The Content and Structure of a Critique and Reaction Paper

Before you take on any writing project, it’s good to have a goal in mind. Your goal is to write a good critique or reaction paper, one that can be described as follows:

  1. Accurate. It provides an accurate description of the work being evaluated by giving its summary and/or background details, like answers to basic reporter questions of who, what, when, where, and why.
  2. Evaluative. It gives the writer’s overall judgement of the work. It makes this judgement convincing by giving three or more (depending on the length of the paper) supporting evaluations of selected analytical elements of the work being evaluated. (More on the analytical components of a work in Lesson 3’s “An overview of the Writing Process.”) 
  3. Balanced. The writer shows balance by pointing out weaknesses of a work, if the overall judgement is positive, or the other way around, by recognizing strong points of a work for which the overall judgement is negative. 

To give you an idea of how to write critiques and reaction papers, here are samples of each. They have the same subject so that the difference in content between the critique and the reaction paper is highlighted. As you read samples 1 and 2 below, note also the similarities between the two.

(Note: Although the critique and reaction paper below are inspired by a real-life event, names of people and organizations are all invented.)

  • In his March 17 speech before University of St. Andrew’s journalism majors, Mr. Lance Nicolas, president of the Coalition of Philippine Reporters, shared his optimism that Philippine journalism could withstand the challenges posed by citizen journalism. In his presentation, entitled “‘Past-Forward’: The Past, Present, and Future of Journalism in the Philippines,” Mr. Nicolas drew mainly from his 25 years of experience as a journalist and explained that this optimism was based on his perception of Filipino journalists’ “agility in responding to crises and other newsworthy events” and their ability to make good use of social media. This speech’s topic is especially relevant, but while the speaker makes a good case in some of his points, a few others are not as convincing. 
  • The issue of citizen journalism, as Mr. Nicolas said, is one that is relevant in the country today. Mr. Nicolas gave examples of the form this phenomenon had taken in the Philippines. He talked about X Network’s “YouCam” and Y Network’s “Bantayan ang Bayan” through which ordinary citizens shared photos, writings, and videos of local events deemed newsworthy, such as accidents and problems with infrastructure and government services. But while these examples are probably the most popular—they are, after all, connected to major television networks—they are rather limited. Mr. Nicolas did not include examples from other media platforms, like the citizen journalism pages hosted by the Internet news agency and by the online versions of all the Philippine broadsheets. He should have included these because according to the website, these pages receive an average of 1.2 million visits a day. 
  • Perhaps the lack of variety in Mr. Nicolas’ examples is due to the time limit; speakers were only given at most 15 minutes and his topic was rather broad. However, he could have just named examples other than the ones he gave to have more balance in his presentation. 
  • The strongest points of Mr. Nicolas’ speech are those related to his personal experience. He shared some compelling stories of Filipino journalists in action to prove how quickly they responded to developments and how they used social media to their advantage. However, these are just personal stories and may not represent the state of field at present. It would have been more convincing had Mr. Nicolas added studies and other indicators as facts to support to his claim. 
  • Mr. Nicolas’ speech, overall, is interesting and relevant. But it could have been more so with more research-based information to balance the personal views.
  1. Mr. Lance Nicolas, president of the Coalition of Philippine Reporters, talked about the challenges faced by Philippine media in his speech “‘Past-Forward’: The Past, Present, and Journalism in the Philippines,” delivered on March 17 at the University of St. Andrew Auditorium before an audience of mainly BA Journalism students. In his speech, he shared strategies used by traditional media practitioners to face the “threat” of citizen journalism. He also shared his personal experience of how journalists responded to crises and their adaptation to the changes brought by social media, making his speech interesting and inspiring to its audience of future journalists who will probably face similar challenges. 
  2. Mr. Nicolas shared many riveting—and at times even funny—stories about journalists at work. As a Journalism major, such stories call to mind the reason why I chose this course in the first place. I have always believed that journalists are modern-day heroes, and Mr. Nicolas’ personal account of how journalists waded through chest-deep floodwaters during their coverage of typhoon Yolanda while also helping rescue stranded people affirmed my admiration for journalists for the sacrifices they make in serving the public. On the other hand, his examples of journalists who were rooted in traditional media but who had also been able to take advantage of social media shows how adaptability is important in any profession, but especially in journalism which is strongly affected by rapid shifts in technology. 
  3. There were some parts of the speech which were not very clear, such as the term “technological rage” which the speaker did not explain. But overall, Mr. Nicolas’ speech was a good listening experience for future media practitioners like me.

After reading both samples, you might have noticed that both begin with a summary of the speech. Likewise, both texts conclude with a restatement of the overall judgment of the talk, which you first read in the last sentence of paragraph 1 of both texts. 

The body contents, though, are quite different. In sample 1, the writer focuses on the merits of the speech, like the use of examples (in paragraphs 2 and 3) and the strength or weakness of the evidence used by the speaker to support his claim (paragraph 4). Sample 2, on the other hand, is more personal. The writer talks about his or her feelings about and responses to the speech (paragraph 2).

Now let’s consider some of the qualities of a good critique and reaction paper, as previously discussed.

  • Evaluative: Which words in samples 1 and 2 show the writer’s evaluation? Box these.
  • Balanced : How is balance shown in the two samples? Draw an asterisk beside the statements that achieve balance.

At this point, you should be able to distinguish a critique from a reaction. You should also have a good grasp of its different parts and how they are arranged. You’ll know more about this as you read the section below on the writing process.

An Overview of the Writing Process

In order to write evaluative papers like critiques or reaction papers, you have to go through the following steps.

Step 1: Know well the nature writing assignment, especially the subject of the critique or reaction and the analytical elements to be included in your paper. 

Step 2: See, listen to, or otherwise experience the work assigned for evaluation, taking careful note of important details as you do so.

Step 3: Outline your presentation, following the conventional organizational pattern for critiques and reaction papers.

Step 4: Draft and edit your paper, paying careful attention to mechanical and grammatical concerns.

In the following sections, you will examine more closely each of these steps.

Know the details of the writing assignment. One of the most important steps to any writing activity is to know fully the writing requirements. Do not be afraid to ask your teacher to repeat or clarify certain instructions.

Know the details of the subject. Your teacher will tell you in advance what work you will evaluate; this will give you a chance to prepare by doing some research on the background of the work. Consider answering the following questions before you view the work. Not all of them need to be included in your paper, but knowing the answers to these questions may serve as a good preparation.

  1. “Who”
    a. Who are the people involved in creating work? What other previous works have they done?
    b. Who is the intended audience for the work?
  2. “What”
    a. What event (for example, a celebration, a competition, etc.) is the work a part of?
    b. What is the work about? What are the different analytical elements that make up the work in question? (More on this in the next section) c. What is the creator’s purpose?
  3. “Where” and “When”
    a. Where and when is the work staged or exhibited?
    b. Where and when was it staged before? Where and when will it be staged after?

Know the Analytical Elements of the Subject. When we evaluate or criticize a piece of work, it’s not enough to merely say that it’s good or bad. We have to explain what makes it good or bad. In other words, we have to be able to identify the different components of the work that we find effective or not. We call these the work’s analytical elements. This term is related to analysis, which means to break something to its components. In other words, when we analyze a piece of work, we have to be able to identify all the different “ingredients” that make up this piece of work.

The analytical components will depend on the type of work that you are asked to evaluate. Sometimes your teacher will also be the one to decide on this. Below are a few recommended materials to help you identify analytical elements of different subjects of critiques or reaction papers.

  • Analytical Elements of Film
    Goldberg, M. (2000). Some suggestions on “How to Read a Film.” Prof. Michael Goldberg of the University of Washington provides a comprehensive list of elements and links to other useful materials as well.
  • Writing about the literary elements of film. Although limited to only a discussion of theme and character as film elements, the site does provide some useful samples.
  • Analytical Elements of Visual Art. Elements of art. Available on the BBC website, this web material provides easy-to-understand definitions and helpful visuals. 
  • Analytical Elements of Design. The 10 essential elements of design. MIT Technology Review. This list featured in the MIT Technology Review website provides “10 essential elements or aspects of good design that transcend context, industry, and geography” (para. 3). 

Once you know the writing requirements and the components of the work to be evaluated, you are ready to view, listen to, or experience it.

Take your time with this part of the process. Sometimes you have to go through the work or the experience more than once in order to get a good idea of the work’s intention or content. While this part is sometimes the most entertaining in the entire process, remember that you have a purpose and that is to prepare for writing your paper. Here are a few tips on how to make the most of your viewing experience:

  • Keep a notebook or any other note-taking device so you can quickly jot down your thoughts. Take note of details that you found interesting, and if allowed, you may even take pictures of these. These notes or images can help you recall details as needed.
  • Get materials such as playbills, information sheets, press kits, or any other handouts; these usually contain useful background information about the work and its creators.

After viewing the work, take time to process. Try answering the following questions while the experience of the work is fresh in your mind:

  1. How do I feel about the work as a whole? 
  2. What did I like about it? 
  3. What did I not like about it? 
  4. What would I suggest to the creator in order to make it better? 
  5. What message does the creator wish to convey? Or what purpose is the work trying to fulfill? 
  6. What did the creator do in order to achieve this? 
  7. Do I think the creator succeeded in this? Why or why not?

You might have noticed that questions 1 to 3 ask more about your feelings towards the work or the subject. These are the types of questions you are expected to answer in a reaction paper. Questions 5 to 7, on the other hand, appear to solicit more your judgment of a particular work in terms of its merits. These are the types of questions we answer in a critique. Question 4, on the other hand, may be answered in both types. 

Of course, depending on your writing requirement, your paper may also include both your feelings and your more objective judgment.

After outlining, start drafting your paper. Remember that a draft is your initial attempt at writing, so expect it to have plenty of room for improvement. Remember this, too. You never pass a draft to the teacher.

After drafting, take time to edit and revise your work. Grammar, mechanics, and format are significant concerns. But so is the accuracy of the factual details in your paper; make sure you check these as well.

Key Takeaways

  • A good critique/reaction paper is one that is accurate in presenting the summary and other factual details concerning the subject or work.
  • It’s also evaluative, as it presents the writer’s overall judgment of the work and explains why this is so by evaluating selected analytical components of the work.
  • It’s also balanced: able to point out both strengths and weaknesses of the work. 
  • There are four easy stages to go through as you prepare for and write your critique/reaction paper.
    a. Know the nature of the assignment, subject/work, and its analytical elements.
    b. View or experience it with the goal of preparing to write a critique/reaction paper.
    c. Outline your presentation.
    d. Draft and edit your paper.