Notes on the critical- interpretive essay
I. What is an essay?
A. An essay is not a research paper in which you collect the thoughts of others on a
topic, but a. process of thinking through a question for yourself. Thus, good essays
have the spark of genuine inquiry, of someone trying to understand better
something they care about.
B. Critical essays share the results of the inquiry (so far) in an affirmative voice. In
other words, they are structured as a defense of a particular answer to their central
question. This “thesis” should be clearly stated at the outset of the paper and
should then implicitly, if not explicitly, organize all that follows.
C. If an essay is a searching train of thought, and a critical essay is an extended
argument, a critical-interpretive essay is an argument in which What counts as
evidence is (mainly) readings of key passages of texts that illuminate the question
II. What are the ingredients of a good critical-interpretive essay?
A. What gives. an essay its critical force is how well it constructs its central question
and thesis which should be:
1. Focused. A well-focused central question is neither too broad nor too narrow,
so that the length of the essay is appropriate to the case being made. It is
acceptable, however, to mention how one’s thesis forms part of a broader
argument which goes beyond the scope of the essay. It is also acceptable to
have a multi-part thesis, each part of which takes a portion of the essay to
2. Interesting. A good essay avoids stale formulations of the question and
cliched pros and cons in the thesis. It offers a personal conception of the
problem, promising a fresh appreciation of the issues at hand.
3. Motivated. The question should be introduced and/or stated in such a way that
its importance is clear. The motivation is what answers the challenge: “but,
what hangs on this question?”
4. Controversial. A Well-formed central question admits of at least two plausible,
conflicting answers. If the thesis is a truism, the essay has nowhere to go.
Indeed, (ESSays tend to be engaging to the degree that they push against
conventional wisdom, taking the less popular or seemingly less plausible side
of an issue. Establishing the controversy is what answers the challenge: ” but,
who would disagree with this?”
5. In practice, all of these features will be interconnected.
(a) For example, vague theses such as “All children deserve to learn!” will
tend to be uninteresting and uncontroversial.
Higgins ~ Notes on the Essay – Page 1
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