How Do You Critique An Essay

Writing a critique of another person's argument

    
© 2003Theodore Gracyk  

 

 

What is an argument critique? 

How do I get started? 

Challenging their premises/assumptions 

Identifying a hole in the argument 

Challenging the conclusion 

Final advice 

 A brief example 

Click here for a sample essay    Click here for another 


A critique is an evaluation. A critique or critical essay evaluates what someone has said. 

Some critiques are analyses of writing, as when one critiques a novel or poem for an English course. 

This outline covers a different kind of critique, a critique of the person's thinking. Thinking cannot be strictly divorced from matters of language use, but here we are going to focus on evaluation of the rationality of a person's position, not on evaluation of the person's facility in communicating it. To put it crudely, this sort of critique focuses on content and not presentation.

The simplest type of argumentative essay is one that simply criticizes the position of an opponent. There are only a limited number of strategies to adopt with this sort of essay.

Your thesis will be very straightforward. It will take one of these forms: 

Person so-and-so is wrong to conclude __________. 
Person so-and-so is hasty in concluding __________.
Person so-and-so fails to prove that ____________.

(Fill in the blank with their position, and put their name where it says "Person so-and-so") The rest of your essay consists of your reasons supporting this thesis.


Getting Started  

Before you start writing, study and take apart their argument for their position. You are looking for the parts of their argument. 

An argument consists of three things:

  • Assumptions 
  • Premises 
  • Conclusions

(Premises are reasons they give to prove that they're correct. Conclusions are anything they give reasons to believe. Some of these conclusions are likely to be used as premises for later conclusions. Assumptions are undefended beliefs they hold in order for the argument to make sense.)  

There are three basic strategies for criticizing the argument once you have identified it.

  1. Deprive them of their premises and/or assumptions (take away their support).
  2. Show that there's a hole in the argument (show that they didn't provide support).
  3. Show that the conclusion itself is not believable (direct assault on thesis).

Let's review these one by one.

1. Deprive them of their premises and/or assumptions

The simplest critique will focus

exclusively on the assumptions and premises, arguing that one or more is false. To be effective, therefore, the essay will start by identifying the central premises and assumptions. (So the first stage of the evaluation is to summarize your opponent's argument) The essay will then focus on the ones that you think are weakest, discussing them one at a time and giving reason not to agree with them. Don't just say that you agree or disagree! That simply identifies your position as different  (resulting in a "compare and contrast" essay), but it does not provide evaluation of the other person's position. 

There are three basic strategies for showing that we should not agree to a premise or assumption.

  • We can give good reasons to regard it as false.
  • We can show that it directly contradicts something we know is true.
  • We can show that there are no good reasons to believe it.

The first two of these three strategies are simpler than the third. The third involves reviewing all of the reasons that someone might give for the claim and then showing that all of those reasons are weak. Obviously, this is very time-consuming. It's much simpler to argue that the claim is false or contradicts something we know is true.

So how do you show that a claim is false?

These are best strategies for arguing that a premise or assumption is false:

  • Describe a personal experience you've had that shows it is false.
  • Cite a reliable authority who says it is false.
  • Assume that it is true and then show that this assumption leads to something else that is false or highly questionable. (Technically, this is to construct a reductio ad absurdum.) 

2. Show that there's a hole in the argument 
  (show that the conclusion simply does not follow from what has been said)

Sometimes we cannot find good objections to the premises and assumptions, but we can show that the conclusion does not really follow from the ones offered by the arguer. This happens when the evidence might be true, but the arguer does not offer enough of it or the right kind. Perhaps their evidence only supports a different but weaker thesis.

For example, the arguer might want to argue that there is nothing wrong with eating meat. Their premise in defense of this thesis is that it is traditional to eat meat in our culture. We can respond that the truth of the premise does not demonstrate the conclusion. Human slavery is also a traditional practice, but hardly demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with human slavery. Since tradition does not justify slavery, it doesn't justify eating meat, either.

Here is another example, from philosophy: Some philosophers contend that innate ideas do not exist. As evidence they point to mathematics as a candidate for innate ideas and then point out that nobody has ever seen a newborn baby doing mathematical calculations. We might respond that the evidence is true, but point out that we don't see evidence of it because newborns can't talk and can't manipulate objects that allow them to draw diagrams and write out math problems. Their inability to do these things might still allow them have innate mathematical ideas in advance of being able to communicate them in the usual ways.

The more you know about argument fallacies and what it takes to put together a strong argument, the easier it is to critique arguments.

3. Show that the conclusion itself is not believable

This approach ignores the premises and assumptions in favor of focusing attention on the conclusion. The problem with this strategy is that you will have to have a very good reason to deny the conclusion is true when you cannot point to flaws in the reasoning that supports it! It suggests that you are just being stubborn and refusing to look at the evidence! About the only thing that you can do in this case is to construct a powerful reductio ad absurdum.  Other strategies (offering evidence that it is false, or showing that reliable authorities reject it) are weak here because they still leave the opponent's evidence right where it was, supporting the conclusion, leaving the impression that there are good arguments both ways. We might conclude that the matter is undecided and not that the opponent's thesis is false.

So while a direct assault on the conclusion is a questionable strategy, it is powerful when paired with one or both of the other two.  


Final advice

  • Be fair! Be accurate in summarizing the arguments you critique.
  • Be thorough. Deal with all of the arguments!
    Obviously, most arguers will give several different reasons in support of their conclusion. A critique usually begins with the strongest of them, and proceeds to examine each of them, one at a time. It is wrong to focus only on the weaker arguments when several are given, for this is to misrepresent the strength of the opponent's position by committing the fallacy of straw man. If there are a lot of arguments to deal with, the best strategy is to focus directly on the conclusion you want to dispute, and concentrate on showing it is false or questionable.
  • Stay on task. Do not get personal! Do not shift attention to the person who wrote the argument. The person who gives the argument is not the issue.

Pulling it all together

 

A Simple Example

Here is a short argument : "Frank is jerk. Anyone who fails to pay child support for their own daughter is a jerk." 

Suppose that's all that's said to prove that Frank is a jerk (which is the conclusion). So the only premise is "Anyone who fails to pay child support for their own daughter is a jerk." But there are at least two assumptions. One is that Frank has a daughter. The other is that Frank isn't paying child support for that daughter. This offers three places to begin criticizing the argument.

We might start by disputing the premise, by pointing to several good counterexamples (men who fail to pay child support but who are not jerks). In this case, that's not hard to do. Some men don't pay child support because they are unemployed and have no income, in which case they might fail to pay through no fault of their own.  We can also attack the assumptions. We might say that Frank can't be held responsible for the child support until there's clear evidence that he's the child's father, but the argument has assumed that without offering evidence of it. Or we might produce evidence that Frank does pay the child support.

After examining the premises and assumptions, we try to find a hole in the argument.  In this case, that won't work, because the argument is valid (i.e., deductively successful).

Finally, we could just attack the conclusion directly by pointing out all of Frank's good qualities. (If Frank were a jerk, he wouldn't have all these good qualities. But he has them. So he's not a jerk.) We might admit that Frank should pay the money, but that it's too strong a conclusion to accuse him of being a jerk.

 


Reductio ad absurdum 

Latin for "reduction to the absurd." 

This argument strategy takes an opponent's claim (either a premise or assumption or conclusion) and argues that its truth would lead us to accept something completely absurd, ridiculous, or impossible.

Example: Someone defends vegetarianism by saying that it is unethical to live by killing. A reductio ad absurdum reply might go like this: 

You say that it is wrong to live by killing. But there are 6 billion people in the world today. If it is wrong for anyone to live by killing, then these 6 billion will have to find food sources that don't kill anything, including plants. We will only be able to eat parts of plants that we can get without killing the plant (some fruits and vegetables), plus plants and animals that die naturally (we could eat "road kill" and harvest potatoes and carrots after the plant dies). But people could not harvest wheat and similar grains in sufficient quantity to make up for the meat and other food that they currently eat, since that involves killing the plant to get the grain. So your recommendation would withhold food from most of the world's six billion people, because there will not be enough "ethical" food to go around. But a course of action that will result in most people starving themselves to death is not ethical, so it does not make sense to claim that t is wrong for anyone to live by killing.

 

© 2003 Theodore Gracyk

            Last updated August 24, 2012

Whenever you read an essay, use the following questions to guide your response.

First, keep in mind that, although you may not be a writing expert, you are THE reader of this essay and your response is a valid one. I have found that almost every reader, regardless of experience, can identify the primary strength and weakness in an essay, although their method of describing those issues may be different. The author will welcome your response and your ability to explain your reaction in a new way. Although the author is not required to, and really shouldn’t, respond to everything you say, he or she will take your comments seriously and consider how the essays has enlightened or confused you. Therefore, comment freely, although respectfully. Keep in mind that it is better to begin by noting the strengths of the essay before pointing out the areas that need improvement. I would always include a personal response to questions like the following: What about the essay most connects with your experience? Moves you? Provokes you? Entertains you?

So that is how to respond. So how do you critique? For every essay, regardless of the mode, consider the broad categories of content, organization, style, and correctness.

  1. Content: Consider the topic (its appropriateness and interest for the assignment as well as a clear focus suitable to essay length) and the way the topic is developed (clarity sufficiency of its argument, its scope, subcategories, amount and type of examples, anecdotes, evidence, etc.).
  2. Organization: Consider how the essay is introduced and concluded (especially looking for a “frame” to the essay, where the intro and conclusion refer to the same idea), whether the thesis is located in the most helpful place (direct or implied), how the essay is structured, whether the order or extent of development is successful, as well as how individual paragraphs are organized (clear topic sentences, appropriate and concrete evidence, logical organization of evidence).
  3. Style: Style can refer to the overall style of an essay: whether the tone is appropriate (humorous, serious, reflective, satirical, etc.), whether you use sufficient and appropriate variety (factual, analytical, evaluative, reflective), whether you use sufficient creativity. Style can also refer to the style of individual sentences: whether you use a variety of sentences styles and lengths, whether sentences are worded clearly, and whether word choice is interesting and appropriate.
  4. Correctness: Correctness refers to grammar, punctuation, and form of the essay. You do not need to know the exact grammatical term or rule to know when a sentence is not correct. Even though you may not know the term dangling modifier, you could identify that the following sentence is not correct:

    Rolling around in the bottom of the drawer, Tim found the missing earring. [certainly the earring was rolling, not Tim!]

    You could also easily tell that the following sentence actually contains two sentences that need punctuation between them:

    The new manager instituted several new procedures some were impractical. [You need to add punctuation (period) after “procedures” and capitalize “some.”]

    Feel free to mark the essay at the point of the error with a specific recommendation (“run-on sentence”) or a general comment (“this sentence sounds wrong to me”). You can also simply put an “X” by any sentence that seems incorrect. See the back of WR for commonly used Correction Symbols.

Further Directions for Specific Assignments

Below are more detailed questions to consider when responding to individual types of essays. First, make sure that you have reviewed the description of the essay mode in the Essay Assignment Guidelines. Use at least one or two of these when responding to an essay. Do not simply answer yes or no; offer specific evidence from the text and elaborate on the reasons behind your answer.

Personal Essay Critique:

  1. Does the writer have a clear but understated purpose to the essay?
  2. Does it avoid being overly moralistic or heavy-handed?
  3. Does the essay contain suspense or tension that is resolved in some way?
  4. Do you have any suggestions for organizing the essay, such as focusing in on one event rather than many, providing more background, turning explanation into action, etc.?
  5. Does the essay make good use of concrete description, anecdote, and dialogue?
  6. Does the essay help you to feel the emotions rather than just describe the emotions of the author?
  7. Does the essay reveal a significant aspect of the writer’s personality?
  8. Does the writer seem authentic?
  9. Is this a passionate piece? Is it creative?

Critical Review Critique

  1. Does a direct thesis convey both the subject and the reviewer’s value judgment?
  2. Does the review provide a summary or description to help you experience the film, music, event, etc.? Note places where the author provides too much or too little detail.
  3. Does the essay clearly identify relevant criteria for evaluation? Are they appropriate, believable, and consistent?
  4. Are any important features of the reviewed subject omitted?
  5. Logos (logic, content): Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details and examples to adequately inform and entertain?
  6. Ethos (author): Does the author’s judgment seem sound and convincing?
  7. Pathos (emotional appeals): Does the author responsibly and effectively utilize emotional appeals to the audience?
  8. Does the author include adequate reference to the opposition and respond to that opposition appropriately?

Information Essay Critique: The questions posed about an informative essay will vary, depending on the purpose and strategy of the essay. The SMGW suggests evaluating for the following issues:

  1. Is topic clearly explained and sufficiently focused?
  2. Does the content fit the audience?
  3. Is it organized effectively?
  4. Are definitions clear?
  5. Are other strategies (classification, comparison/contrast, analysis) used effectively?
  6. Are sources used sufficiently, effectively, and appropriately?

You might also assess the following criteria:

  1. Does the author utilize vivid detail, interesting examples, and lively language?
  2. Does the essay avoid emphasizing judgment over explanation?
  3. Does the essay have a clear focus or implied thesis?

Comparison/Contrast Essay Critique

  1. Is the purpose for a comparison or contrast evident and convincing?
  2. Does the essay identify significant and parallel characteristics for comparison?
  3. Does the author adequately explain, analyze, or reflect on the comparison or contrast?
  4. Does the author provide appropriate transitions words to indicate comparison and contrast?
  5. Is the treatment of each side of the comparison or contrast in balance?
  6. Does the essay provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details?

Feature Article Critique

  1. Does this article interest you? Do you think it will interest the intended audience? Can you suggest ways to increase interest?
  2. Can you tell what the “angle” or implied thesis is? Does the author avoid editorial judgment on the subject while still keeping the purpose clear?
  3. Has the writer done sufficient research? What questions have gone unasked or unanswered? Whose point of view or what information would add further to the completeness of the feature?
  4. Is the subject presented vividly with sensory images, graphic detail, and figurative language? Do you have suggestions of details or images to include?
  5. Does the writer use an appropriate mixture of anecdote, quotation, description, and explanation? Would more or less of one of these improve the essay?
  6. Are the beginning and ending paragraphs interesting and appropriate for the specific audience? Consider the need for a “lead sentence” if intended for a newspaper.

Documented Argument Critique

  1. Is the thesis clear, argumentative, and effective? Why or why not?
  2. Are the topic and thesis are reasonable for the assignment, audience, and context of the essay?
  3. Does the author define his or her terms and provide sufficient background information? What ideas or terms are undefined or inadequately explained?
  4. Is the thesis supported by clear reasons? Are the reasons clearly worded and supported sufficiently?
  5. Do the reasons fit logically together and are they placed in the right order?
  6. Does the author adequately address the opposition? What is another opposing argument he/she should or could have addressed?
  7. Has the author done adequate research?
  8. Are the works cited adequately introduced and explained before citing from them?
  9. Does the paper contain an appropriate blend of well-placed quotations within a context of the author’s own words and paraphrases from other sources?
  10. Is the writer clearly in charge, naturally introducing and interacting with sources rather than merely reporting on them?
  11. Do you find the argument convincing? What might you add or omit?

Business Writing Critique

Memo

  1. Does the memo begin with the most important information?
  2. Does the memo build rapport by involving the reader in opening paragraph?
  3. Does the memo provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details? Is it focused and brief?
  4. Does the memo focus each paragraph on one idea?
  5. Is the memo informed, accurate, demonstrating the author’s grasp of the situation?
  6. Is the final paragraph calling for a specific action? Is it brief? Does it build good will?
  7. Is the memo form correct, with concise subject line, initialed name, correct spacing?
  8. Is the information arranged (indentations and numbering) in a way that makes it easy to skim and still get central information?

Cover letter

  1. Does the first paragraph identify who the author is, briefly state why he/she is writing, and refer to how he/she found out about the job?
  2. Does the second paragraph highlight specific strengths, special abilities, or features of the résumé to be noted?
  3. Does the third paragraph make a specific request of the reader or address what action is to be taken?
  4. Does the letter provide sufficient, relevant, and interesting details to make the request convincing?
  5. Is the letter brief and focused? What elements could be eliminated?
  6. Does the writer achieve his or her purpose? Does it make you want to consider the résumé more carefully?
  7. Is the tone of the letter courteous without being too formal, relaxed without being too familiar?
  8. Is the letter’s form appropriate (heading, spacing, greeting, salutation)? Is the letter addressed to a specific person rather than a general “Dear Madam/Sir”?

Résumé

  1. Does the résumé contain the necessary features for the position (name/address, position desired, education, work experience, achievements, relevant personal information, references)?
  2. Does the résumé contain only essential, relevant information for the position required?
  3. Does the résumé emphasize the applicant’s strengths?
  4. Does the résumé emphasize what is unique about this person’s experience? Does it demonstrate a common interest or ability (leadership, teaching experience, dedication, creativity, etc.)?
  5. What additional information might you like to have about this applicant?
  6. If you were leading an interview based on this résumé, what are two questions you might ask?
  7. Does the résumé look neat (appropriate spacing, clear headings, good quality paper)?
  8. Is the résumé easy to read?
  9. Is the information presented as concisely as possible?
  10. Are the elements of each section of the résumé presented in a parallel format and style (begin w/ active verbs, put date in consistent place, use of parallelism for elements, consistent underlining or italics)?

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