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Preface: Writing Critical Essays

Writing Critical Essays is designed to help you write essays that analyse works of literature. It focuses on the kinds of writing tasks that are commonly set for assignments and tests, and it gives practical help in the form of sample answers and step-by-step guides for writing. The book is not a “bluffer’s guide” that will help you avoid difficult tasks. It is an instructional text that will help you to understand and cope with the tasks that you are set.

 As well as helping you to develop your writing skills, the book aims to extend your thinking about literary texts and ways of reading them. It contains explanations, activities and examples that will improve your understanding of important concepts and techniques. In this way the book will build on the reading and study of literature you have done in class and with other textbooks.

The various chapters deal with a range of topics but require you to read just  five key texts, all of which are included in the book. In this way you can develop your writing skills using a small number of texts with which you will become very familiar. This means you can work through the whole process of critical analysis – from reading the text, analysing the question, revising essential concepts, and doing background research, to writing the final essay – without increasing your reading load.

How to use the book

The book is divided into two main sections.

Part 1 is a detailed introduction to writing critical essays using modern approaches to texts. It introduces the purposes and main features of a critical essay. It also offers step-by-step demonstrations of essential essay skills, including:

- how to analyse essay questions
- how to decide what revision and research are needed
- how to develop ideas and arguments;
- how to plan and structure an essay.

You should work through this part of the book first. Even if you have some experience in essay-writing, you will find there is much to learn from it.

Part 2 contains chapters that teach you how to write about important topics such as alternative readings of a text, elements of narrative, and issues such as gender, race and class. These sections are self-contained and can be studied in any order. Each one contains:

- brief background notes on the topic
- examples of common essay questions on the topic
- example discussions of the topic
- complete essays that demonstrate how to tackle common questions
- step-by-step guides to help you practise writing on the topic.  

Once you have worked through the relevant section, you should be better prepared to tackle assignments or tests on that topic.

Note to teachers

Writing Critical Essays is designed to give students practical assistance with the task of writing analytical essays about literary texts.

Unlike most composition guides, this text does more than offer general advice about “approaches” to essay writing. It develops specific writing skills through detailed and explicit instruction. Among the strategies used are complete sample essays and demonstrations by professional critics and students, which serve as models; scaffolded writing activities that coach the student through important stages in the planning and writing of real essays; and tailored writing guides devoted to important topics in contemporary literature study.

Working through the materials will help students develop sound understandings of the general purposes and conventions of critical writing as well as learning specific skills such as building arguments, developing effective paragraphs, using quotations, and citing sources.

Written with the busy literature student in mind, the book assumes minimal reading time. The key examples and activities have all been designed around just five key texts, each of which is included within the book. These texts serve as raw material for essays on topics ranging from narrative structure and multiple reading practices, to readings of gender, race and class. The text is thus fully self-contained and so can be used in the first weeks of a literature course to establish important skills and understandings, and thereafter as an ongoing reference.

It its approach to the reading and analysis of texts, Writing Critical Essays applies contemporary theory and practices. It emphasises the role of reading practices in the production of meaning from text, and takes up issues such as gender and race readings.


The accompanying CD ROM contains all of the major activities in the book, stored as text files. If you have access to a computer, you can complete the essay activities without retyping the pre-written sections. The number of the relevant text file is given in the activity sections next to the CD symbol.

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