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How to Write a Critical Evaluation Essay

[Index]

I: Purpose of the Essay
     Audience
     The Critical Thinking Goal: Objectivity (Reasoning over Feeling)

II: The Difference Between Taste and Judgment

V: Evaluative Criteria: Setting the Standards Avoid Criteria that Don't Work, such as "It's Popular" or "It's funny."
       Choose Fair, Accurate Criteria: Judge by the Same Standards
       "Criterion" Versus "Premise"

VI: Should I use What Other Critics Have Written as Support for my Own Argument?
VII:  Common Mistakes to Avoid when Writing Evaluations

I: Purpose of the Essay

This lecture will guide you toward the draft of your Critical Evaluation Essay, and along the way, ask you to complete two assignments. In the "Critical Evaluation" essay, you will be writing a review -- supporting a judgment -- on the fiction stories in Blues Vision.

Your writing purpose in a Critical Evaluation Essay is to judge the quality of a mo movie and offer reasoned support for your judgment. You will support your judgment (thesis) with sound, fair, thorough evidence. You will explain "reasons" for you judgment beyond matters of personal taste (what you "like").

 The Critical Thinking Goal: Objectivity (Reasoning over Feeling)

The key to the success of a critical evaluator ("reviewer") is to suppress the "fan" or the "hater" in favor of giving the critical, objective thinker a chance to uncover the truth about the quality of a subject. Check your feelings at the door.

For instance, I might choose to evaluate the book Desert Solitaire, which I really liked. The challenge for me would be to suppress the fan and instead evaluate the book by fair criteria, to test their worth. I might find that some of the essays were drawn out too long, some of the statements of fact unbelievable, and some of the dialogue contrived. When I look at the book, critically, I find weaknesses.

See Common Mistakes to Avoid When writing Evaluations.

 


II: The Difference Between Taste and Judgment

A judgment is a statement of value, of approval or disapproval, and people judge all the time. The term is often viewed negatively, especially when individuals judge other individuals. “You worry too much about your lawn, Bob” is a judgment that may be offensive, whether true or not. (It's true. Bob does worry about his lawn too much).

A lot of judgments are based on taste, which means, “I like something because I like it.” No reasons necessary. A taste-decision doesn’t demand sound reasons to support it. When someone says, “I hate country music,” they are offering a taste-based judgment, when they may not have a solid understanding of the conventions and criteria used to evaluate country music in a fair manner. It’s simply a matter of personal preference, an unsupported opinion. It's a matter of taste.

The purpose in this writing assignment, however, is to offer sound reasons to support a personal preference. The judgment you make in this essay must go far beyond “What I like is good because what I like is good.” In this essay, you need to tell the reader “why” your judgment is correct by offering strong support by analysis of the subject itself. Personal taste has no place in a critical evaluation.

Judgments are supported, first, by establishing a base of“Evaluative Criteria”, which are sets of standards used to fairly judge the merits of a particular subject.

III: Evaluative Criteria: Setting the Standards

 

In order to defend a judgment, there must be a basis for evaluation, or MANY bases for evaluation. If you look at the evaluation forms I use for evaluating essays, you'll see a number of specific evaluative criteria, or standards writers are held up to for a specific type of essay. Creating criteria creates a level playing field for all writers and evaluators by keeping the evaluator on an objective rather than “personal taste” level. The criteria do not measure what the reader personally “likes” in writing, but instead reflect the generally agreed upon principles that are necessary to evaluate the subject.

 

Choose Fair, Accurate Criteria: Judge by the Same Standards


The key in establishing criteria is to choose the ones necessary to measure the quality of the subject and that can be fairly applied to all subjects in a given category, or genre. For instance, not all movies have the same evaluative criteria. Is American Beauty judged by the same standards as The Matrix? Is Little Children held to the same criteria as Spiderman III? Though the subject area is the same -- movies -- the category, or genres, differ  -- drama versus comedy, science fiction versus action/adventure -- and should be judged by different sets of criteria, otherwise one genre movie may be unfairly judged. Other movie genres, for example: family, independent, horror, classics, thrillers, dark comedies, romances, etc. And you can even break down the categories further: British comedies, cult comedies, romance comedies, etc.

Once you identify the specific genre, you can begin establishing the criteria for that genre.

Here's an analogy: are athletes expected to meet the same criteria if one plays football and another baseball? Are all baseball players expected to meet the same criteria? In baseball, what are the evaluative criteria for judging the worth of a second baseman? Are the criteria different for evaluating the worth of an outfielder. Some would say that a shortstop needs to field well and hit well, but those criteria are too broad and apply to all baseball players, which may not be fair to all baseball players. A more thorough set of criteria might be:

  • Foot-speed/ Lateral quickness (move side to side fast).
  • Fast reflexes and a good glove.
  • Strong, accurate thrower.
  • Coordinated feet (able to “turn” a double play).
  • Hit for average.

The criteria for a first baseman are different:

·        Fast reflexes and a good glove.

·        Hit for power and average.

 

The criteria, or standards, differ because the positions differ. Power hitters play first base because they are not quick and wily, but are bulky and built for the long-ball and sizeable targets for the fielders. They are expected to drive in runners and catch throws; their offensive skills are weighed more heavily while the shortstop’s defensive skills are weighed more heavily. When a player meets or exceeds both defensive and offensive criteria, such as an Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter (I hate the Yankees but these two players are great), then there is a “quality” ball player – a subject who not only meets, but exceeds the standards.

Still, with the goal being “to be fair”, would most coaches apply offensive and defensive criteria both to their middle infielders? No. There would be no more middle infielders. Christian Guzman, who hits five home runs a year, would be out of a job. Instead, he is valued for his speed, defensive skills, and ability to get on base and steal them.

"Criterion" Versus "Premise"

The difference between criteria and premises (main reasons) is like this: a criteria, for instance, to judge the category of science fiction films, is "special effects." Special effects, however, is not a "reason" to support a judgment. It's just a criteria. If it were written as a reason to support a thesis, the thesis (underlined) might look like this:

"Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope" is a wonderful movie because it has special effects.


"It has special effects" is a fact, not a premise. It's not arguable. A premise needs to be arguable. Premises are based on the criteria, but make a judgment about the effectiveness of the criteria; thus, premises are arguable in that, just like the thesis, they make judgments. Thus, the above criteria stated as a true premise would look like this:


"Star Wars Episode Four: A New Hope" is a wonderful movie because it has tremendous special effects."


Simply adding the word "tremendous" turns the criteria into a premise, which is a main reason to support the thesis (main point of essay); thus, the criteria is being evaluated for its worth, whether it's good or bad. And next it's the writer's job to defend that premise with specific analysis of the scenes from the movie.

Pause now to Read some more Reviews

Positive:
Roger Ebert on Fargo

Negative:
Roger Ebert on Napoleon Dynamite

Questions for discussion or reflection: Does Ebert establish evaluative criteria in both reviews? Does he have a clear thesis statement? What are his reasons to support his overall judgment of each film? What supporting examples does he give to defend his judgments.

 

VI: Should I use What Other Critics Have Written as Support for my Own Argument

The answer to this question is both yes and no. Since you are essentially writing your own review and supporting your own judgments by giving your thoughts and reasoning about the book, there may then be no reason to offer up other reviewers judgments on the book. Reader can read those people's reviews on their own.

The most likely case where you might bring another person's review into your own writing is if one or many of those reviewer's points are in opposition to your. It can be really interesting to present what you think is an unsound point made by another review, and refute it with your own analysis of the book.

 

VII: Common Mistakes to Avoid when Writing Reviews

 

Avoid Summarizing the Plot or Overviewing the Characters
(for films, TV shows, books)
 

In an evaluation, a two sentence overview of the story, if a movie or a book is plenty. A reader can always find this basic information on a website like IMDB.com or Wikipedia or any number of places. The last thing an evaluator should do is repeat that information. It serves no purpose to critical evaluation. What you do not want to do is spend more than a paragraph either summarizing the story or summarizing the characters and who plays them. Your job as an evaluator is not to tell the reader what the story is about, but instead to explore the reasons why the story is good or not; thus, the body of the essay should deliver focused examples that support your premises/ reasons why you think the movie or book or CD is quality, or not.

 

Avoid Cliches

Cliches are words or phrases, and sometimes images, that are so overused they they become either meaningless or irritating, or both. Here are some common movie-review cliches to avoid:

A triumph of the human spirit

Keeps viewers on the edges of their seats.

A Must-See.

A tour-de-force.

An instant hit/classic

The feel-good movie of the year.

The best film of the year/ever. (Avoid overstatement, too.)

Inspiring.

A masterpiece.

A film the whole family can enjoy.

This movie doesn't know what it wants to be.

 

Titles

Your essay title should not simply be the title of the subject, as in Avatar. In the first place, that’s technically plagiarism, titling the essay the same as an already-titled movie. More importantly, there’s no focus in the title. Make sure to add your point of view to the title. Use a colon, as in “Subject: It’s Good.” That will give the reader the purpose of the essay, what is being written ABOUT the subject. Example: “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: the most excellent skipping school movie of the 20th Century!” The title should give the reader an indication of the purpose of the article, in this case, that you are evaluating the subject.

Second-Person Pronouns

Avoid using the pronoun “You,” which directly refers to the reader. This pronoun sometimes serves a purpose in essays of instruction (“how-to” essays), but not in persuasive forms. In any persuasive essay especially, it can seem heavy-handed and preachy, trying to force the reader aggressively to believe in something rather than allowing the reader to make his or her determination based upon the logic and support you provide. Instead, use terms like “audiences” or “viewers” or “readers,” depending on the subject. This at least makes the argument seem more objective rather than “telling” the reader to think a certain way. Oftentimes, this “telling” with the word you is a mask for a lack of developed reasoning. Make your “reasons” do the persuasive work.

First-Person Pronouns

Be sparing in using first-person pronouns, though they sometimes work. First of all, there is no need to use first-person announcements such as “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe” or variants because it’s implicit to the essay form that these are your thoughts; thus, the use of "I" is redundant and unneeded. The reader knows that you are writing the essay. It’s implicit that your main judgment and premises are yours.

Also, using too much self-reference may make the essay seem less objective, based more on "feelings" rather than "reasons" that are based on evidence and example. The purpose of this essay is to avoid evaluating the subject based on personal taste and instead to evaluate the subject from a critical, objective, emotionally detached perspective. Self-reference works against this objective, or at least appears so from the reader's perspective.

Finally, you can more forcefully advance your ideas, and much more concisely, by avoiding self-reference and instead using third-person pronouns, which makes your ideas universal rather than personal. Instead of announcing your idea, just state the idea. Instead of, “Avatar is the best movie I have seen this year,” simply state, “Avatar is the best movie of the year” and then support the idea with reasons.

With all this said, reviewers sometimes use the first-person "I" when describing their actual viewing or reading experience. Here is an example of perfect, sparing use of "I" in a Roger Ebert Review on The Life of Oharu. The first line of the review reads, "Here is the saddest film I have ever seen about the life of a woman." And then he only refers to himself twice more in the review, once in the middle, incosequentally, "the movie I have outlined," and then once more as the last line of the review: "No woman in a Japanese film that I have seen is more tragic and unforgettable than Oharu." He uses "I" for emphasis alone, in his first and final point. He uses it perfectly, for effect. If it's used too much, it loses its power.

 

IX: Sample Student Essays

Book

CD

Movie

IX: Professional Reviews

Film: See rogerebert.com and RottenTomatoes

Books: See New York Times

Music (album reviews): Anthrax Anthems; Rush's Clockwork Angels; Katy Perry's Prism

 

X:  Basic Structure and Features of a Review: Revising your Essay

I: Introduction

 

In good reviews, the introduction should be no more than one or two paragraphs introducing the subject to the reader. The main purpose of the introduction is to lead the reader logically into the thesis, which is your main judgment, and which is usually at the end of the first paragraph.

 

In the intro, you can give readers – since it’s assumed that your audience has not seen the film or read the book or watched the TV show, etc. – a brief overview of the subject by presenting the readers with important questions or concerns about the subject that lead naturally into the thesis at the end of the first paragraph. Here is an example of a review that does this perfectly, for the film Happinessby Roger Ebert.

 

But don’t over-do it. Notice how Ebert gives only enough plot-overview information in the first paragraph to keep the reader moving:

 

          Happiness is a movie about closed doors--apartment doors, bedroom doors and the doors of the unconscious. It moves back and forth between several stories, which often link up. It shows us people who want
          to be loved and who never will be--because of their emotional incompetence and arrested development.

 

Avoid over-explaining the plot for the whole movie, or arc of a whole TV series, and/or overviewing all of the characters. Readers don’t want a “report.” They want a “review,” which is an argument. Instead, a brief description of the basic premise of the show or movie that leads well into your thesis is all that is needed.

 

Stronger reviews start with a declarative statement about the subject, but don’t directly repeat the thesis. If the statements sounds authoritative (without being too praising or too mean), it can hook a reader quickly. Example from a previous student: “I never thought I’d be able to sit through a whole “chick-flick” without falling asleep, but it finally happened.” Here is a review that begins with a declarative statement before moving into a brief plot overview: American Beauty by, again, Roger Ebert.

 

Even stronger reviews begin by jumping right into a key scene or passage from the subject being reviewed -- whether a movie or TV or book, or in an album review, lyrics from a key song -- that illustrates the purpose of the work of art (or doesn’t, if a negative review). See this review on the movie Fargo by Roger Ebert.

[Note: I use Robert Ebert’s reviews as examples disproportionately to others because without question he was the best film-review in the world. I’m not even sure that assertion is debatable. He was that good.]

 

The strongest reviews set the subject in the context of other similar subjects. Context means the “surrounding cultural environment” and also the “historical surroundings” of a subject. What other similar works of art have influenced the creation of this one, and what current works of art are also out there currently that are competing with it?

 

Setting context could entail explaining what other specific movies or books influenced this one (historical context) or what other important similar movies or books are currently en-vogue and how they are reacting to one another (contemporary content). For instance, if you were writing a review on Guardians of the Galaxy, it might be important to note what other recent sci-fi blockbusters are competing with it (contemporary context), and/or some if its historical influences and background such as other classic superhero tales or even a little of the historical background of the subject itself, how it began as a comic book, etc.

 

Placing the subject into the broader cultural and artistic context, with specific examples, can really help the evaluation take on serious depth and meaning. Take a look at how the first two paragraphs in this review briefly, but in a detailed way, set the context of the review of the movie Platoon, by, guess who: Roger Ebert.

 

Your complete thesis should then follow naturally from the introduction. It should be the final sentence of the first paragraph, and no later than the second, because the main purpose of the essay is to defend your judgment, and that’s what the rest of the essay will entail

II: Body of the Essay: Defending Your Premises

You should begin the first paragraph of the body of the essay (the core of the essay) by introducing your first main premise from your complete thesis statement as a topic sentence. To support your first premise, use specific examples from the movie or book or TV show to illustrate your point. It is important to choose relevant examples that support a specific point rather than, in-general, overviewing the main storyline or characters. Instead, make smart, careful choices about the example you will choose to use. Example from the above Platoon review:

 

          There are no false heroics in this movie, and no standard heroes [topic sentence]; the narrator is quickly at the point of physical collapse, bedeviled by long marches, no sleep, ants, snakes, cuts, bruises and
          constant, gnawing fear. In a scene near the beginning of the film, he is on guard duty when he clearly sees enemy troops approaching his position, and he freezes. He will only gradually, unknowingly, become an
          adequate soldier.

 

Do this for all three of your premises, and note that “3” is simply a place to begin/. You may add more premises to your argument, or fewer. What matters is the quality of support for the thesis, not necessarily the numbers of the premises.

 

Another great method of support is compare/contrast (see pages 36-7, A Writer’s Reference), to compare elements of your subject with other works of art in the same genre. This could really build on your introduction of you talk about influences on your work of art and contemporary subjects in the same genre. You could write about your movie, for example, shows how a previous important movie in its genre has influenced it, for better or for worse. Does the movie merely try to copy the previous great movie, or does it add unique and creative elements to build on the previous movies? How does the movie stack up against current movies that are competing with it?  Thus, you could build on the historical and contemporary context you previewed in the introduction. Note this passage in a review of Guardians of the Galaxy and its comparative references to the standards of the Sci-Fi genre. This is the perfect example of establishing context in an interesting and fun way:

In many respects, Guardians, directed and co-written by indie wit James Gunn, and starring buffed-up former schlub Chris Pratt and Really Big Sci-Fi Blockbuster vet Zoe Saldana (here dyed green as opposed to her Avatar blue), is a fun and relatively fresh space Western. Think Firefly pitched at 15-year-olds, with a lot of overt Star Wars nods. And super-“irreverent”dialogue that is, more often than not, genuinely funny. The wisecracking by the characters played by Pratt (a kind of junior Han Solo) and voiced by Bradley Cooper (whose Rocket Raccoon, who is, yes, a genetically altered raccoon) is so incessant viewers of a certain age might wonder whether this movie has been put through the What’s Up Tiger Lily dialogue-replacement treatment before release.

Here is the URL for the complete review by Glenn Kenny: http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/guardians-of-the-galaxy-2014

III: Conclusion

The purpose of the conclusion is to drive your argument home, by restating your key points, but without directly repeating your complete thesis statement. You may want to offer a recommendation or course of action or offer a final conclusion on how the subject fits into its historical or contemporary context, or even end with a question to further provoke the reader. (See “Draft a Conclusion” in section C2 of A Writer’s Reference). Here is a conclusion that does all of the above, from Ebert’s Happiness review:

Why see the film? Happiness is about its unhappy characters, in a way that helps us see them a little more clearly, to feel sorry for them, and at the same time to see how closely tragedy and farce come together in the messiness of sexuality. Does "Happiness" exploit its controversial subjects? Finally, no: It sees them as symptoms of desperation and sadness. It is more exploitative to create a child molester as a convenient villain, as many movies do; by disregarding his humanity and seeing him as an object, such movies do the same thing that a molester does.

These are the kinds of thoughts "Happiness" inspires. It is not a film for most people. It is certainly for adults only. But it shows Todd Solondz as a filmmaker who deserves attention, who hears the unhappiness in the air and seeks its sources.

General Tips

Choose a Good Topic

Choose a subject that you are passionate about, maybe a film that you like some parts of but hate other parts of. That could make for an interesting review instead of reviewing something you like too much or hate too much, which leads to being uncritical or biased.

Being “critical” means identifying and recognizing strengths as well as weakness, not only weaknesses.

Avoid Coming Across the Reader as Merely a “Fan” or a “Troll.”

Avoid expressing bias, either as a lover or hater of the subject. Your review, even if generally positive, should not simply declare fan-like love for the subject. That shows bias. There should also be an attempt to point out flaws and weaknesses in the subject, even if the review is positive overall. The opposite is also true. If any subject is appropriately scrutinized, there will be found both positive and negative elements.

Avoid Preaching

Write clearly and simply, but avoid speaking directly to the reader with the second-person pronoun “you,” as in, “This movie will keep you glued to your seat.” You can see there how “you” is a dictatorial word that directs the reader how to think. Instead, the reasons and examples should do the work of convincing the reader how to think about the subject, not direct orders.

Be Sparing with the “I”

Be sparing in using first-person pronouns, though they sometimes work. First of all, there is no need to use first-person announcements such as “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe” or variants because it’s implicit to the essay form that these are your thoughts; thus, the use of "I" is redundant and unneeded. The reader knows that you are writing the essay. It’s implicit that your main judgment and premises are yours. Also, using too much self-reference may make the essay seem less objective, based more on "feelings" rather than "reasons" that are based on evidence and example.

Avoid Cliches

Also, avoid movie cliches like the one used in the previous example. “Glued to your seat” is an expression that has been so overused in reviews that it had rendered itself meaningless. Try to offer unique languages and phrases instead of the standard stuff. There are also book-cliches (“A must-read”) and music cliches (“a feast for the ears”) to be aware of.

 

© Scott Wrobel, 2015