Probably one of the first essays you ever had to write (after you wrote about what you did on your summer vacation) was a book review of some kind. You probably gave a brief run-down of the book's major characters, a summary of the plot (if there was one) or told what the book was about, and then said how wonderful the book was (being careful not to reveal too much about the ending). The evaluative essay remains a valuable tool in your arsenal of composition patterns. Hopefully, your ability to say what you like about the object at hand — whether it's a book or a painting or a jazz album or a rock concert or a dinner at a fancy restaurant or the design of a new car — has become more subtle and convincing over the years since your first book review.

Writing about literature demands special skills, and we recommend an online document called Suggestions about Writing Papers for Introduction to Literature. In writing about poetry or a short story or play or novel, it is very important to keep in touch with the language of the art, showing your reader over and over again where (exactly) in the poem or story you get your ideas, and to do that you have to use quotations — sometimes a lot of quotations. Pay special attention to the hints in that document about using quotations.

One device you might want to use in writing your evaluative essay is the device of comparison and contrast. The art work you are looking at doesn't exist in a vacuum. You can beef up your essay and add to your readers' understanding at the same time by comparing, for instance, this rock album to an earlier album by the same group, showing how the group has matured (or deteriorated) or by comparing this album to another group's album, which does the same thing, but better. Be fair in your comparisons.

Whether you are writing about literature or a rock concert, though, there are several points about the evaluative essay you want to keep in mind.

How can an essay about literature or the other arts ever be "wrong"? Isn't it all opinion, all subjective analysis, anyway? How can an instructor say that my feelings about a poem or a painting are wrong? "Discerning Right from Wrong in the Garden of Literature" is our attempt to deal with these questions.

First, avoid using language that is simplistically judgmental. Don't say that something is great or beautiful or exciting or interesting. Your readers are apt to become defensive: "We'll be the judge of that," they'll say. Your job as the writer of this essay is to show how the work under consideration is beautiful or exciting. If you do that well, your readers will be convinced of the work's beauty without your saying that it's beautiful. An occasional, off-handed "beautiful" or "exciting" is all right; just don't expect your readers to be convinced unless you make them feel that beauty or excitement.

Second, as the "Suggestions" (hyperlinked above) notes, don't re-tell the story. Only a sentence or two is enough to recap the story of an entire novel. If you spend your essay telling readers what happened in The Bluest Eye, they're going to wonder why they aren't reading Toni Morrison's novel instead of your essay; after all, the Nobel Prize winner probably did a better job telling her story than you could ever do. Your job is to provide some insight into how Morrison did what she did. Then, in reading your essay, readers will say, "Wow! That's great! I better go read that novel."

There will be occasions when you are forced to use the specialized vocabulary that people who really like this kind of art are used to using. Reading the CD booklets of jazz albums is sometimes like reading a foreign language if you're not hip. That's to be expected. If it is written well, your reader will go along with you. You can't be expected to review a rock concert with the same language that you'd use to review the performance of a string quartet. The environment and special effects of a rock performance are a big part of your enjoyment of it; on the other hand, you would remark on the environment of a string quartet performance only if it were particularly inappropriate for careful listening. Critics who write about art sometimes have their own vocabulary for doing so, and you need to be at least somewhat familiar with that vocabulary before writing seriously about art.

Sample Papers

Click HERE to see a full-length student essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem, "Kubla Khan." Click HERE to see a full-length student essay on William Carlos Williams's poem, "The Red Wheelbarrow."

Other Examples

We also have online a fine essay on Charlotte Perkins Gilman's short story "The Yellow Wallpaper." Click on the story's title to read the story first. The essay is called "'The Yellow Wall-Paper': A Twist on Conventional Symbols." It was written by Liselle Sant, a student in Smith College's Connections Program (1995) and is used in conjunction with the Connections Web site with Ms. Sant's permission. For other examples of evaluative essays, we provide a hyperlink here to Capital Community College's Archive of Sample Students' Essays. Click on English in the left-hand frame and enjoy! (There are also some good book reviews listed under History.) The beginning (actually, three full paragraphs) of another evaluative essay (on a painting by Bruegel) is available in the Guide, in the section called "Writing With a Sense of Purpose."

WebCT FeedbackFeedback Form for WebCT Students: Click icon to the left for a form on which you can record your understanding of this material. (Password protected.)

Here, also, are some hyperlinks to online journals where you can read evaluative essays by professional writers. Remember that these are professionals and they are probably able to make connections to social concerns and make artistic representations and generalizations that you're not ready to make (or shouldn't make). That's all right; they're professionals and they're getting paid for their professional opinions, even. You'll enjoy that status, too, someday, if you're willing to work for it.