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Essay Assignments: Permission to Criticize

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Of all essay assignments, the critique tends to strike the most fear in the hearts of new writers.  They probably know how to summarize what they’ve read; they may even know how to analyze—to break it down into its elements (thesis and supporting arguments; rhetorical tools; literary devices).  But now they are required to say whether what they’ve read (or seen, if it’s a movie or play) is actually worthwhile, and if so—or if not—why.  They are being forced to take a critical stand. 

Taking a critical stand involves a lot more than simply saying whether you liked or disliked something. Suppose I wrote this critical response to Moby Dick:

Moby Dick is a novel about an obsessed whaling captain who pursues a dangerous white whale across the oceans of the world, only to sacrifice himself, his ship, and his entire crew. This is an exciting story, with many great details about sea life and whaling.

Now, as a matter of fact, I love this novel, and what I’ve just written here is accurate enough. There’s nothing false about this “critique”. But what do you, the critique’s reader, get out of it? Not much, right? You don’t really know what happens in this book, except in a very general sense. You don’t know why I found it “exciting” and the details “great”, because (1) I didn’t actually share any of those “great” details, and anyway, (2) you don’t know anything about me or my tastes.  Basically, when you come to the end of my “critique” you’re no better off than you were in the beginning.  You’ve learned something about a total stranger (me) but nothing about Moby Dick.

Figuring out why you had a positive, negative, or mixed response to something is the first challenge of a critique assignment. The best way to start is to reread the text (or re-view the movie, etc.), and this time pay attention to your own responses.  Notice when your attention flags; notice when an observation or scene piques your curiosity; notice when you shake your head in disbelief; if you find a passage particularly well- or badly-written, notice that. Take lots of notes. You’re amassing evidence.

At this point, you may have a pretty good idea what you think of the thing, and you’ve got supporting examples and arguments at the ready.  But you’re still hesitant, because who are you to say something is bad, good, or indifferent?  You’re just a student, a reader.  You’re just typing. The thing you’re criticizing is in print. 

But just because something is in print doesn’t mean it’s good, authoritative, worthwhile, reliable, accurate, or even grammatically sound. It’s just in print. That’s all. It’s up to us readers, who should all be reading critically all the time, to decide for ourselves how good a piece really is. Writing critiques allows us to exercise our own critical faculties and to learn how to back up our gut feelings (“This is good!”; “This is terrible!”; “This is blah!”) with solid reasons.  Reading and writing critically is key to academic success and intellectual growth.  If the final draft of your critique is all about the thing you’re criticizing, and if all your critical judgments are backed up with examples and arguments, you’ll be performing a valuable service, both to your own readers and to yourself.

So: “Critical” does not mean “negative.”  Critics learn to support their opinions with evidence and reason and to communicate them clearly. We not only have permission to criticize—we have a duty to criticize, as students, moviegoers, readers, citizens.  Be a critic, all the time. 

 

Written by Jincy Kornhauser at Pearson Tutor Services

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