What is a critical essay on a novel or poem?I am always told that I spend too much time explaining a line by line of whatever I am supposed to be writing about. So what AM I supposed to be...

What is a critical essay on a novel or poem?

I am always told that I spend too much time explaining a line by line of whatever I am supposed to be writing about. So what AM I supposed to be doing? My teacher has replied with, "Explain what you think about whatever you're reading."

I'm not sure what that means though. If not a line by line then what?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

Posted on

A critical essay is not a summary of a literary work, nor is it an expression of one's opinion of the work.  Rather, it is an objective critique, or review, of a literary work in which the writer examines both positive and negative aspects of the work.  Usually, the critical essay focuses mainly upon one interpretation of a work.  For instance, a student may write a critical essay on the use of light/dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet

Perhaps the best way for you to understand how a critical essay is written is for you to read and examine critical essays that have been written by professionals.  Here at enotes there are multitudes of such essays as almost every literary work's study guides contain a section called "Essays and Criticisms."  For instance, in the study guide for William Shakespeare's Hamlet, there are several criticisms, such as "Hamlet and Revenge" or "Delay in Hamlet."  These essays analyze specific aspects of this great play, rather than the play in its entirety.  (See the links below which will connect you to these.)

Here is an outline of how to approach a critical essay:

  1. Focus on a single aspect of a work as the cited examples do.  You will formulate your essay as a type of argumentative one. Research your topic by locating supporting evidence within the work itself; find critical discussion of the work, and use relevant background or historical information to show the importance of the work and the reason for your evaluation.
  2. The thesis of your essay states your position on the work and briefly outlines the questions that led you to develop the 3 arguments you'll develop in the body of your essay. (Use 3 if writing a 5 paragraph essay.)
  3. Develop your arguments with facts from the work, citing details and relevant passages.  As in argumentative essays, you will wish to present opposing opinions from critics and refute these, citing as evidence passages from the work.
  4. As well as comparisons to other opinions, be sure to use as many supporting details and examples as you can.
  • Do not forget that transitions from point to point improve the flow and coherence of your essay.
  • Read your own work, checking that the entire essay is well organized and that the information within each paragraph is well ordered.

   5.  In the conclusion, restate your position and summarize how your evidence supports your point of view. Do not forget to reiterate the title and author of the work in this final paragraph.

See also:  How to Write an Argumentative Essay at this link:


kerifoconnor's profile pic

kerifoconnor | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Honors

Posted on

Thank-you, this is a wonderful and helpful response, but having now read this I have a little further of a question. How do I open my mind to thinking like this? I LOVE to read, would do it all day every day if I could. However ask me to interup it with some idea out of my own head and I am LOST! A story or poem is a beatiful story or poem to me and thats as far as it goes.

It is really frustreating because I can not wrap my mind around looking further into anything. For instance. One of the stories I am suppose to be writing about at the moment is "The Nine Billion Names of God." Now I thought it was a neat little story but outside of that nothing. What am I suppose to get from a story like that because I do not see it?

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