How to Write a Critical Essay

As part of your exam, you’ll have to write two critical essays. Each is worth twenty-five marks, and you get one and a half hours in total, or forty-five minutes each. That’s not a long time. The secret to writing a good essay in this time is planning.

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Thinking Thematically

The best way to write an essay at Higher level is to approach it ‘thematically’. This means that the key themes in the text should form the basis of your paragraphs. This will help you to analyse the text, rather than just describing it. Think about it this way – if someone asked you to explain why one football team beat another, and you simply explained what happened on a minute-by-minute basis, that wouldn’t be a very good answer. Instead, if you explained key aspects in which Team A was better than Team B, you would be more concise and give a better answer. That is the thematic approach.

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So, when you come to plan your essay, you should aim to write three or four body paragraphs (not including the introduction and conclusion) that are each based around relevant themes. As part of your revision, you should make a ‘spider chart’ of key themes in the text, which you can then apply to the question.There are probably five or six key themes of each text (have a look at the ‘Help with Texts’) section to help you identify the key themes.

To give you an example, in 2012, one of the questions said:

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If you were answering using “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” as your text, your three key themes might be: 1) The battle between good and evil in humans; 2) Addiction and the loss of control; 3) The contrast between Science and Morality.

Each of these paragraphs will allow you to explore different themes within the text, which means you can focus on analysis of the story, rather than simply describing what’s going on.

The ‘critical’ aspect of a critical essay is the analysis. You should be able to say why the author chose a particular word, event or character. Thinking about the message behind the text is a good place to start. Also, have a look at the author’s biography. Usually their own life experiences influence their writing. For example, Arthur Miller wrote “The Crucible” as a direct allegory of his own experiences of the Communist ‘witchhunts’ of 1950s America.

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Planning

When it comes to writing your essays in the exam, the best way to divide your time is as follows:

10 minutes planning,

30 minutes writing (6 minutes per paragraph),

5 minutes checking your work.

Obviously, this doesn’t give you a lot of time to actually write your paragraphs. This will force you to be straight to the point (if you are someone who waffles, then the short writing time is a blessing in disguise). Keep your sentences short when you are writing. This will help you to be direct, and to keep you focused on the question at hand. Try reading past essays out loud to yourself, and seeing where the sentences are too long.

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You can keep your topic sentences in particular very short. In fact, it’s best to make them straight to the point. Using the “Jekyll and Hyde” example above, the topic sentence for the first paragraph could be: “The battle between Jekyll and Hyde is symbolic of the battle between good and evil in humans.” This is direct, and shows the reader exactly what you will talk about in the paragraph.

Make sure that you finish each paragraph with a one sentence mini-conclusion that links back to the question. Usually the question is split into two, and the finish of the sentence should refer to the second part of the question. So, using the “Jekyll and Hyde” example, the final sentence of the first paragraph could be: “Jekyll’s growing realisation that he cannot control Hyde forces him to isolate himself, and shows that Jekyll has come to regret his earlier immoral decisions.” Writing a one sentence mini-conclusion will help you when it comes to writing your final conclusions, and will also keep your work focused on the question.

In your paragraphs, the best sentence structure is the P.E.A. approach. This stands for Point, Evidence, and Analysis. Make your point, then back it up with a quotation or an example from the text, and then explain why this is important or relevant to the question. You can practice this simple approach by using the following framework in your revision:

Point – One of the key themes in the text is…

Evidence – This is shown when…

Analysis – This highlights/emphasises….

Although it is best not to use these exact phrases every time, this does give you an idea of how you should approach the content of your paragraphs.

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The Introduction

In the exam, when you’ve finished planning your body paragraphs, you can plan your introduction. You should always do it in this order. This way, you know what you’re introducing.

The format of your introduction should be:

1) A synoptic statement about the text (i.e. explaining when it was written, who wrote it, and a one sentence summary of the plot).

2) An explanation of the relevance of the question to the text. For example, using the sample question above, you should say why Dr. Jekyll is good to talk about as to a character who has a changing view of himself.

3) Identify the key themes of the text. In reality, this is you explaining what your paragraphs are going to be. Instead of saying “In this essay I will talk about…”, say “The most important themes are…” and then mention what your paragraphs will be. Be confident in what you are writing!

4) Try and draw your themes together into one ‘mega theme’. This will be the final sentence of your introduction, and so should be short and snappy (to get the reader’s attention). There should be an underlying point that links all of your themes together. For example, using the “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” question above, the three paragraphs are all linked by the idea of man’s internal conflict, and the ongoing battle between being ethical and fulfilling desires. This would be the ‘mega theme’.

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The Conclusion

Conclusions are really very simple, although a number of students don’t even write one. If you’ve planned your time properly, then you will have time to conclude your argument. Not only is this critical for getting good marks for structuring, but it will allow you to actually answer the question. The format of the conclusion should be:

1) Spend one sentence summing up each of the paragraphs you wrote. The mini-conclusions you wrote will help with this.

2) Draw these all together again using your mega theme.

3) Your final sentence of the entire essay should give a direct answer to the question. Look at how the question is worded and use that to help you phrase your answer. Think about the final sentence as a one-sentence ‘in a nutshell’ answer. An examiner should be able to read just your last sentence to get a sense of what you are arguing. For the “Jekyll and Hyde” example, the final sentence could be: “Ultimately, Jekyll’s changing relationship with Hyde is an allegory for man’s internal conflict, and Stevenson’s belief in man’s capacity for both good and evil.”

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Lessons to take away

> Work on a ‘spider diagram’ of the key themes in your texts.

> Keep your sentences short/read practice essays out loud to yourself.

> Remember P.E.A.

> Practice writing 10 minute plans.