How to write a critical essay

  • It is important to plan your critical essay before you start writing.
  • An essay has a clear structure with an introduction, paragraphs with evidence and a conclusion.
  • Evidence, in the form of quotations and examples is the foundation of an effective essay and provides proof for your points.
Learn how to plan, structure and use evidence in your essays

Planning

It is important to plan before you start writing an essay.

The essay question or title should provide a clear focus for your plan. Exploring this will help you make decisions about what points are relevant to the essay. What are you being asked to consider?

Organise your thoughts. Researching, mind mapping and making notes will help sort and prioritise your ideas. If you are writing a critical essay, planning will help you decide which parts of the text to focus on and what points to make.

Introduction

An introduction should focus directly on the essay question or title and aim to present your main idea, in your answer. In an essay titled ‘What makes Slim an important character in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men?’ you could start with:

'Slim plays an important role in Steinbeck’s novella because he represents moral authority.'

The statement gives a clear answer to the essay question. The rest of your essay could justify that answer by looking at all the different ways that he seems to represent moral authority, and the impact that has at different points in the story.

An introduction briefly introduces your main ideas and arguments - that the rest of the essay will explore this in greater detail.

When writing an introduction to an essay avoid:

  • using the phrase ‘In this essay I’m going to write about …’
  • launching into a close analysis of the text
  • straying away from the topic
When the essay question focuses on a single character from the text, such as Slim, your answer and your evidence should do the same

Using evidence

Evidence is the foundation of an effective essay and provides proof for your points.

For an essay about a piece of literature, the best evidence will come from the text itself.

Back up each of your supporting statements with evidence. The evidence should be relevant and clearly connected to the point you’re making.

In a critical essay, evidence could take the form of:

  • Quotations from the text, for example, Steinbeck describes Slim’s ‘godlike eyes’, which suggests his power and authority on the ranch.

  • Examples from the text, for example, Slim’s reaction to the fight between Lennie and Curley shows his authority and natural leadership.

Paragraph structure

Think about how you are going to organise each paragraph.

You might want to start with a topic sentence that summarises the main point of the paragraph. This sentence acts like a mini introduction for this paragraph of the essay:

'Because the other men on the ranch respect him, Slim is able to influence their actions.'

The rest of the paragraph should then develop this main point by providing more explanation, detail and evidence:

'After the fight between Curley and Lennie, Slim takes charge. ‘I think you got your han' caught in a machine,’ he persuades Curley, defusing the situation and preventing Lennie’s dismissal from the ranch.'

When planning your essay, you may find it helpful to have your main points on notes or flashcards

Conclusion

A conclusion is the final paragraph of your essay. It should tie all the loose ends of your argument together.

An effective conclusion may:

  • restate your main idea
  • directly link back to the essay title or question
  • briefly summarise the key supporting points
  • give readers something to remember - a final thoughtful idea or reflection

It’s useful to show the reader that you have reached your conclusion by using words or phrases such as:

  • In conclusion
  • To conclude
  • Finally
  • In summary

Remember

Thinking about what to include in a critical essay first will make it easier to structure and write the essay. Your essay will be much more convincing if you can offer evidence for each of your ideas.

Quiz

Are you ready to write an essay? Let's find out in this short quiz!