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How To Write a Critical Paper

“CRITICISM”: n. The art, skill or profession of making discriminating judgments and evaluations.

THE ESSENCE OF CRITICAL THINKING

Ask Four Basic Questions as You Read / Listen:

  1. What is the book/message about as a whole?
  2. What is the author/speaker saying in detail, and how is it said?
  3. Is the book/message true, in whole or in part?
  4. What is the significance of the book/message?

ELEMENTS OF A CRITICAL PAPER

The following is a general structure to follow for the body of a critical paper. Be sure to include a suitable introduction and conclusion, as described in the previous section, How to Write a Whole Composition.
Adapt it to specific assignments as appropriate.

PART ONE: DESCRIPTION

  • Classify the book/message according to kind and subject matter.
  • Very briefly, state what the whole of the book/message is about.
  • Enumerate the major parts of the book/message in their order and relation.
  • Define the problem or problems that the author/speaker is trying to solve.

PART TWO: INTERPRETATION

  • Find the important words (terms) in the book/message and determine the author’s/speaker’s meaning of these terms, with precision.
  • Identify the most important sentences (propositions) in the book/message, the ones that express the judgments on which the whole book/message rests. These are the foundational affirmations and denials of the author/speaker.  They must be either premises or conclusions. State them in your own words.
  • Construct the author’s/speaker’s arguments, beginning with any assumptions and/or self-evident propositions. An argument is the author’s/speaker’s line of reasoning aimed at demonstrating the truth or falsehood of his or her claims, that is, the coherent series of reasons, statements, or facts that support or establish a point of view.  If the arguments are not explicitly expressed in the book/message, you will need to construct them from sequences of sentences.
  • Determine the author’s/speaker’s solutions to the problem or question that he or she posed.  Ask: Which problems were solved and which were not?  Did the author/speaker know which were not solved?

PART THREE:  CRITICISM

General Pointers.
From this point on, you will have a chance to argue with the author/speaker and express yourself, but keep in mind the following general maxims of scholarly etiquette:

Do not say that you agree, disagree, or suspend judgment until you have adequately interpreted the book/message. Do not begin criticism until you are able to say, with reasonable certainty, “I understand,” i. e., I have done an adequate job with parts one and two.  Complete the task of understanding before rushing in.

When you disagree, do so reasonably and not contentiously.

Demonstrate that you know the difference between knowledge and personal opinion by presenting good reasons for any critical judgments that you make.

Three conditions must be satisfied if controversy is to be well conducted:

Make an attempt at impartiality by reading/listening sympathetically.

Acknowledge any emotions that you bring to the dispute.

State your own assumptions explicitly.

Determine, wherever possible, the origins and the consequences of the author’s/speaker’s arguments.
Try to locate the origins of the author’s/speaker’s ideas in the larger picture of history.  What movements, currents of thought, or other thinkers might have influenced him or her?  Then carry the author’s/speaker’s ideas to their logical conclusions.  To the best of your ability and given the academic background that you already possess, relate the author’s/speaker’s ideas to those of other authors with whom you are familiar.

Judge the soundness of the author’s/speaker’s arguments.
As called for, show where the author/speaker is uninformed.   To support your remarks, you must be able to state the knowledge that the author/speaker lacks and show how it is relevant, i.e., how it affects the conclusions.

As called for, show where the author/speaker is misinformed, where assertions are made that are contrary to fact.  This kind of defect should be pointed out only if it is relevant to the conclusions.  To support your remark, you must be able to argue the truth or greater probability of a position contrary to the author’s / speaker’s.

As called for, show where the author/speaker is illogical, where there are fallacies in reasoning.  In general fallacies are of two sorts.  There is the non sequitur, which means that the conclusion simply does not follow for the reasons that are offered.  Then there is the problem of inconsistency, which means that two things the author/speaker has tried to say are incompatible.  To make either of these criticisms, you must be able to show the precise respect in which the author’s/speaker’s argument fails to be forcibly convincing.  Be concerned with this defect only if major conclusions are affected by it.

In addition, show where the author/speaker fails to draw any conclusions that are implied by the evidence given or principles involved.

If you have not been able to show that the author/speaker is uninformed, misinformed or illogical on relevant matters, you simply cannot disagree.  You must agree, at least in part, although you may suspend judgment on the whole. If you have been convinced, you should admit it.  If, despite your failure to support one or more of these critical points, you still honestly feel unconvinced, perhaps you should not have said that you understood in the first place!

Judge the completeness of the author’s/speaker’s arguments.
Define any inadequacy precisely. Did the author/speaker solve all the problems he/she started with?  Did the author/speaker make the best use of available materials and resources?  Did the author/speaker see all the implications and ramifications of the problem?  Did the author/speaker make all essential or relevant distinctions in his or her presentation?

Judge the value of the book / message.
Your final evaluation must be concerned with the truth and significance of the book/message for a given purpose, i.e., its value.  This judgment must be based on definite criteria.  These criteria should be internal (soundness and completeness) as well as external (relevance to some purpose). 

PART FOUR: (OPTIONAL) INTEGRATE THE ACADEMIC AND THE PERSONAL.
Engage the key idea(s) that are most provocative and alive for you.  Consider how your experience is similar to or different from what you read.  Identify any spiritual issues as they arose for you and your way of responding to or struggling with them. Describe which key ideas, if any, might be applied in your ministry.