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Write Critical Essay


NOTE: Length is less important than QUALITY of your argument. It is possible to make an effective and well-developed argument in 3-5 pages (and you need not write more than that). But you might need more space to develop your argument. The important thing is that you make your point and prove it with developed, analyzed examples.

GENERAL ASSIGNMENT: This final essay asks you to delve into literary analysis OF THE SAME TYPE you did in your short critical responses. BUT in these final essays you must USE YOUR ANALYSIS in order to MAKE AND PROVE A POINT. You may try to draw out and analyze a theme, character, message, or issue within a particular work of literature from class (or another comparably good work of children’s literature that you have our approval to work on). Or you may compare and contrast similar themes, characters, issues, etc. from two or more of the works from class. 

POSSIBLE TOPICS from which you might develop a thesis (in each case remember that you need to have an overall point – an original insight of your own). There are many other possibilities. You are not limited to these. 

Ø      Symbolism and imagery have been important in many of our works. Examine a particular symbol or set of related symbols in one or more works and suggest why it was used and how it might connect to an overall message.

Ø     Analyze the MESSAGE of a particular piece of literature (or compare the messages of two similar works) and discuss how that message is developed and communicated.

Ø      The theme of heroism runs through many of our works. How are two heroes alike or different AND what does that suggest?

Ø      Do other characters besides heroes contribute to the work’s impact (for instance villains)? If so how? (i.e. compare and contrast a couple of villains and their meaning)

Ø      You might analyze a particular pattern in one or more works (like the number 3) in order to show or suggest how it adds to the work’s meaning.

Ø      You might discuss some stylistic elements of one of more works (their lyrical or poetry nature for instance), again demonstrating how that STYLE connects to, supports, or draws out the overall meaning or impact of the work.

Examples of possible thesesYou are absolutely encouraged to come up with your own topic and thesis (you shouldn’t copy these exactly). These are offered only to prompt your own thinking.

Ø      The fairy godmother character in the Cinderella tales is symbolic of Cinderella’s need for motherly nurturing because her own mother is absent.

Ø      Dorothy and Ozma are twin hero figures who demonstrate how heroes can help build and affirm their world.

Ø      Harry Potter’s heroic nature is less developed than that of Omakayas, but both heroes work to strengthen their communities.


v     Part of what is expected of you (and thus part of what you are graded on) is being able to formulate a specific topic and thesis of your own. 

v     You MUST have a THESIS. From the Greek, thesis literally means POSITION. This means your thesis must make a clear and effective argument (take a position on something). In a literary essay your thesis can persuade the reader of the validity of your analysis. But you still have to state your specific insight, interpretation or analysis of the work very clearly and boldly in the first paragraph, and then you need to spend the rest of the paper DEMONSTRATING (or proving) your thesis, with specific discussion/analysis of passages (literary analysis like we did in the short responses). You should be able to state your thesis in one sentence (= your argument plus a summary of the major examples that will support that argument). You should put that sentence toward the end of your first paragraph.

o       You might need to refine or change your thesis once you get into the writing. But be sure that by the end, you have a clear thesis statement in the first paragraph that accounts for your entire argument. 

v     You need not use outside sources (apart from the work of literature you choose to write on). But IF YOU DO use information that you found elsewhere (meaning any ideas about the literature that you are presenting that did not come from your own brain), YOU MUST CITE the source of that outside information. Your citation should be in standard MLA format (link for MLA citation guidelines). 

v     Be sure your interpretation / analysis / argument is logical and convincing. Remember if it doesn’t make sense to you it probably won’t make sense to your reader. Your ideas should be organized in a logical and convincing fashion. For instance think about putting your strongest examples first, or last, etc. 

v     All paragraphs should support the thesis statement. If you don’t know why a paragraph is there or if you can’t show how it supports the thesis, then cut it out (or change your thesis to accommodate that paragraph). Also, be sure to make clear how the details you give are actually connected to / supporting your thesis. Don’t assume that if something is clear to you it will be clear to your reader. Step back and analyze your own writing objectively to make sure it communicates the whole argument / analysis clearly and effectively. Write sentences that show the connections between supporting details and your thesis. 

o       For example, if your thesis is that Cinderella’s fairy godmother is really a substitute nurturer for her own absent mother, and you just analyzed a passage from the story that shows this, be sure to include a sentence or two after your analysis tying it back to the thesis, as follows: “This passage show us that Cinderella is nurtured by the bush that she also spends time nurturing. Clearly the theme of nurturing is strong here and it is important that this nurturing leads to Cinderella’s reward. Nurturing is emphasized.” 

v     Your interpretation / analysis (your ideas) should be the central focus of your essay. Only use outside information (which is not required) to support or demonstrate your ideas. Do not overuse quotes, facts, expert testimony, etc. 

v     Keep your essay interesting. Work on a piece of literature that you enjoy and find stimulating, and about which you really have something important to share. If you enjoy working on and writing your essay, that is a good sign. Be sure your topic is useful and interesting to you and then try to maintain that enthusiasm throughout the essay. 

v     Make your essay as CLEAR, SIMPLE, and STRAIGHTFORWARD as possible. Do not try to sound fancy or complicated. Bigger words are only better if they are the best possible words for what you are trying to say. If you don’t understand a word or phrase you are using, neither will your reader. Write in language that is comfortable for you. Remember that writing is about communication. If you communicate your ideas effectively and follow these other rules, you will not be graded down because your language is “too easy.” Simple can be the most beautiful as long as it is effective. 

v     Proofread carefully. Incorrect grammar, spelling and mechanics do detract from your overall message and make it seem as though you didn’t care enough about your work to do your best. 

v     Writing is a PROCESS. Always be willing to consider your essay a work in progress that can be revised, edited, changed, updated, and improved. Be open minded and flexible and honest in your revisions and self-appraisal.



Essays are an integral part of college life. They can be a difference between struggling in obscurity and passing with flying colors. For that reason, you really want to do whatever you can to make yourself a better essay writer.

Fortunately, that’s possible. A lot of people seem to think it isn’t, that writing is something that you’re either just naturally good at or not. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Yes, obviously, if you have some natural aptitude that will help, but nobody expects to be able to play the guitar perfectly when the first pick it up, either. Writing is very much the same. It is a skill and you can get better at it.

And so you’ve got to practice. But how?

Learn the ‘rules’ of critical writing

There are hundreds of essays devoted to the idea of making you a better critical writer. Read them. Now, with that I don’t mean binge read. A lot of people think that consuming more information will make them smarter. That’s not actually the case, as very quickly you’ll end up skimming instead of reading and almost none of the information gets taken up into long-term memory.

Instead, focus on reading one and writing down the major points for you to consider. Then refer back to these before you start writing the essay. When you feel you’ve internalized the points that you wanted to, turn to the next essay and read that one. Then do the same.

In this way of absorbing theory and then applying it to what you’re doing you’ll be far more likely to actually retain the information and turn it into actionable points. And that is ultimately what you’re after.

Read other people’s work

Also, be sure to read more. And not just books – though that can certainly help. No, I’m talking about other people’s essays. Want to learn the difference between bad and good essays? Ask to read those written by your classmates. Even better, find the essays online that have won prizes and analyze them.

Compare them to what you’ve done and see what has been done differently. Then write down your overarching ideas and concepts and try to sit down and discuss those ideas with good essay writers. They might be able to offer you new insights that you would otherwise have missed.

Re-read your work

Don’t just put away essays that you wrote either. Instead, go back and reread them six months or a year later. The advantage of doing this is that you’ll have forgotten what you were trying to and only see what you actually did. And the advantage of that is tremendous as you can suddenly see your writing for what it is, rather than what you want it to be, which allows you to recognize problems and areas to concentrate on.

Hopefully, you’ll also be able to see how your style is evolving and developing, which will hopefully make you realize that you’re getting better. And that is nothing to sneeze at, as just having the feeling that we’re improving is going to help you work harder in order to improve – thereby creating a virtuous cycle of reinforcement.

Create writing groups

Offer an exchange. You critique somebody else’s work if they’ll critique yours. Then see what they have to say. It is vital that you don’t get defensive here. The other person doesn’t need an explanation for why you did things the way you did. That will not get you a better grade. Instead, take what they say to heart.

What if you think they’re wrong? Then get other people to critique your work as well. If nobody else says it, then it might have just been that one person’s opinion. If you hear it several times from independent sources, well then you have something that you need to fix!

Don’t leave it to the last minute

Writing good critical essays takes time. You have to be able to walk away from an essay, so that you get some psychological distance. In that way, you’ll be able to come back to it later on with fresh eyes and fresh thoughts. That’s the way you find flaws in your reasoning and fix them. And that’s the way that you can write better essays.

So start writing your essay earlier. It doesn’t mean you have to work it out in exact details, but be sure to write down the outline and bullet point the structure that you want to follow. Then, when you sit down to do the next part, you can look at that structure and see if you forgot everything and add it in.

The great thing about this strategy is that when you’ve got the outline written out in this way, the actual writing will be much faster, as you won’t be spending half as much time revising earlier paragraphs in order to fit them into the arguments you only realize later.

Don’t despair

And finally, don’t think that you can’t write essays. If I look back at some of my earlier writings I actually cringe. And yet today I’m a professional writer who gets paid just to put words on paper. I got from there to here through practice.

And so can you. All you need to do is believe in yourself and have the motivation to act on that belief. Even if you spend an hour every week working on the theory of writing and considering what you’ve got to improve about your writing style, it will pay dividends. Not just in terms of the quality of your writing, but also in terms of how long it takes you to write.

Because better writers are faster writers.

By Luisa Brenton


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