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How to Critique an Author Who's Smarter Than You

by Emily Hogin

As a Social Studies concentrator, I’m often asked to critique some of Western Civilization’s greatest thinkers. This can be an intimidating assignment, but I’ve found that there is an effective way to do it. Some dos and don’ts after the jump.

Don’t Make It Personal You should assume, since the author has spent more time on this topic than you have, that everything that is included and is not included in the text is a deliberate choice. Thus, you should avoid words that suggest otherwise, like “Marx forgets” or “fails to realize.” Phrases like these can sound like a personal attack on the author and are hard or impossible to prove (how do you demonstrate that someone forgot something?). Instead, use words that respect that everything in the text is a choice, like “omits,” “excludes,” or even “ignores.”

Do Interrogate the Strongest Parts of the Text Especially when you’re working with older texts, it can be tempting to go after the anachronistic parts of the argument (For example, you can often find outright racist or sexist comments in older texts that predate the expansion of rights for people of color and women). But I like to remind myself that these texts have endured for a reason – to this day people continue to find parts of these arguments valuable. I think you can get the most out of a text (and make the most interesting argument about the text) if you first suspend your disbelief and read the texts charitably, then look more closely at the strongest, most enduring parts of the argument.

Do Build Your Argument from a Close Reading If you avoid personal attacks and choose to focus on the strongest parts, you might wonder what’s left to make an argument about. You don’t have to criticize the author: one effective argument you can make is to look at a common criticism of the text (perhaps by reading some secondary sources) and then defend the text from that criticism. But if you do want to criticize the text, I suggest that you look for some tension, ambiguity, or conflict to explore through a close reading. After I read a text, here’s how I would go about developing my argument:

1. Start by making a list of the concepts, themes, or terms that are important to the author’s argument. Good terms to explore are terms that have contested definitions, like “democracy,” “liberty,” “harm,” “rationalization,” or “morality.”

2. Make a table with these words at the top, and re-read the text for moments when these concepts come up. Write out the relevant quotes (with page numbers) under the term. 

3. Once you have a table, look closely at the quotes for each term and ask critical questions: Is the author using this term consistently every time, or does the author use the term to mean different things at different times? Does the author’s use of a term depend on some assumption that the author never identifies? Does the author describe a term as opposed to something it doesn’t necessarily have to be opposed to?

4. Once you have some observations from the close reading table, pick one term and ask yourself how that observation might change or affect your reading/understanding of the text. The consequences you find don’t have to undermine completely the author’s own argument; it’s unlikely (but not impossible) that you’ll be able to do that to an author who’s smarter than you. Instead, you can find some unresolved tension in the argument or something small that casts doubt on a particular sub-argument. This is your thesis.

5. Start writing! At this point you have a thesis (step 4) and the evidence for your thesis from your close reading (step 3). Writing should be the easy part. Good luck!


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