [alligator] on the banks of Nile,” for instance. “Michelangelo painted the Sixteenth [Sistene] Chapel” is another example. Most student examples are more feasible (and less ludicrous) than that, and they tend to fall into the category of what Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1926) calls “the love of the long word.” This is a trap that students often fall into, in an effort to make their language sound impressive, at the expense of clarity, precision and directness: virtuosity for virtue, orientate for orient. H. W. Fowler also wrote The King’s English (1906), which begins with this advice: “Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.”
And this is Fowler’s advice on diction (word choice): “Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long.” Enough said.
3: Follow the rules of grammar
Grammatical errors are the easiest to fix, and are therefore the most exasperating to your readers.
My YouTube video, “Look Smart: Avoid Bad Grammar,” addresses the Top Ten most common grammatical errors: commas, semicolons, apostrophes, homonyms, inconsistent verbs, passive-voice verbs, vague pronouns, misplaced modifiers, dangling modifiers, and parallelism.
Specific matters of grammar:
- Avoid singular/plural errors when you’re trying to avoid gender-specific language. Rather than saying, “The reader understands that they are not given the full story,” say “Readers understand that they are not given the full story.”
- Write in the ‘timeless present’ tense, not mixing past and present verb-tenses. Don’t write “This was one of the recurring themes in the book. There are numerous moments when it appears.” Instead, use the present tense throughout: “This is one of the recurring themes…” etc.
- Don’t make semicolon errors; they are to be used only between complete sentences, or between articles in a list which consist of multiple words (eg. “Daniel Price addresses his sermon to three classes of readers: his dedicatee Charles; former members of Henry’s household; and young men who neglect their spiritual duties”).
- “Never” use quotation marks for “emphasis.” It’s not only an absurd misuse of this punctuation (whose purpose is to quote something from a source), it also suggests an ironic meaning for the highlighted word, which is the purpose of single quotations (eg. Shall we ‘deconstruct’ the zoo after our field trip?). The error of quotation marks for emphasis occasionally results in amusing ironies itself (eg. I “appreciate” your grammatical smugness.).
- For other amusing examples, visit The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks.
- Use two long dashes or two double-hyphens–not single-hyphens–when interjecting a parenthetical word or statement.
- Finally, join the campaign to end the two most pervasive errors in English grammar:
- it’s = it is (or it has), while its= the possessive form of the pronoun ‘it’
- For example: “It’s in its infancy.”
- plural forms of words very rarely require an apostrophe
- it’s = it is (or it has), while its= the possessive form of the pronoun ‘it’
Follow the MLA citation style. as outlined in the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. Always include a Works Cited section at the end of your essay.
Remember that you are citing authors, not editors: don’t list Romeo and Juliet under its modern editor, but under Shakespeare.Don’t introduce a sentence by saying ‘In Act III Scene 7, Enobarbus tells Cleopatra…”; rather, quote the character and then close the sentence with the citation (III.7.35). Remember that the citation always goes at the end of your sentence, even if the quotation ends in the middle.
Here are some of those idiosyncratic guidelines I mentioned in my note at the top of this page. Following these will make me happier when I draw your essay from the groaning piles on my desk.
- Do proofread carefully, especially a text you’re quoting from any source.
- Do include the following at the top of page one (not in a separate title-page): name, student number, date, course, professor, due date, word count, essay title, and question number.
- Do double-space your essay, with margins of at least an inch on all sides.
- Don’t justify the right-hand margin, which makes your paper look like a magazine article.
- Do include page numbers.
- Writing with style can also mean writing in style. Many students use Times New Roman font, without considering the aesthetic appeal of other fonts like Garamond or Georgia or Lucida. Anything but Courier, or one of those Baroque script-like fonts, makes for a more pleasant reading experience. But please: nothing smaller than 12 point, and no coloured text or paper.
- Finally, do give your essay an insightful title, rather than parroting the words in the question. (E.g. If the question asks you to analyze Falstaff’s sense of humour, don’t call your essay “An Analysis of Falstaff’s Sense of Humour.”)
Quoting Primary Texts
In my YouTube video, “Quote with Integrity,” you learn why and how to quote other people’s writing, in your writing. You also learn how to cite your sources, whether they’re prose or verse. And how to integrate that textual evidence smoothly into your analysis, and when to paraphrase it. Finally, you learn why plagiarizing sources in your essay is the equivalent of claiming that you and your friends recorded Rihanna songs in your garage.
How do you use quotations in your argument? Use them to support your claims and to return the reader back to the text at hand, especially in the midst of long analytical sections. Quotations show that you have done a careful reading and that your analysis can be phrased in the text’s own terms and language.
Try at all times to integrate quotations into your own prose. This effectively reassures your readers that they are reading a reliable account of the text, one that is almost interchangeable with it. I’m overstating the case somewhat, but when you adroitly interweave an author’s words and phrases with your own, you display a proficiency and adeptness that suggests your trustworthiness.
Integrating quotations begins with ensuring that if we removed the quotation-marks from your sentence, it would still be grammatically correct (more or less) and would still make sense. It’s jarring for a reader to switch syntactical gears mid-sentence: ease the transition.
Always proofread your quotations very carefully. If your transcription is wrong, can your interpretation be any more trustworthy?
Gratuitous quotations are equally tiresome. Remember when you quote a text, at any length, to JUSTIFY its presence in your argument. Why is it quoted, rather than paraphrased? The answer comes from your analysis, which interprets the quotation’s meaning and clarifies its purpose in the essay.
When you quote a text, you assume the responsibility to discuss particular details like its tone, syntax, and diction. When you quote verse (rather than prose) you must acknowledge the ends of lines, either by inserting line breaks ( / ) or by presenting the verse as it’s laid out in the quoted text. How do you decide which one to do? If you’re quoting within your own prose, use line breaks. If you’re using the block-quotation (indented) format, lay it out as it appears. When introducing a quotation, use the proper punctuation. You should also not use “quotation marks” for block quotations.
Here’s what I mean. In these two examples, the first instance uses the correct format. The wrong format follows below, with errors in bold type.
Note that in the first example I quote Lepidus within my own prose, because the speech is only two lines. For quotations longer than three lines, use the block format shown in the second example.
Also note that you should never use an ellipsis (…) at the beginning and ends of quotations. Only use them when you are replacing words in the middle of quotations (e.g. “Evils … to darken … his goodness” — wherein “enough” and “all” are replaced by “…”).
Responding to Caesar’s critique of Anthony’s revelry, Lepidus has a more indulgent view: “I must not think there are / Evils enough to darken all his goodness” (1.4.10-11).
Responding to Caesar’s critique of Anthony’s revelry, Lepidus has a more indulgent view, “… I must not think there are evils enough to darken all his goodness …“ (1.4.10-11).
Lepidus has a more indulgent view:
I must not think there are
Evils enough to darken all his goodness.
His faults in him seem as the spots of heaven,
More fiery by night’s blackness. (1.4.10-13)
Lepidus has a more indulgent view,
“I must not think there are / Evils enough to darken all his goodness. / His faults in him seem as the spots of heaven, / More fiery by night’s blackness” (1.4.10-13)
Quoting Critical Texts
Effective critical writing is both independent and original. It presents the results of your own critical engagement with a central question about a text, and the series of problems that arise from that question.
To achieve this, your writing must weave the ideas of other critics (quoted from articles and books) into your own argument. That is, it must use those critics to add complexity — not just support — to your argument.
A common problem in undergraduate essays is that critics feel slighted: students quote them briefly and then move ahead with their arguments, as if they were merely filling a quota. Think of them as fellow readers whose interpretations you are testing, not as talking-heads in a documentary you’re editing. Engage with each of the ideas you introduce; agree or disagree with them, develop them or depart from them””use any rhetorical method that suggests you are in conversation with them.
That’s why, for instance, you should always begin a paragraph with your own ideas, not with the words of Critic X. Your own ideas should always be at the forefront: they are stucturing the argument and determining the subjects of each paragraph.Similarly, end each paragraph with a summation of its subject (its argument in miniature)””not with another quotation, from any source.Speaking of documentaries, don’t introduce critics like they’re on a panel discussion (“In his 2001 book Managing Readers, William Slights of the University of Saskatchewan argues”). The convention is to integrate them more subtly (“William Slights argues that”), and to leave publication information for the Works Cited page.
Another common problem is the use of broad interpretive or “˜background’ ideas without attribution (e.g. “pilgrims were often poor,” or “Una represents Christian truth”). These are fine when you cite the source or critic you got them from (even, say, “English 408 Lecture on November 17th, 2008″), and then when you pull them apart and question their truth. But you should never accept them at face value, or (worse) base your argument on them. You have clearly done some extra research, which is good, but you can’t let that research go unattributed. If it’s from Wikipedia and you’d rather not say so, stop using Wikipedia and find the information from a more reputable source: usually a printed book, journal, or encyclopedia in the library. This means that yes, you have to go to the library to research your subject.
4: More general advice
The most common mistake among students is not allowing adequate time to complete an assignment. (Having been there, I can sympathize–to a point.) So plan your time carefully, particularly when you can anticipate weeks when many assignments will be due. Write your various due dates on a calendar at the beginning of each term, and plan in advance when you will work on each of them. As these dates approach, give yourself time to work on the assignment regularly: half an hour every day is a modest and thus an achievable goal. The final few days before the essay is due should be dedicated only to revision and editing–fine-tuning of what you have already written.Effective critical writing is never a last-minute endeavour. Good essays rarely emerge as “blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil,” to quote W. B. Yeats. If this doesn’t convince you, consider what Thomas Cogan, the High Master of Manchester Grammar School, wrote in 1584:
“nothing is more hurtfull than studying in the night. …Wherefore to watch and to be occupied in minde or bodie in the day time, is agreeable to the motions of the humours and spirites: but to watch and studie in the night, is to strive against nature, and by contrarie motions to impaire both the bodie and minde” (from The haven of health: chiefly gathered for the comfort of students).
- No writer’s desk should be without a good dictionary and thesaurus. Any acknowledged dictionary will do, but the Oxford Paperback Canadian Dictionary should be useful to English students in Canada. A thesaurus, when used judiciously, is another excellent resource for finding the words that will do justice to your ideas.
- The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory, 4th edition. (1998). Unparalleled.
- Fowler’s Modern English Usage, the longstanding standard authority on English usage, has been thoroughly revised by R. W. Burchfield (3rd. edition, 1996). It’s an excellent guide to common and particular problems, like ‘that’ vs. ‘which’, or ‘who’ vs. ‘whom’. And it offers such entertaining definitions as the entry for “pedantry”: “the saying of things in language so learned or so demontratively accurate as to imply a slur upon the generality, who are not capable or not desirous of such displays”. Classic. For more like these, see John Ralston Saul’s The Doubter’s Companion: A Dictionary of Aggressive Common Sense (1994).
- Forgive me if any of the following resources go offline — and please let me know:
- Dan White and Jeannine DeLombard’s “Papers: Expectations, Guidelines, Advice, and Grading“ is a comprehensive guide covering all it promises to cover.
- Jack Lynch’s Guide to Writing and Style, and his Resources for Writers, at Rutgers University.
- Writery Resources [sic] is a site hosted by the University of Missouri, with online guides to style and grammar, dictionaries and thesauri. It also has links to a number of other online resources.
- Online edition of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style.
In my YouTube video, “Quote with Integrity,” I compare plagiarizing your sources to claiming that you and your friends recorded Rihanna songs in your garage.
Plagiarism is the deliberate or inadvertent presentation of someone else’s work as your own. If you submit an assignment that includes material (even a very small amount) that you did not write, but that is presented as your own work, you are guilty of plagiarism. Your readers must know at every point whether they are reading your ideas, or someone else’s.
The definition of plagiarism is simple, but its penalties are severe, as detailed in the University guidelines. Ignorance is not a defence: it is your responsibility to ensure that you understand and apply the citation rules outlined in the MLA Handbook.
Plagiarism includes, but is not limited to, the following scenarios: using the work of someone else, from whatever source, without citation; recycling work from other university or high school courses; or submitting the same paper in two different courses.