Combined/conflated guidelines for a critical/interpretative essay on literature, from Tory Young, Katherine Acheson, and William Whitla.

For a longer/fuller version of this advice, see this highlighted weblink.

Aim: To present a clearly written argument, based on evidence, about the meaning, power, or structure of the work or works. Aim to produce a narrative that offers an explanation for the effects of the text—these effects, for instance, are the ideas and feelings produced by the work (e.g. of literature). 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. 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.

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 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, particularly when developing a series of closely linked paragraphs that comprise a subsection/unit of your argument, so that in a sense a larger topic or subtopic organizing the several paragraphs into a cohesive sequence--but the more 'formulaic' approach remains sound general advice. 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: your sentences must make those reasons explicit. Whenever you feel uncertain, return to two bases or structuring premises: 1) your research and the evidence it has provided and 2) the thesis statement and the argument it articulates.”

For an argument to be convincing, the relationship between generalizations or assertions and supporting evidence must be considered carefully. You must be able to qualify a generalization in the face of contradictory evidence and therefore not ignore the exception, and you must not suppress that evidence in favor of asserting a generalization. . . . An academic argument, then, is not a contest of absolute rights and wrongs, but presents a structured statement of position that moves logically (including degrees of discovery/exploration) to persuade an audience of your ways of thinking, responding, understanding, stance.

Example of structure of a critical essay:
 (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. Your thesis statement is a sentence-long summary of your argument . . . . an argument that you are going to examine with recourse to evidence from primary and secondary research.  As stated above, typically each paragraph in the essay provides support for the argument or clearly analyzes opposing views to the argument.

To repeat and sum up—Some writers use the first paragraph to describe an interpretative, debatable 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.

This opening often includes reference to how the text or an aspect of it has been regarded by other scholars--what are some prior or 'traditional' ways of framing and understanding what's at stake in this text?

In contrast or in some kind of supplementary extension, what do you understand differently--what difference does your reading make/add and why is it significant/important to consider your line of analysis and argument? What is lost by sticking with prior views and what is gained by considering your counter-view or extension of the prior view to push its analysis further?

Can you state this difference that you bring to the conversation in the form of a thesis/hypothesis that addresses (answers or resolves) the problem you have identified?

Is your main claim (thesis) a stance that is arguable, debatable, significant (makes a difference)?


And as Young and Acheson note/advise above, what will be your series of claims supported by evidence and reasoning and taking into account arguments/evidence that may qualify or limit your claim along with any counter argument you make in turn to rebut or take into account the arguments and evidence against your position?

As you conclude, you may find a way to restate or reframe your main claim/argument, including its value/significance (the import/importance), and whether your line of analysis suggests further avenues of inquiry and research to be done.

Evaluation/Assessment Rubric for Critical Essay and Term Essay, with check mark along a scale, including specific comments to supplement my notations on the texts of the essays themselves:

Rubric for Initial Criteria for Evaluating Critical Writing/Essays:   Excellent    Very Good-Good    Competent-Fair    Weak
Note: Ultimately the evaluation of your work is holistic,
and therefore also intends to register the different, nuanced,
unexpected and evocative effects of your analysis,
exploration, creative expression/affect, and engagement
with learning and discovery.

1. Strength and clarity of (hypo)thesis/focus,
this may include your introduction to the problem to be
addressed, the critical/scholarly question and
conversation that your essay will contribute to,
intervene in, with scholarship appropriately introduced
and integrated into your text…

2. Intellectual/conceptual strength and persuasiveness of
main claim as well as ensuing argument (including
counter-argument to respond to differing or opposing views
/logic/premises/critical analysis/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 deployed, of related scholarship/criticism that
supports and strengthens the argument;
analysis of text’s rhetorical/persuasive strategies, structure
(narrative/dramatic/poetic structure, aspects of performance)

5. Topic’s depth/complexity, including explanation of
problem to be addressed, recognition of text’s
conflicts/contradictions (ideological/rhetorical),
creativity and sense of discovery/affective engagement
conveyed—the articulated sense of “what’s at stake, why
it matters” —what difference your essay makes

6. Significance/ conclusion

7. Effective sentences, syntax, active verbs/consistency in verb tense,
diction, punctuation, complexity, and suitable style: academic,
critical, appropriate to your understanding of the
materials/subjects; avoids clichés and trite expressions, avoids overusing
prepositional phrases, appropriately concise

8. MLA style—parenthetical citation of sources,
Works Cited; formatting; spelling ungraded but noted

Academic Misconduct: Any act of academic misconduct, including but not limited to cheating, fabrication, plagiarism or facilitating academic dishonesty, will result in failure of the assignment and given the points available, likely failure of the course. Your case will be reported to the Dean of Students according to campus guidelines, and such matters are subject to policies in the UI Student Code of Conduct. Unfortunately, I have had to refer students' plagiarized work to the Dean of Students in past sections of classes, nearly every year. See this helpful highlighed weblink to learn more about academic integrity on the Dean of Students' website, including plagiarism: Plagiarism includes the using of ideas, data, or language of another as one’s own without specific or proper acknowledgement or citation, lack of knowledge of proper citation is not valid excuse for plagiarism as it is the responsibility of the author writing the material to know the proper methods for appropriate citation and/or seek guidance/help when using another’s work.

Plagiarism can be committed in any type of assignment and includes, but is not limited to, the following behavior that also does not include the full, clear and proper acknowledgement of the original source: 

See UI Library Guidance on Avoiding Plagiarism

Purdue OWL workshop/guidelines on using MLA for citation

MLA Quick Guide to Works Cited/citation

Basic Refresher Guidelines on Conducting Academic Research (via UI Library's site for English 102) including support for process of finding and citing articles from peer-reviewed journals, books, and the option for direct research assistance/session with a UI librarian.

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

Quick Advice on Punctuation (also dated) [pdf]