Essay Writing Critique

A critique, also known as a review, an assessment, or an evaluation, is much less personal than a response paper, although it does entail responding to a text. In a critique, you evaluate the quality or merit of a text, based on a set of clearly defined criteria. These criteria will vary depending on the type of text you are evaluating. For example, you may evaluate the effectiveness of an argument by considering its structure, clarity, and use of evidence. Then again, you might critique a dramatic film on the basis of its visuals, storyline and acting. Whichever criteria you use, the important thing is to be specific, and provide your reader with enough examples and explanation to be able to understand why you give that particular text a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down.”

Like other academic essays, the structure of a critique is traditionally three-part: an introduction in which you present your source text and your evaluation of that text based on specific criteria, body paragraphs in which you support and explain your evaluation of each of those criteria, and a conclusion that wraps up your paper and leaves your reader with something to think about.


English 1A

Assignment: The following essay is a critique of the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, focusing on the persuasiveness of the author’s argument.

[Instructor's comments appear in bold, italic font within brackets below.]

The Death Penalty: From a Critic’s Point of View

Imagine that there is power invested in you to decide the fate of a vicious murderer who has ruthlessly tortured and killed two teenagers: What would you do? Would you sentence him to death or life imprisonment? What are the bases for your judgment? This issue is not as hypothetical as one might think. In fact, it is very similar to real life events, and final judgments in cases like this have spurred heated debates between proponents and opponents of capital punishment. Some people—often victims’ relatives—favor the death penalty as a fair punishment, basing their bias on the Mosaic Law that requires “an eye for an eye” while others, like Helen Prejean, oppose the death penalty and question its appropriateness. Prejean is a Catholic nun, and a strong opponent of the death penalty, who established a legal entity in Louisiana to represent death-row inmates in their trials. In her book Dead Man Walking, Prejean assesses in details the issues concerning the death penalty; she analyses both the gruesome deeds of the murders alongside with the psychological pains the victims undergo prior their death and the pain and agony the victims’ family suffer, while she cleverly argues against the death penalty. Even though not all of her points were convincing, Prejean effectively argues against the death penalty. [Good intro to the topic and the book – You smoothly flow from general to specific, ending with your thesis]

As a counterargument to the claim that inmates executed suffer no pain, Prejean argues that death-row inmates are cruelly killed and they experience even more pain especially when they can tell the time and manner in which they will be killed. First, she relates a series of episodes that depict tremendous pain suffered by convicts. Seventeen-year-old Willie Francis is one of her examples: After several volts of electricity were applied on him, Francis survived but just to be executed an hour later (18-19). Then she claims that death-row inmates “suffer pain each time they look at the clock, knowing that their death is eminent” (234). Prejean’s argument is not strong enough to face the claims of her opposition. For one thing, many people do not care about how much the murderer suffers. Moreover, no one knows exactly the level of pain and agony that the victims suffer in the hands of their aggressors, therefore one cannot fairly tell who suffers the most pain—the victim or the victimizer. Thus, it is safe to say that the only accomplishment of Prejean’s argument is the acknowledgement of the pain suffered by the condemned murderer because her argument is not convincing enough to discourage the death penalty. [Good claim to evaluate – you might also add that many people won’t care how much a murderer suffers].Nevertheless, Prejean shows a high level of efficiency in presenting her argument.

As a way of appealing to the emotions of her audience, Prejean starts her argument by relating the experience of a death-row inmate, Patrick Sonnier, whose story is as pitiful as that of his victims. She conveys Sonnier’s remorse even before explaining his deeds: “I shouldn’t have…get mixed up in the bad things we (were) doing. I will go to my grave feeling bad about those kids (his victims)….Every night I pray for those kids and their parents” (38). And she continues by justifying Sonnier’s exemption from death by relating Eddie’s words—Sonnier’s brother who was also involved in the murder—to the governor: “Please, Governor, you are about to kill the wrong man…I am the one who killed the teenagers” [Page number for this quote? Remember to always cite your source]. Prejean’s approach to the subject shows an exemplary use of pathos in an argument or debate. By starting with Sonnier’s account, Prejean paves the way for the central idea of her argument—the death penalty is immoral and unjust and therefore should be abolished. Indeed, she wins some amount of compassion for the death-row inmate from her audience, and this compassion allows the audience to give consideration to any further points she might bring out. Perhaps if she started by relating the gruesome deeds of the death-row inmate, her audience would probably have opted for the “eye for an eye” rule, that the murderer deserves death. But to prevent such a whimsical conclusion, Prejean cleverly chooses an approach that will hopefully allow her points to be put across. Obviously, putting her points across requires a mutual understanding between Prejean and her opposition, and this is exactly what she always strive to do.

Another factor that makes Prejean’s argument effective is the neutral ground she often seeks with her opposition. She makes it known that she does not condone the actions of the death row inmates and refers to them as “totally wrong and inhumane,” a view point that her opposition shares. During one of her visits with the Harveys, one victim’s family, Prejean says, “Hearing the details of Faith’s vicious murder, I find myself sucked into the Harveys’ rage” (145). [Good use of the text to prove your point.] Her condemnation of the deed of the death-row inmate does not relinquish her stance against the death penalty. Rather it shows respect for the stance of her opposition. But why would someone who condemns the vicious deed of a murderer not support the death penalty?[Good question!] Her response to this question strengthens Prejean’s argument even more: “If we believe that murder is wrong and is not admissible in our society, then it has to be wrong for everyone, not just individuals but governments as well” (130). Prejean at one instance sheds tears as one victim’s family explains the ruthless murder of their daughter (187). This neutral point of view allows Prejean to state precisely why she condemns the death penalty. It gives her the opportunity to make known to her opposition that it is the ‘act of killing’ that she hates, not the killer. Indeed she questions the morality of the death penalty as a just punishment for murder. If Prejean had not sought the common terms that exist between herself and her opposition, that they both condemn murder, she definitely would have been misunderstood to be a supporter of murderers, and disrespected. However, because she followed the right course, her stance is not only understood but she also gains respect from her opposition. One of Prejean’s strong opposition states, “We are like different baseball teams. [We have] different point of view but we respect each other” (172). Such a remark from her opposition shows that she deeply regards the ethics of others. Yet to pursue her goal in convincing her audience that the death penalty should be abolished, Prejean has to do more that just appealing emotionally to her audience or gaining the respect of her opposition. [This last sentence works well to sum up the arguments of your first two body paragraphs and transition to your last (and most important) point, but you could say more to explain why these approaches alone are not enough for Prejean to make her case.]

Prejean now brings out statistical facts that logically and effectively support her argument against the death penalty. In emphasizing the cost of killing one inmate, Prejean states, “In Florida (for example), which may be typical, each death sentence is estimated to cost approximately $3.18 million, compared to the cost of life imprisonment (40 years) of about $516,000” (129). This cost she says comes from hiring ‘expert’ witnesses and investigators, the cost of sequestering the jury, and many other protocols involved in a capital case. In addition to the financial cost, Prejean argues that society loses morally—the cost of losing one more person in death. The biggest counter-argument of her opposition is that killing the murderer will prevent future crimes. But as Prejean’s statistical evidence bring out, by no means has the death penalty deterred murder crimes (52). This argument is clearly logical because if it is this expensive to kill a murderer, then it should behoove the government to sentence him/her to life imprisonment, which will allow him/her the opportunity to defray the cost of his or her own living. And if killing the murderer does not prevent future crimes, then the reason for abolishing the death penalty gets even stronger. Undeniably, then, one can conclude that Prejean was able to use statistical evidence to effectively present her argument. [Yes, well put, but why is this factual evidence so important to her argument?] 

In the society we live in, the death penalty continues to be one of the most controversial issues. Some favor it while other oppose; but the underlying fact is that either our individual beliefs or the effects that the death penalty might have on us shape our different viewpoints regarding this issue. As for Prejean, her religious background probably motivated her stance against the death penalty; in any case, she effectively agues her stance against the death penalty and gives some solid reasons for its abolition. [It would be good to go back into detail on your assessment of her argument] But regardless of one’s support or disapproval of the death penalty, our choices and opinions always depict who we really are. Are we justice seekers or red-blooded villains? Are we respecters of moral rights or coddlers of murders? Prejean shows that she does not hate murderer but the ‘act of murder’. So the next time you are asked to state your opinion about the death penalty, give thought to who or what your answer will depict you to be.

Instructor end comment:

[A solid essay! You carefully point to some of the key ideas behind Prejean’s argument and are starting to do a fine job of evaluating the quality of her argument, though your last body paragraph could be more in depth. My main suggestion would be for you to develop more in your conclusion your overall assessment of Prejean’s argument, thereby underscoring the thesis of your paper.]

** Minor mechanical errors/typos have been corrected by the creators of CHARLIE