Critical analysis is a formal evaluation of someone else’s work. In academia, this work is most often a book, article, poem, play or piece of visual art. However, in business, you might need to carry out a critical analysis of a proposal for a project or grant, a policy or white paper, an industry handbook or even a research study. Broadly speaking, critical analysis involves examining the work to see how well the author has carried out their purpose, or how well the project or policy will or does carry out its purpose.
Critical analysis is therefore an extension of both critical thinking and critical reading. Critical thinking is the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking about the information that you encounter. Critical reading is engaging with what you read by asking yourself questions about the author’s intention and your reaction to that. Critical analysis is the formalisation of both these processes, coupled with a written analysis for others.
There are therefore two elements to critical analysis. The first is carrying out the analysis itself: deciding what you think. The second is writing up your findings and judgement for others.
Steps in a Critical Analysis
There are several steps that you need to take to carry out a critical analysis. These include:
1. Critical reading of your text or examination of your piece.
This is a matter of carefully reading your text, possibly several times.
As you do so, consider (and note down) what you think is important and relevant. It will also be helpful to note any controversial points, or areas where you disagree.
There is more about this process in our page on Critical Reading.
During this process, you should aim to identify the main thesis, point or purpose, and then sub-themes or issues.
In a piece of business writing or an essay, the purpose or thesis is usually set out early on, often in the introduction. In a piece of fiction writing, it may be necessary to read the text fully to identify themes and then highlight the most important theme.>
It is also worth taking note of any evidence that supports the themes and purpose.
Finally, it is worth writing yourself a one-paragraph summary of the text. This is likely to be a good starting point for your analysis, because your readers may not have read the text themselves.
2. Analysing the text or piece
The purpose of your analysis is to make an overall judgement about how well the text has met its objectives, based on the evidence available to you.
There are five useful aspects to consider in analysing the text or piece:
Your reaction to the text. This has two purposes. First, it affects how you approach the analysis. For example, if the ideas in the text make you angry, you will find it harder to see their benefits. Second, writers often want to evoke certain emotions in their audience. This is part of the purpose of the piece—and therefore assessing this issue is an important part of judging whether it has met its objectives.
The background to the text. It is worth considering the backdrop against which the text was written. For a policy paper, for example, what has gone before? How urgent is the need to address the situation? For a piece of creative writing, when was it written and what was happening in the world at the time? How might this have affected the way that the author was writing, or what they wanted to achieve?
The author’s background and the possible implications of this. The author’s background is likely to have informed their opinions and views—and therefore what they have written. It is worth considering the text in this light. This is part of the background, but specific enough to consider as a separate category.
The definitions and concepts in the text. Consider how well the author has defined concepts and ideas. It is much easier to assess ideas if they are clearly defined and described in simple language. Similarly, poor definitions may mean that the author is not clear about their own meaning, or that your understanding is different from theirs.
The use of evidence. You should consider the evidence presented in the text in two senses. First, examine its general validity and reliability. For example, in a proposal or paper, are the ideas supported by peer reviewed studies published in reputable journals? Second, you should consider how well the evidence supports the author’s points. It is also worth considering what evidence is NOT cited, but which might support or undermine the author’s points. It follows that you should also have evidence to support your own arguments in your analysis.
3. Writing up your analysis
The final stage of a critical analysis is to write up your analysis to present it to others.
The precise form that you use is likely to depend both on your preferences, and on any guidelines provided by your organisation or institution (see box).
TOP TIP! Check your guidelines
Your organisation or institution may have guidelines for carrying out a critical analysis. Check them carefully for the structure that you are expected to use, or any essential sections that must be included. For example, some organisations require a summary paragraph upfront (like an executive summary).
You are likely to need to include:
A brief summary of the text or proposal.
A brief summary of your assessment of the text. This should usually be structured around a main point or thesis against which you will consider various aspects of the text.
- For example, if you are analysing a business proposal, you might be concerned that the concepts are not defined very clearly, and that this may demonstrate that the author has not clearly understood the issues. Your main thesis is therefore this lack of clarity.
A more expanded version of your analysis, with the evidence for each of your points. Again, this should be structured around your main thesis. It should also set your analysis in the wider context, including what else is known about the subject.
- The example from the previous bullet described concerns about the lack of clarity of definitions and therefore ambiguity. In this example, your expanded analysis would focus on areas that are not clear, and the problems that might arise from the ambiguity.
A conclusion that sums up your argument and reiterates your judgement on the text.
TOP TIP! You don’t have to write it in order—just sort it afterwards
It is often easier to prepare your introduction and conclusion once you have finished your analysis, and you are absolutely clear on the points you want to highlight.
It is also a good idea to use headings to show divisions between sections.
Summing Up Critical Analysis
Ultimately, critical analysis is about asking questions—and then setting the answers into context.
The most important questions are What, How, Why and So what? The answers will provide a clear and succinct critique of a text, project or idea, and allow you to form a judgement about the text.