How to Write a Critical Evaluation Essay




I: Purpose of the Essay
II: What "Critical Evaluation" Means
III: Read Reviews
IV: The Difference Between Taste and Judgment

V: Determining 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: Topic Selection Requirements
I: Should I use What Other Critics Have Written as Support for my Own Argument
VII:  Common Mistakes to Avoid when Writing Evaluations

       Avoid Summarizing the Plot or Overviewing the Characters infilms, TV shows, books . . .

Second-Person Pronouns
First-Person Pronouns


VIII: Sample Student Essays


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 critical review -- supporting a judgment -- on a subject within the pop-culture/entertainment/media arena -- a movie, TV show, news program, book, newspaper, album, magazine, etc.


Since the subject you are to evaluate must be in the realm of pop-culture, I want you to think about your personal connection to pop-culture before you begin work on the Critical Evaluation Essay. Thus, here is your first writing exercise: Pop-Culture, Wal-Mart and Me: A Personal Reflection. This short essay is for exercise credit; it's not a formal essay that will be graded. Instead, it's a preparatory exercise to lead you toward the Critical Evaluation Essay, which is your first major evaluated essay. It also serves as your writing diagnostic for the course and is thus required


Your writing purpose in a Critical Evaluation Essay is to judge the quality of a work of art in the area of popular entertainment/media and offer reasoned support for your judgment. This is not an “opinion” essay, but a “support” essay. You will support your judgment (thesis) with sound, fair, thorough evidence. The reason for evaluating a subject you "like" is to look at it from a more detailed, critical perspective rather than simply a personal taste perspective. You will explain "reasons" for you judgment beyond matters of personal taste. I hope you'll evaluate a subject you either really "like" or really "hate" so that your critical analysis of the subject will lead you to a deeper understanding of the subject.


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 Clash album London Calling because it's one of my favorites. The challenge for me would be to suppress the fan and instead evaluate the songs individually, by fair criteria, to test their worth. I might find that a  number of the songs are "filler",  meaning they're not actually so good when compared with the strongest songs on the album, and this finding might or might not affect my overall evaluation of the album, or the band.

Still, be careful, and honest. If you choose a subject that you love so much that you realize there is not chance of being critical or objective in your evaluation, think twice about pursuing it as your subject of evaluation. See Common Mistakes to Avoid When writing Evaluations.


II: What "Critical Evaluation" Means


"Critical Evaluation" is interchangeable with "Review," but more specific to the rhetorical purpose of the review. An “evaluation” is meant to determine or set the value of something, and being “critical” means “to find fault or to judge with severity.” The terms overlap. The job of a critical evaluator is to defend a judgment about the value, or worth, of something. Some examples of critical evaluations are movie reviews, book reviews, political candidates, employees, musicians, agencies and organizations, laws and policies, concepts and theories. Some judgments can be positive and some negative, but rarely is a true critical judgment either all positive or all negative. If a subject is examined carefully, even the most beloved work of art has faults, and even the worst has positive attributes. The key is to examine the art closely, understand the criterion, and to avoid adding personal taste or emotion into the evaluation.


For this essay, your subject needs to be a work of art in the pop-culture arena: movie, TV series, book or series of books, album, concert, etc. See the bottom of this page for more topic ideas.



III: Read Reviews


Before choosing a subject for any of your essays, it's important to read other people's essays in the forms you're writing in, so start now by reading some other people's reviews:


Film, TV, DVD, CD, Games, Etc.
MRQE: Movie Reviews Searcher Metacritic.Com RottenTomatoes TV Tome Popmatters

Billboard MPR Arts and Culture NME.Com Rolling Stone ▪  Spin

General Arts and Entertainment
(Literature, art, reviews, interviews, etc.)
Ask/Art Atlantic Believer The Complete Review (books) Harpers Identity Theory Mother Jones New Yorker Salon.Com Utne Reader Village Voice

IV: 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, no matter the subject you are evaluating, 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.



V: Determining 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.


Avoid Criteria that Don't Work, such as "It's Popular" or "It's funny."


Popularity is not a standard by which the quality of a subject can be judged, so don't use it as a premise in your evaluation. For instance, if you are evaluating the band Foo Fighters, and your main judgment is that they are one of the most influential rock bands of the late 90's because of their popularity, you are not giving a reason to support the thesis. Their popularity is a fact, based on album sales and so forth, but it doesn't indicate WHY they are influential, and nor does it indicate that they are necessarily good. Brittany Spears sells even more albums than Foo-Fighters, but does that popularity necessarily translate into quality or influence?


Elvis Presley has sold more albums than any musician in the history of the world. Does that mean he's a good musician or merely popular?


Also avoid stating humor or entertainment value as premises to support a judgment. Why? In critically evaluating pop-culture subjects, entertainment is a given. We need say nothing more about that. Entertainment is pretty much the main purpose of pop-culture.  That's how it gets us into the theater or makes us park in front of the tube for hours on end. We're entertained.


The same goes with humor. Say for instance a student critically evaluates the show Seinfeld and makes a main judgment/thesis that it's the most important sit-com of the late 20th. Century and the writer's first reason to support the thesis is, "It's the funniest show ever."


First off, to support this, Seinfeld would have to be compared/contrasted with every sit-com in the history of TV, including Alph, but most importantly, we know it's funny already. It's a given. Even if a reader or two doesn't find it funny, so what? It's a comedy show.


If humor is a criterion, and it can be, especially for sitcoms or funny movies, it's up to the writer to explain in specific detail why certain scenes are funny.

Read this negative review (with positive aspects) of Curb your Enthusiasm and this positive review (with negative aspects) and analyze whether the criteria used for judgment are fair, or if personal bias/taste plays a role in either evaluation.


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:



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


Roger Ebert on Fargo



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?



Topic Selection Requirements


For this essay, you will critically evaluate a work of art in media/entertainment/pop-culture. Just about anything pop-culture-related can, and should be, evaluated, but first we need to establish some selection criteria.


Subject Categories



Top 100 Lists:


Movies                                    Novels                                         TV


AFI's Top 100                     Modern Library                Top 100 Shows


IMDB Top 250




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 Evaluations


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 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.




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 careful of 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.




Sample Student Essays






Begin your Prewriting


© Scott Wrobel, 2013