The Critical Essay – General Advice

Some advice from the SQA.

  • thorough preparation of a range of appropriate texts is essential – candidates who rely on just one text (especially if it is a short story or a fairly brief poem) are taking a sizeable risk;
  • the distinctions in prose genres should be fully understood and the terms of the question adhered to; infringements, whether accidental or deliberate, are always penalised, often quite substantially; while a small number of texts can be read as either fiction or non-fiction, you should not see this as an opportunity to double your options – the specific features of each genre must be explored relevantly in terms of the chosen question;

  • in order to allow Markers to assess relevance (one of the Performance Criteria), all Critical Essay questions have a defined focus; a prepared, memorised essay is not an option;
  • essays should be carefully structured to respond to the task set, but simplistic formulae such as “Throughout this essay I will …”, “I will be writing about …” and “In this paragraph I intend to …” should be avoided;

  • “analysis” should support, not dominate, the line of thought in a Critical Essay; when attempting to analyse, you should deal with features/techniques which are appropriate to the genre; “micro-analysis” of novels and plays should be avoided;

  • while merely narrating the events or re-stating the content of a text is not acceptable, some narration is often useful in order to contextualise comments; appropriate, limited narration of events can be a strength;
  • studying a short story should not be seen as a “soft” option
  • care should be taken with the layout of quotations; while there are no absolute rules for this, basic conventions (such as paragraphing and indenting longer quotations, integrating shorter ones into a sentence) should be observed; they should avoid following a quotation with “This quote shows …”;
  • while due consideration is given for the pressure under which you are writing, you should take every care to maintain “sufficient technical accuracy”; care should be taken with punctuation when “however”, “therefore” and “this” are being used as connectives – a full stop (or semi-colon), not a comma, is the convention;
  • while due consideration is given for the pressure under which you are writing, you should ensure that your handwriting is legible to Markers.

Tips for Writing a Successful Critical Essay

The key to the critical essay is KNOWLEDGE and the ability to use it flexibly.

You have to have a sound knowledge of the texts you have studied and to be able to shape your knowledge to the questions.

The questions have two parts.

  1. Specification of text. This part of the question tells you whether or not the text you have studied is likely to be suitable for the question.
  2. The question itself. This part is the actual question, which you have to answer.

Do not start your answer by picking two or three techniques from the box at the head of the section and using them for building blocks for your answer. This will not provide a line of thought that answers the question as it puts the techniques first not the text.

Do not finish your answer with a paragraph dealing with techniques from the box at the head of the section.

Any analysis you use in your answer should come where it is needed, not at the end.

Do not just start at the beginning of a poem (or other text) and work your way through, giving the marker a ‘guided tour’.

In your opening paragraph, include the title of the text and the author. Refer to the question not by slavishly repeating the words of the question but by indicating, very briefly, the line you intend to take.

When you refer to the author after the first mention of his/her full name, you use either the surname, or the full name but never only his/her first name.


  •  Use quotations to develop the line of thought in your essays.
  • Put inverted commas at the beginning and end of the quotation.
  • Write the quotation exactly as it appears in the original.
  • Do not use a quotation that repeats what you have just written.
  • Keep the quotation as short as possible.
  • One of the best ways to use a quotation is to embed it into the sentence.
  • Separate longer quotations from the body of your answer by missing a line and indenting the quotation.

The young people regarded Larry LaSalle as their champion and enjoyedbeing with him, ‘He was our champion and we were happy to be in his presence’. (The comment and quotation duplicate the same point.)

The young people of Frenchtown thought highly of Larry LaSalle, calling him their ‘champion’, and were ‘happy to be in his presence’. (This demonstrates the ability to use text as evidence to support your ideas.)

Writing a Critical Essay – Revisited

How will this essay be marked?  The performance criteria look like this:

  1. Understanding
    • As appropriate to task, the response demonstrates understanding of key elements, central concerns and significant details of the text.

HOW DO I DO THIS? – In two ways!

a) Firstly, make accurate quotations that are relevant to the questions.  If you are discussing a character then quote something that the character says or does that proves what you are stating.  This shows you have understood a significant detail in the text.

b) Secondly, make more general points that relate to the whole text.  This shows your understanding of the central concerns of the text when you discuss theme, or make a general statement of what you think the author’s own opinions are.  Whenever you highlight a particular feature of the text (setting, characterization, imagery, plot structure, creation of mood, etc.) you are showing understanding of the text.

  1. Analysis
  • The response explains in some detail ways in which aspects of style/structure/language all contribute to the meaning/effect/impact.


a)       Make comments on the style and structure of the text that show you understand HOW the author has written what he/she has to say and how it affects YOUR understanding of the text.  This should be relevant to the question.

b)       Comment on the language used by different characters, stage direction, treatment of theme, why scene or act divisions are placed where they are, why and how events are related, why events are surprising or ironic, the motive’s behind the characters, the implications of the ending, sequence of events, etc.  Use quotes to support your thoughts.

3.       Evaluation

  • Your response reveals engagement with the text or aspects of the text and has a stated or implied evaluation of effectiveness, accompanied by evidence from the text – more QUOTES!


a) You must show that you can make a series of comments explaining how well you think that the writer has done what he/she has set out to do – you must evaluate the success of the text.  You must add personal response to your essay and make it visible throughout your essay.

b) Use phrases like these:

  • This metaphor is effective because…
  • This description struck me as unusual because…
  • I would suggest that here…
  • This event shows…
  • This character shows…

The best critical essays show a deeper personal evaluation.  This is often seen in expressions such as “Surely there is a no more pathetic character in literature than Lennie.”

4.       Expression

  • Structure, style, language, including use of some appropriate terminology is used to communicate meaning clearly and stylishly.  Your line of thought is generally relevant to the purpose, and spelling, syntax, and punctuation are accurate.


a)       Use the correct critical words to write in the style the examiner expects

b)       Have a line of argument (a thesis) – Use linkage

  • To introduce evidence use – for example, for instance, an illustration is, this is exemplified in
  • To add to ideas which are similar use – furthermore, likewise, too, again, besides, additionally, similarly
  • To add ideas which contrast use – but, and yet, although, otherwise, conversely, however, nevertheless, still, on the other hand, in contrast
  • To emphasize use – it is worth noting, in particular, especially
  • To show the result or effect of an action use – so, because, therefore, since, for this reason, as a result

c)       Make sure technical errors are minimal

d)       Stay relevant – follow the statement – evidence – explanation rule – for all your paragraphs

e)       Start with a good introduction and finish with a strong conclusion


  • Does the introduction make it clear what the person is going to do in the essay? Have they used all the key words?
  • Does each paragraph have a point that links it to the question?
  • Does each (main) paragraph have a quotation?
  • Has each quotation been explained (analysed) properly(more than a line or two)
  • Is there definitely a link in each paragraph to the question
  • Does it have a conclusion?
  • Does the conclusion review what the person has done in the essay and explain their overall opinion of the text.

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