How to Write a Critique (2019 Guide)

how to write a critique
  • Published Date: April 1, 2019

This article will dispel many of the fears you may have about writing a critique: a type of academic paper that asks you to analyze a work of art, literature, music, science, or journalism in detail.

Because a critique essay can be considered a relatively advanced exercise, by now you should have mastered many of the fundamental writing techniques. For example, you understand the need for the five-paragraph essay format and structure. You know what a thesis statement is and how to use one to your advantage to create impressive academic papers.

A critique builds on what you already know about good scholarly writing. This article will help you improve your English composition skills in ways that will benefit you for the rest of your life. You will learn how to identify the strengths and weaknesses in the object of your critique and communicate your thoughts to readers in a creative but logical way.

What is a Critique?

A critique involves thoroughly analyzing with the goal of pointing out its strengths and weaknesses or identifying its overall effectiveness. You may be asked to write a critique in almost any class you are taking.

In fact, critiques are one of the few essays you may be required to write in science classes in which you otherwise focus mainly on quantitative data analysis. The reason why critiques are important in all academic subjects and in all professional areas is that you need to be able to master the skill of analyzing work from your peers. Think of it this way: it is one thing to say “I don’t like that article,” and quite another to be able to explain why.

You will soon learn that it is a sign of maturity and professionalism to thoughtfully tell your colleagues (or classmates) exactly why you do or do not agree or why you do or do not find the work effective. A critique is therefore an essential step on your road to professional and personal development. Mastering the critique will help you become a better communicator.

Types of Critiques

A critique can be about anything. Consider the following examples:

  • Critiquing a work of art such as Van Gogh’s Starry Night or a song like “Bohemian Rhapsody”
  • Critiquing a theory or idea like Freud’s theory of psychosexual development or string theory.
  • Critiquing a research article published in a peer-reviewed journal
  • Critiquing an essay written by one of your peers
  • Critiquing a website for design and credibility
  • Critiquing a book (also known as a book review)

A critique of a journal article, especially on that was published in a peer-reviewed journal, is a common exercise in fields like psychology and other social sciences.

It is important to critique journal articles as part of the peer review process. In fact, the concept of “peer review” means that other people in the same area of expertise as the authors look closely at the article and determine whether the research was ethical, whether the results were reported fairly, or whether there were flaws in the methodology that render the results useless to the scientific community.

You might not be at the level yet where you are being asked to actually review research articles for an academic journal, but perhaps one day you will be and this is why you need to practice writing critiques of your own.

To write a critique of a journal article, you would of course first need to read the article and familiarize yourself with any terms or concepts you do not yet know. Armed with knowledge, you can then commence your critique by focusing on the strengths and weaknesses of the researcher’s premises, methods, and conclusions.

Basic Tips for Writing a Critique

1. Always find both positive and negative things to say. Sometimes called “hedging,” using both positive and negative descriptors will make your critique stronger. There is no such thing as perfect. Everything you are asked to critique—even famous works or art and literature—have some flaws that are helpful to point out in a critique.

Likewise, you can always find something positive to say. If there is nothing you can say positive or negative about the object of the critique then at least be ready to defend your position and explain why you believe the item is either flawless or impossibly flawed.

2. Take into account the author/creator’s purpose and the historical context. Sometimes the author makes your job easier by stating outright the purpose of the study, which is common in peer-reviewed journal articles. Some journalistic pieces also have a clear purpose stated outright, but in many cases you will need to research more about the author or the context to understand it better.

When writing a critique, make sure that you take into account factors like the author’s biography or the situations that caused the author or artist to create the work. If you are critiquing a journal article, make sure you learn about the researcher’s background and read their stated purpose for carrying out the research. You need to know why the piece was created in order to provide constructive criticism.

3. Analyze your emotional reactions. Often, your first response to something will be emotional. You may react strongly but not have the ability to logically explain why you feel the way you do. This is especially true when you have been asked to critique a form of media like art or music.

Do not fret. The purpose of the critique is to get to the bottom of your emotions so you can explain why you feel the way you do. Therefore, do not censor your emotions. Welcome your visceral responses to whatever you are asked to critique, and write down what you are feeling. Later, you can do the hard work of analyzing the sources of your emotions and communicate them in a coherent essay.

4. Do outside research. Sometimes when writing a critique it helps to read what others have also said about that work. Even if you already have strong opinions about the object, read how others have analyzed it first to see if there is something you overlooked. Doing research ahead of time can be especially helpful when you are writing a critique but are confused and do not know where to begin, or if you do not fully understand the article or piece you are describing.

5. Know what to look for. This is one of the most important steps in writing a critique. If you do not know what to look for, it is almost impossible to write a good critique. Ask your instructor or writing tutor if you need help. Find out whether you are supposed to be critiquing an article for its research methods, or whether you are critiquing a work of literature in order to discuss the author’s views on gender. Your writing will be stronger if you know what to look for even before you encounter the object of the critique.

How to Write a Critique in 4 Easy Steps

This article will show you how to best go about planning and writing the best possible critiques. Whether you are writing a critique about a work or art or a journal article, the process is basically the same.

1. Read, Research, Reflect.

The first step to writing a critique is reading the original article. In the case of art or music critiques, of course you will instead use your visual or audio senses instead. Regardless of the form of media, you first need to soak it all in and understand what it is you are critiquing.

Then, you need to research the context of the item or article. Understand why it is written and what the author’s purpose was. You may need to research what other scholars have said about this piece, the work of art, or the theory. Research will also help clarify any aspects of the piece you do not understand. For example, if you are critiquing Picasso’s painting “Guernica,” it helps to learn that it was painted as the artist’s response to the Spanish Civil War.

Also remember the importance of reflecting on the main reasons why you are writing the critique. Have you been asked to look for flaws in the research methodology? Or have you been asked instead to critique the author’s use of language? Reflect also on your own feelings and impressions before you begin actually writing. The more work you do at this early stage, the easier it will be to write your critique.

2. Outline

The main question you need to ask when writing a critique is: Is the article/work successful? Did the author/artist achieve the goal of the piece? Usually the answer will be both yes and no: the author was successful in some ways but not in other ways.

Remember, a good critique is one that displays both the strengths and the weaknesses of the article. An outline can help you organize your thoughts. If your critique is supposed to be very short—only a page or two—then you can outline your ideas in your head. A longer critique will usually flow better if you jot down your ideas.

Outline the main strengths and weaknesses of the article. This is why it helps to know what to look for: you want to know what would constitute a successful execution and why the author/artist did or did not live up to that expectation. Write about anything that is relevant.

For example, when critiquing a research article, you will discuss whether the researchers used valid methods. How did the researchers select their sample population? Did they use random assignment?

If you are critiquing a short story, you may write about whether the author developed a character successfully or whether the reader was left feeling empty after the story was finished.

When you are done writing down the main strengths and weaknesses of the piece, then you should consider a more formal outline that will help you to organize your thoughts and write a good critique.

3. Develop Your Thesis and Main Ideas

Although developing your thesis can be considered an extension of the outlining process, it is listed as a separate step because of how important it is for you to remain focused on a main idea when you write a critique.

A critique is a complex exercise, and you do not need to pigeonhole your ideas into a one-sentence thesis statement. However, you should be able to concisely state why something was effective and why it was not effective. Pretend you are in an elevator with your instructor and you only have thirty seconds to talk about the article or work of art. In the thirty seconds, you will have come up with your thesis statement.

For example, you might say “The researchers’ methods were reliable and valid, but the conclusions drawn from the results did not logically follow.”

Or, you might say, “The author used pathos effectively in his argument, but the essay completely lacked substantiation.”

After you know pretty much what your thesis statement will be to guide your critique, you should come up with a few main ideas to discuss. There are no rules to how many main ideas you need, but three is a good number because it keeps you within the format and structure of the five-paragraph essay.

With three main points, you can write an introduction, three body paragraphs or body sections, and a conclusion. You have just enough to talk about in your critique without losing focus on the main idea.

4. Write!

As with any other academic writing exercise, you will begin with a rough draft. Refusing to censor yourself at this stage allows you to get the juices flowing, writing without being impeded by thoughts of whether your grammar and spelling are perfect or whether you remained on topic. For now, just write according to the outline and main ideas you have developed.

As you write, it is essential that you refer continually to the source: the object of the critique. You need to back up everything that you say, and the only way to do so is to quote or directly refer to elements of the original material.

For critiques of any written material like books or articles in a journal or newspaper, quotes or paraphrases will do. When you critique a song, you could refer to the time stamp in the recording or to a movement in a classical piece. When critiquing a work of art, use descriptors your reader can follow such as “foreground” or the “base of the statue.”

After your first draft is done, it is time to polish the work. If you are not comfortable editing your own work, you can give it to a friend or a writing tutor for review. Sometimes it helps to have a second pair of eyes to point out mistakes such as poor flow in your writing or grammatical errors.

What is the Correct Format for a Critique?

There is no one correct format. The only correct format for a critique is the one your instructor provided to you, so be sure to follow the instructions you were given.

Having said that, most critique assignments will involve some fundamental features that govern almost all good academic writing. The format for a critique does not deviate much from any other five-paragraph essay style format. You will have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion.

A critique will have certain elements that differentiate it from other types of academic writing as follows:

I. Introduction

Use the first sentence of the introduction to introduce the object of the critique. You do not need a “hook” or elaborate opening statement. In some cases, you may want to cite some interesting fact or statistic but usually with a critique it helps to immediately name the object of the critique in a clear and no-nonsense introductory statement such as:

In Berger & Jean’s (2018) research, the authors use mixed methods to explore attitudes towards social media among seniors.

Simple and to the point is best, because the critique should ultimately be about the article or work of art and not about anything else unless it directly substantiates your impressions.

Also in the introduction, you will want to talk about the main points in your critique. You can mention, for example, that you are critiquing the article according to research reliability, validity, and ethics. Or, that you are critiquing a work of architecture according to form, function, and environmental footprint.

Traditionally, you end the introduction with your thesis statement.

II. Body

The body of the critique is where you go into detail about the positive and negative points of the article or work of art. Remember to “hedge,” talking about where the work is successful as well as where it is not successful. Always remember to say why. Never say, “The author uses simplistic diction,” without given at least one example in the form of a quotation.

The key to a good critique is stating your opinion and offering evidence to support your claim. Do this for all the main points of your critique. You do not need to offer every single example of when the author did a good job, or when the artist failed to execute. However, give the best or most obvious examples that support your opinion.

III. Conclusion

Of course, you know that you do need to end your critique with a conclusion. Wrap up your critique by going over what you have said without any new details, reminding the reader of the main strengths and weaknesses of the piece. Perhaps mention what the author could have done better, or mention how effective the author was in achieving the stated goals of the article.

The difference between the conclusion in a critique and in other types of academic papers is that you can here offer some suggestions for how the author (or future researchers) might improve upon the work.

Example of a Critique

Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma presents cogent questions about the ethics and sustainability of contemporary factory farming practices. The book has gained notoriety in both mainstream and academic circles, which has surprisingly not detracted from its overall effectiveness in stimulating dialogue and bringing about a change in attitudes and consumer behavior. Pollan’s credibility and journalistic style make up for the fact that The Omnivore’s Dilemma cannot be considered a scholarly work.

One of the main strengths of Pollan’s book is that it tackles difficult subjects like the ethics of eating meat without becoming preachy or pedantic. In fact, the author allows his experiences visiting factory farms to speak for themselves as he offers readers rich descriptions of the abattoir. When the author states, “the most morally troubling thing about killing chickens is that after a while it is no longer morally troubling,” Pollan cuts to the chase of why many people can easily turn a blind eye to the suffering of animals (p. 233). Pollan does not need to say that killing animals is bad. In fact, Pollan shows how the ethical dilemma referred to in the title of the book cannot be easily resolved.

In addition to the author’s ability to handle moral ambiguity gracefully, Pollan’s book has journalistic credibility. The back of the book contains the endnotes that correspond to each chapter. Pollan has a respectable pedigree as a journalist and author. According to his website, Pollan has contributed to esteemed publications like The New York Times Magazine since 1987 and is also a professor at Harvard University. Therefore, Pollan does have a high degree of credibility. The experiences described in The Omnivore’s Dilemma are not only filtered through the author’s own worldview but also presented in the broader context of philosophy and ethics, as well as anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

What makes The Omnivore’s Dilemma ultimately effective is that the author blends classical journalism with populism. The author does not talk down to readers and uses strong language, without veering too much into the territory of scholarly jargon. Placing the sources as endnotes instead of as footnotes reduces clutter on the page and makes the book more approachable to mainstream or general audiences. Yet because of how well Pollan does research his claims and provides the means by which readers can investigate the primary sources, The Omnivore’s Dilemma can be considered a credible source of information.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma can be considered one of the most important books on the subject of food sustainability and the ethics of contemporary, post-industrial food production. Because the author writes for a general audience with scholarly or journalistic integrity, the book reaches a broad audience and has the potential to induce social change. The author also discusses factory farming sensitively but without demanding that readers convert to veganism. While a follow-up book might be warranted to see if Pollan’s work really has made a difference in America’s eating habits or in animal rights laws, The Omnivore’s Dilemma remains a classic.

Conclusion

The example of a critique offered in this guide should give you the basic elements of what you need to construct a similar essay when you are asked to write one. You could be asked to write a critique about almost anything. Now you are a little more prepared to write your critique confidently and competently.

Whether your critique is about music and art or about a peer-reviewed journal article in the hard sciences, the basic elements remain the same. Your job is to point out strengths and weaknesses to determine if the object was effective or if it achieved its goal. When you write a critique, you are offered the chance to prove that you can defend your opinions with facts, thereby making you a more effective and professional communicator.

References

“About Michael Pollan.” https://michaelpollan.com/about/

Pollan, Michael. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: Bloomsbury.

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