Guidelines for Writing a Critique

Guidelines for Writing a Critique

Oct 09, 2012

What is a critique?

The term critique can cover a wide range of paper formats, but in general a critique is an assessment of a piece of writing, usually a book, article, or essay. This might be something as simple as a personal response to a novel or it might mean a more scholarly analysis of an academic article. Unless the directions specifically ask for a first-person response, your critique will likely need to be an analysis of the text's main argument written in the third person.

Getting started

The first step in writing a good critique is to do the reading. You're not going to be able to say anything about the text if you haven't read it, so take the time to go through the assigned book or article closely. Take notes as you go so it will be easy to go back and pick out important sections for analysis. Key things to look for include the author's thesis and the evidence he provides to support his argument. Also take the time to look up any words and concepts you aren't familiar with so you're certain you understand the author's argument.
Once you've finished the reading, try to write a summary of the author's main argument. You want to make sure you understand the author's thesis well enough to be able to restate it in your own words, plus you'll be able to use the summary in your paper. The last thing you want to be sure to do before you start writing is to prepare a strong, clear thesis statement that sums up your analysis of the work.

Writing the critique

Introduction. Start your introduction by providing the necessary information about the book or article you're evaluating. Give the author's name, the title of the work, the date of publication, and the author's main thesis, then finish the paragraph with your own thesis statement.
Summary. Next you want to summarize the author's argument. Discuss the points they are trying to make along with the evidence they use to back up their claims. Be careful not to make this section of your paper too long-you want to spend the majority of the paper on your own words and ideas, not just summarize what somebody else wrote.
Analysis. This will be the meat of your paper; it's where you take a critical look at the author's work and judge how successful he is at making his point. Structure your body paragraphs so that each one includes your analysis, evidence from the original text, and an explanation of how that evidence supports your point. There are a number of ways you can analyze the success or failure of a text:
  • What are the author's credentials?

    An author's background can give him authority or weaken his argument. Is the author a recognized expert on the issue being discussed? Has he published in respected outlets like peer-reviewed academic journals or well-known magazines? Conversely, has the author previously been criticized for shoddy or unreliable work? Keep in mind that you don't want to attack the author as a person - don't bring up his personal life or other issues that provide bias instead of information. Instead, focus on the author's professional credentials and track record.
    When evaluating the author's background, you should also look for whether the author is relying on his credentials instead of evidence to prove his argument. This tactic, known as argument from authority, is a common trick in persuasive writing.
  • Is the author's evidence accurate?

    Is the author basing his argument on sound evidence? If the book or article relies on statistics, check to see if those statistics can be corroborated. If the author cites research, facts, or opinions from other sources, check the original source to make sure that the author has used that information correctly. Also check to make sure the author's evidence is current - if he's using out of date statistics that's a reason to question the accuracy of the argument.
  • Did the author use sound methods to gather his evidence?

    If you're critiquing a primary source like a research paper you'll want to take a close look at the author's methodology. How sound is the experimental design? Did he use accepted techniques to collect data? If you're critiquing an opinion piece or an article that cites other sources, take a look at how those sources were collected. Did the author do a complete survey of the available evidence or did he cherry-pick evidence that fits his argument while ignoring competing data?
  • Did the author interpret the evidence correctly?

    Even if the evidence is impeccable it's still possible for the author to use that evidence incorrectly. You want to ask whether a normal reader would interpret the evidence the same way the author does. If not, does the author make a persuasive argument for his interpretation? Also ask if the author misinterprets the evidence or if there's an alternate explanation for the evidence that the author doesn't address.
  • Is the author's logic sound?

    Is the author's argument logical? Check for common logical fallacies like circular reasoning, ad ignorantiam (arguing that something is true because it can't be proven not true), argument from incredulity (saying that because you can't understand something it can't be true), conflating correlation and causation, and tautologies (statements that must be true because of the way they're written).
  • Does the author address counter-arguments?

    Part of writing a successful argument is anticipating counter-arguments and addressing them head-on. In your critique, look for any counter-arguments the original author missed. Are they enough to derail the author's point? Is there evidence out there that would support a different argument than the one the author is attempting to make?
Conclusion. Wrap up your critique by summarizing your evaluation of the author's argument. Is he successful or unsuccessful? Provide evidence of your own to back up your assessment. Depending on the assignment you may also use this section to provide a personal opinion on the book or article you're critiquing.
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