Writing A Critical Summary Essay
Critical reviews, both short (one page) and long (four pages), usually have a similar structure. Check your assignment instructions for formatting and structural specifications. Headings are usually optional for longer reviews and can be helpful for the reader.
Summarising and paraphrasing are essential skills for academic writing and in particular, the critical review. To summarise means to reduce a text to its main points and its most important ideas. The length of your summary for a critical review should only be about one quarter to one third of the whole critical review.
The best way to summarise is to:
- Scan the text. Look for information that can be deduced from the introduction, conclusion and the title and headings. What do these tell you about the main points of the article?
- Locate the topic sentences and highlight the main points as you read.
- Reread the text and make separate notes of the main points. Examples and evidence do not need to be included at this stage. Usually they are used selectively in your critique.
Paraphrasing means putting it into your own words. Paraphrasing offers an alternative to using direct quotations in your summary (and the critique) and can be an efficient way to integrate your summary notes.
The best way to paraphrase is to:
- Review your summary notes
- Rewrite them in your own words and in complete sentences
- Use reporting verbs and phrases (eg; The author describes…, Smith argues that …).
- If you include unique or specialist phrases from the text, use quotation marks.
A critical analysis (sometimes called a critique, critical summary, or book review) is a systematic analysis of an idea, text, or piece of literature that discusses its validity and evaluates its worth. A critical analysis usually includes a summary–a concise restatement of what a text says–and an evaluation–how well it says it. A critical analysis in literature, for example, might examine the style, tone, or rhetorical appeals of a text, while an analysis of a scientific paper might examine the methodology, accuracy, and relevance of the research.
A good critique will consider the following questions
- Who is the author, and what are his/her qualifications?
- What is the nature of the work (type, purpose, intended audience)?
- What is its significance? How does it compare to other material on the same subject? By the same author?
- What is the author's thesis?
- What is the organizational plan or method? Is it well conceived? Does it achieve the author's objectives?
- What are the underlying assumptions? Are they stated or do they lurk behind a stance of neutrality and objectivity?
- How do assumptions and biases affect the validity of the piece?
- Are arguments/statements supported by evidence? Is the evidence relevant? Sufficient?
- Is the author's methodology sound?
- What evidence or ideas has the author failed to consider?
- Are the author's judgments and conclusions valid?
- What rhetorical strategies does the author use? Are they effective?
A word about the thesis statement
Remember that no matter what format you follow in writing your critical analysis, it should have a thesis statement that establishes your approach to or opinion about the piece. Your thesis statement will not be the same as the original author's thesis statement. For example, say that the original author's thesis statement is “the moon is made of green cheese.” Your own thesis might be “the author's assertion that the moon is made of green cheese is ill-founded and is not supported with adequate evidence.”
Organizing the Critical Analysis
There are many models for writing a critical analysis. Some disciplines recommend breaking an analysis into two sections: The first section provides a summary of the content of the work, while the second section analyzes and evaluates the work. Other disciplines, in contrast, favor a model in which the summary and analysis are smoothly integrated. See the reverse side for two serviceable (if unembellished) formats for a critical analysis. Also, remember that length can vary from a paragraph to several pages.
Sample Critical Analysis — Two-Part Structure
In “Nature Cannot be Fooled,” [title] originally published in 1998 in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, [date and source] Washington University Professor Jonathan Katz[author name and descriptor] contends [active verb] that American Society denies reality, living instead as if its “wished-for fictions” were “true” [paraphrase (and partial quotation) of author's thesis]. Katz further [transition] argues[active verb] that this distorted view of reality manifests itself in many negative ways—from public health policy to education. [list of key ideas]
(Note that the evaluative terms are bold-faced for the purposes of illustration only.)
Unfortunately, Katz fails to support his argument. His commentary relies onfallacies, unsupported claims, and opinions rather than on logical statements, supported claims, and facts. Therefore, even though Katz expresses much passion, he fails to offer a persuasive argument. [Use your own thesis statement to provide an organizational plan for the paper.]
The body paragraphs should analyze particular components of the work. For instance, in an analysis of the Katz commentary, the body would offer specific illustrations of the flawed passages in Katz's commentary; these illustrations would support the analytical claims that you are making about the work. The focus, then, is objective analysis, not subjective response.
The conclusion may restate the author's thesis, but the main purpose of the conclusion should be to emphasize your assessment of the writer's work.
Sample Critical Analysis — Integrated Model
One technique for integrating a summary and an evaluation is simply to merge the two separate sections (like the examples above) into a single introductory paragraph. Another technique is to synthesize the summary and evaluative comments, as in the following sample introduction:
In 1936, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” for an audience of literary scholars of his own day. Thus, the essay can pose some difficulties for modern readers, who may not be familiar with literary history or the specific critics to whom Tolkien refers. In addition, Tolkien's diction is formal and quite dense. Nevertheless, he offers a persuasive and masterful defense of Beowulf, one of England's most beloved works. [Our thesis] Tolkien argues that Beowulf scholars are wrong to mine the poem solely for historic evidence about the Anglo-Saxon period, rather than reading it as a great and inspiring work of literature. [Tolkien's thesis] Although he agrees that its historical value is high, he shows that Beowulf is so powerful as a poem that its literary qualities far outshine its historical value.
Teresa Sweeney & Fran Hooker Webster University Writing Center, 2005