Critical Analysis - Help and Guidance
- Are you unsure what critical analysis means?
- Have you ever been told to comment more on your evidence?
- Do your essays come back with ‘analyse’ written in the margin?
- Do you want to get more from your critical analysis and ensure you improve your grade?
- Does the fact that lecturers fail students or mark them down because of poor critical analysis concern you?
If the answer to any of the above is ‘yes’ – read on!
Select a section by clicking on one of the links below:
- 1.) Critical Analysis: Starting Out
- 2.) Critical Analysis: Moving on
- 3.) Critical Analysis: Different Uses of Evidence
- 4.) Critical Analysis: The Method in Texts
- 5.) Critical Analysis: The Method in Critical Works
As with any other skill, critical analysis can be learned. Obviously some students are better at this than others but usually only because they have been carefully taught. As with so many academic skills, the ability to analyse critically is learnt not innate. You need to begin to read differently and acquire the ability to see all your evidence in terms of how it can be critically applied.
So, what is Critical Analysis?
Critical analysis is close-reading, looking at a text in order to take it apart, almost like looking at how colours and brush strokes combine to make a picture come together. When you critically analyse work, you are looking at it with a view to commenting on it as evidence:
This is critical analysis.
Therefore, it is no use simply typing in a quote to support a point you are making, you need to comment on particular words or phrases that are of special interest or importance; never leave a quote hanging without comment:
This is critical analysis.
In other words, you need to say why you are using this particular quote to support your point when you could have chosen any part of the text. This makes it easier to say how you are going to use it:
This is critical analysis.
Obviously, you will have reasons for the evidence you need to analyse critically so these reasons need to be made clear to the person reading your work in order for you to get the very best out of the evidence you have researched and achieve the highest possible grade:
This is critical analysis.
So, what is the best method of critical analysis?
Methods vary according to how you are going to analyse and for what purpose. Clearly, if you are intending to analyse to form an argument you will adopt a different approach from if you are analysing to describe.
Each time you are about to look at evidence that is to be analysed critically, ask yourself the following:
- What point am I making and how will critical analysis help it?
- Why did I choose this piece of evidence to support my point?
- How can I make the evidence more effective by critical analysis?
- Which words and phrases would I choose to analyse critically?
- Where are the key words and/or phrases to analyse critically?
Underline any and all examples of this and then you are ready to move on to individual types of critical analysis.
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When you are researching an essay, you naturally assemble evidence. Then, having referenced this correctly for later use in the correct referencing style (notes on this are available on this site) you need to include indications of where you will use evidence in your essay plan.
As you assemble this, look carefully at the quotes you have chosen: what is it that makes this quote better than another? There should be a reason, if not, choose another quote!
Probably you have selected a piece of evidence because it connects with the point you are making but look more carefully. Specific words or phrases could make all the difference to the effectiveness of the evidence.
If you think about this at this early stage, then critical analysis will be easier later. In addition, you might be able to make use of evidence in a way you had not previously considered i.e. by taking points from the evidence itself.
This innovative approach to critical analysis means that your work will immediately become more original because you will be thinking of quotes in an entirely different way, not merely as support or padding (which you should avoid in any case) but as important in its own right.
In the next section, we’ll take a look at specific examples of different topics and see how the approach outlined here can be best applied in a wide variety of subjects.
This technique of analysis is particularly effective when you apply it to Literature but it is equally applicable to other subjects since whatever topic you are studying, you will need to use the work of critics and comment on their words.
For example, there is the world of difference between an expert ‘suggesting’ a proposition and ‘stating’ it.
In this sense, in fact, you should also consider the words you use yourself; it is never wise to be too definite in your analysis as what you are offering is an opinion so ensure that you make this clear.
In the study of History, this is essential because as is well known ‘History is written by the victors’ so a factually critical approach should always be adopted in order to be clear on the difference between fact and opinion.
In fact, you should always demonstrate your ability to differentiate between fact and opinion in your own writing and that of others as confusion of the two can lead to loss of marks and reduction of your grade. This is another way that critical analysis can help because it encourages you to read and write with more precision, a tremendous help with analysis of contracts and the Law, for example.
Analysing evidence critically is also useful if you are engaged in work which involves statistics or scientific subjects because precision is essential here both in how you approach the topic and in how you compile it.
In fact, there is hardly a subject on the curriculum that does not require critical analysis of some kind. Therefore, it seems clear that acquiring the skill of textual analysis will help you whatever subject you are pursuing - and the higher you go, the more important this is.
In fact, if you are analysing for postgraduate work then the difference in approach which this type of critical analysis will give you is essential. Why? Because analysis of this kind focuses your mind on original thought and you will thus develop original ideas and postgraduate work is all about originality.
What’s more, critical analysis of this kind ensures that you evidence is an intrinsic part of your work not superimposed or just added as an afterthought – both methods of using evidence which you should avoid in any subject.
So, having established that critical analysis is applicable to all subjects, let’s look at how you do it.
The best way to start is to read through your previous work. Make a note of comments that tutors and teachers have made and see whether you are repeating errors. For example, if you are being asked to quote more, look at why this might be the case and how you would quote if you were – as you often are – given the chance to do the work again. Then, having found out how you would fill the gaps, see how you can build on that as the ability to spot gaps is part of critical analysis. This means think about the words and phrases that link best to the point you are making and develop them with comments on them.
You can see from this why it is always best to start with your own work – especially if it has been marked – because you know better than anyone what point you were aiming to make and therefore no-one is better placed than yourself to look more closely at what went wrong or where you might have gained extra points towards a better grade.
Now, after this, you need to begin to analyse in depth. This means commenting where and when it is most effective.
Here is an example of how this can be done and don’t stop reading if you want nothing to do with Literature - the method is the same for any critical analysis!
Just suppose you have been asked to write an essay on a novel, let’s say Great Expectations (1860). This is an important book in Dickens’ life because it shows how much his perceptions of society had changed since he wrote David Copperfield ten years before. The later book, shows an entirely different way of assessing what makes a ‘gentleman’, so the author needs to show this not just in his story but in the language. Therefore, if you were asked to write about the book then you would need to look at the way Dickens creates characters, of course, attaching words like ‘nature’s gentlemen’ to Joe the blacksmith and contrasting this with the way the aristocracy, are described as ‘gentlemen’ but behave most unlike them. Also you would need to focus on the way Dickens creates atmosphere, from the first suggesting Pip’s isolation and loneliness:
I give Pirrip as my father's family name, on the authority of his tombstone and my sister - Mrs. Joe Gargery, who married the blacksmith. As I never saw my father or my mother, and never saw any likeness of either of them (for their days were long before the days of photographs), my first fancies regarding what they were like, were unreasonably derived from their tombstones. The shape of the letters on my father's, gave me an odd idea that he was a square, stout, dark man, with curly black hair. From the character and turn of the inscription, ‘Also Georgiana Wife of the Above,’ I drew a childish conclusion that my mother was freckled and sickly. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine - who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle - I am indebted for a belief I religiously entertained that they had all been born on their backs with their hands in their trousers-pockets, and had never taken them out in this state of existence. (Great Expectations, Chapter One).
So, what do you see here – a little boy alone in a churchyard? Well, yes, but if that’s all you see – and we’re not talking about fancy literary criticism here – then you are not looking closely enough.
Look at this writing analytically and consider the ideas presented here. The first thing you see is the idea of family and death in the words surrounding the tombstones. This links you into the boy’s imaginative way of visualising the features of his late family from the shapes of the letters on the gravestone inscriptions. This is a lonely child: orphaned and solitary, drawing associations from inanimate objects, creating his own feelings and relationships. What’s more, look at the choice of words for the idea of life and death, all from the semantic field of money: the punning ‘gave up trying to earn a living’, ‘indebted for a belief’, ‘hands in their trouser pockets’ – all of these suggest a major theme of the book: cash and the getting of it by fair means or foul!
So, in just one paragraph Dickens had established practically all his major themes: loneliness, death, isolation, imagination, family, relationships, money and power. Now that is a little more than just a boy in a churchyard!
All right, you say, I understand that writers put all kinds of themes in their work but I wouldn’t notice half of them and anyway, I’m not studying Literature. Well, that’s a valid point but it shows a certain limited view which won’t get you very far academically.
If you really wouldn’t see all these things then you need to start to look more closely because it isn’t just in Literature that you need to read as critically and as analytically as this. In fact, you need it in every subject.
The method is applicable to all subjects on the curriculum and though it is differently applied when dealing with poetry rather than prose and fact rather than fiction, the main principle remains the same. Read closely and carefully, notice words, connections between words, structure, placement, juxtaposition – all of these contribute to the effect the writer has laboured to create and they wrote these over and over again to get them just right – take a look at an original manuscript some time!
It may not have even occurred to you to analyse the words that a critic uses: you just pop it in as another voice to support your argument, right? Wrong! A critic is presenting an argument, he has an agenda, and you are taking just one small part of what might be an entire book – how can you be sure, without analysis, that you are using critics’ words to the best effect in your argument?
So, when you look at a critical work apply some simple analytical criteria:
- What is this quote trying to say and does it need critical analysis?
- How does it support my argument and will analysing critically help?
- Why did I choose this critic and how would I analyse his/her words critically?
- What is his/her argument and should it be qualified by critical analysis?
- Does it support/conflict with my views and how would critical analysis clarify this?
Every time you use a piece of evidence from a critic, you should critically analyse it in this way. At first, jot down your response to each of the above as a starting point in your critical analysis; after a while it will come naturally and you will not need to do this but at first it’s a big help with analysing and clarifying your thoughts.
When you are considering what the quote is trying to say when critically analysing look carefully at how the language is phrased. There is, as has been suggested, a great deal of difference between fact and opinion and however eminent a critic may be, most of his or her argument will be based on opinion or at best interpretation of fact.
There is an unfortunate assumption that because a critic is held in high esteem and their books recommended to you that you can’t argue with them. Of course you can! No-one has the definitive view on any topic and you are entitled to your justified critique. Now, if you have been reading carefully you will have noticed something there. The argument being presented was subtly qualified, wasn’t it? At first, you were being told not to take a critic’s words at face value then the significant phrase ‘justified critique’ was introduced. The difference is obvious really because initially you might have thought arguing without justification was all right, now you know it isn’t: a small but crucial difference but that’s what critical analysis is all about!
The same goes for when you are considering the methodology used by the critic and how it compares with your own. Have your methods produced different results? Where they say ‘conclusive evidence’ would you say ‘considerable evidence’, for example? There’s a big difference there and one you should note.
Also, look carefully at the way they have structured evidence. The placement of topics, chapters, paragraphs, words and phrases all contribute to the overall effect the writer is trying to achieve. It makes more difference than you might at first think to put a chapter on religious writers before a chapter on atheists rather than after because the first argument will be qualified by the second and thus although the religious chapter ‘speaks first’ and thus has the advantage of priming the reader, the second speaker has the opportunity to challenge what has gone before. Try never to assume anything, always look for the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ as these are the key words in critical analysis.
Moving on to consider how critics help or hinder your argument remember that there is actually no such thing as a negative when you are compiling a case because you have the power of selection. Therefore, although you can’t just omit any comments that disagree with your own findings, you can carefully and analytically construct your argument from and around your research so that any negative points become positives and every challenge an opportunity.
So, to sum up:
- Critical analysis is crucial if you are to use evidence effectively and creatively.
- More students fail to achieve the highest grades for want of critical analysis than from anything else.
- The ability to analyse critically will give you ideas, not just support those you have.
- No critic’s word is law and critical analysis can prove this.
- Taking ideas from critical analysis can make your work more original.
- Analysing structure critically can give you a different perspective.
- The best students always analyse and never leave a quote hanging.
You will have found in academic life that certain aspects of a person’s work set them apart. There is always a reason for this. Certainly, there are those who are naturally gifted but acquiring skills such as the ability to analyse critically definitely help and as you can see, this skill can be learnt. You should think carefully about what you have read here and try to apply it in your own work. You will immediately see an improvement in your essays and you will even start to read differently, more critically. In fact, you will begin to see the relationship between evidence and argument quite differently and the research and writing processes themselves will become more interesting as well as more integrated. So, the next time you begin to research and write an essay, take a critical viewpoint and analyse – you will be amazed how much difference it makes!