S.Flores/Advice on Critical Essays

The primary aims of a thesis-seeking/problem-posing exploratory essay assignment is to engage with the text (literary text, typically) and its critical interpretation/reception by identifying problems, developing claims and arguments, and enriching your literary understanding, interests, and commitments. Use/learn Modern Language Association format for any notes or works cited (see, for instance, link to MLA format guidelines further below, and if you have access to Norton online resources, those include extended examples of developing a research essay (such as the example of a student's essay on Austen's novel Mansfield Park).

For example, you might explain the social dimensions or importance of a particular character's desires and relations to and for another (or to others, including a group or "category" of people or to/for some concept or principle or desired identity/achievement); your analysis may also speculate on the degrees of authority or power exercised or available to particular "figures" or "subjects" (characters) in the work/text; moreover, how are such identities or relationships represented and enacted (presented rhetorically in language and through narrative and dramatic structure and style), and to what extent are these desires and power relations and identities in flux, dramatized as being put into question or debate between different social/political/class/gender/ethnic/religious arrangements or configurations. And how do such meanings become presented in literature/text and in performance? For drama, how would a director and actors embody and perform (and address the choices for performance) and communicate a particular interpretation. . . .

I encourage you to develop and to support your ideas as clearly and as cogently as space allows, including brief citations of specific lines that illustrate your interpretation, and concise use of summary and paraphrase in support of your analysis. It may be helpful for your response to include a statement that makes a claim or presents a thesis with brief explanation and support (such as in the form of “One of Portia's main concerns is that she . . . because . . . . But her desire for . . . conflicts with . . ., and she must . . . in order to . . . . The play thus represents . . . in its depiction of . . . . Moreover, it is only through X's relationship to Y that Z can be realized or established or resolved, even though . . . .” This is just a partial and overstated (!) example of a structure that might inform your reasoning and writing--the main advice is that you may find it effective to compose a thesis for your analysis/essay.

Tory Young, for instance, offers this general schemata/structure for an essay that is concerned with argument and interpretation and analysis (from Studying English Literature): (1) The issue; (2) the claim; (3) The supporting evidence; (4) The explanation that connects the evidence to the claim about the subject; (5) Rebuttals and qualifiers; ( 6) The explanation that connects them to the claim about the subject. Some of these stages or building blocks for the essay may be repeated (steps 2-6 or 3-6), and each stage should contribute to developing the argument and potential expressed in your thesis statement. As Young states, "Your thesis statement is a sentence-long summary of your argument . . . .Your thesis statement is an argument that you are going to examine with recourse to evidence from primary and secondary research" (106). Moreover, does each paragraph in the essay provide support for the argument or clearly analyze opposing views to the argument.

Katherine Acheson (in Writing Essays About Literature) states that "the task of a student assigned to write an essay about literature is to present a clearly written argument, based on evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works" (7). She describes the task of writing such an essay as one in which you "produce a narrative that offers an explanation for the effects the work of literature has" (8)--these effects, for instance, are the ideas and feelings produced by the work of literature (produced through the things that are used to make it, the words). Acheson describes the thesis statement in this way: "The thesis statement describes the evidence you are using, states your interpretations of this evidence, and brings those insights together into a conclusion that is about the way the literature works, what it means, or how and why it has the emotional impact it does" (97). She also emphasizes that arguments in literary criticism analyze "examples in order to come to broader conclusions"--these arguments therefore demonstrate inductive reasoning that moves logically and persuasively from particular pieces of compelling evidence to broader generalizations that advance/deepen/enrich understanding.

Acheson notes, like Tory Young, that the paragraphs in the body of your essay "will each make a point contributing to your argument, and each will highlight the evidence that supports that point. The subject for each body paragraph is provided by your subtopic sentences" (111) and typically the concluding sentence in each paragraph "stipulates the relationship " of the paragraph "to the argument as a whole" and also "leads to the next paragraph." One's writing need not be so formulaic--you can depart from these guidelines--but this is sound general advice. Acheson offers an additional caution and encouragement: "The analytical reasons that a piece of evidence supports the argumentative contention of the paragraph are implicit in the choice you made to include that evidence in that category. But remember this important advice: your sentences must make those reasons explicit. Whenever you feel uncertain, return to two home bases: 1) your research and the evidence it has provided and 2) the thesis statement and the argument it articulates" (118).

William Whitla (The English Handbook: A Guide to Literary Studies) echoes such sentiments: "For an argument to be convincing, the relationship between generalizations or assertions and supporting evidence must be considered carefully. Many students have the most trouble at exactly this point: they either cannot qualify a generalization in the face of contradictory evidence and so ignore the exception, or they suppress that evidence and continue to assert a generalization. . . . An academic argument, then, is not a contest of absolute rights and wrongs, but rather is a structured statement of position that moves logically to persuade an audience of your views" (92).

Assume your audience is familiar with the text, but take care to articulate clearly your understanding and interpretation of the material, especially problems or contradictions that seem difficult to resolve.

Keep in mind that your analysis should aim to supplement or to build upon class discussion; in short, don't simply repeat an argument discussed substantially unless you were engaged substantially in that discussion.

Some writers use the first paragraph to describe an interpretative problem that arises in a specific passage or for/in a character (and the relations of that character to others or to the text's cultural context), or to present a conflict of critical approaches to a topic or issue that is pertinent to or evident in the literary work.

Initial/General Criteria for Evaluating Critical Writing/Essays:

1. Strength and clarity of (hypo)thesis/focus/introduction
2. Intellectual/conceptual strength and persuasiveness of main claim and ensuing argument/logic/premises/critical method/theory/ideas;
3. Cohesive and coherent development, logical organization, including well structured paragraphs with clear points and compelling, specific support/evidence
4. Analysis of text’s/topic’s relevant cultural/historical contexts and if specified, related scholarship/criticism; Text’s rhetorical methods, structure
5. Topic’s depth/complexity, including recognition of conflicts/contradictions
6. Significance/ conclusion
8. Effective sentences, syntax, verbs, diction, punctuation, complexity, and suitable style: academic, critical, appropriate to your understanding of the materials/subjects
9. MLA style--parenthetical citation of sources, works cited; format; spelling ungraded but noted

Questions to Guide Review of Draft of Critical Essay:

1. Does the essay clarify and advance understanding of problem/topic/method/perspective related to the “literary” text’s purposes and rhetorical strategies and to the ‘student’ writer’s interpretation and understanding of the text?
2. Can one understand the writer’s approach and strategies for introducing and developing the critical essay?
3. Sum up the essay’s central idea, hypothesis or purpose in one sentence.
4. What might a reader like best about the essay? Where might the reader want to know more or to pose a critical question?

See and review several additional resources about writing, on the course Blackboard site, and also examples of students' writing on the main course website.

Lessons on Style (general advice/quited dated handout but perhaps worth looking over) [pdf]

Quick Advice on Punctuation (also dated) [pdf]

Online Writing Center Resources (from writing essays to grammar and usage advice):



OWL Review Guide to Using MLA Style for Citing Sources

Desired learning outcomes in the context of the Department of English and its major:

1) Students exhibit knowledge of diverse literatures in English and the cultural and historical contexts in which these works were produced.

2) Students can discern and evaluate the aesthetic and formal qualities of various texts.

3) Students can write an analytic essay that exhibits both critical thinking and effective argumentation.

4) Students can write a research essay that exhibits effective deployment of research as evidence.

5) Students’ writing exhibits correct usage of grammar and of MLA format and citation conventions.


Professor Lye's Advice on Analyzing Literature

Additonal Resources (from writing essays to grammar and usage advice):


[see link under Resourcs at this site: http://web.mit.edu/writing/Resources/Writers/index.html


"Writing in College: A Short Guide to College Writing" (from U. Chicago)

Review Guide to Using MLA Style for Citing Sources

Tasked with writing a paper for a course in philosophy? Check out James Pryor's advice: