Critical writing

In academic writing you will develop an argument or point of view. This will be supported by concrete evidence, in other words reasons, examples, and information from sources. The writing you produce in this way will need to be 'critical writing'. This section will consider what 'critical writing' means, first by giving a simple definition of critical writing, then by contrasting descriptive writing with critical writing.


A simple definition of critical writing

Critical writing involves considering evidence to make reasoned conclusions. A mistake many beginning writers make is to use only one source to support their ideas (or, worse, no sources, making unsubstantiated statements). The main problem with using only one source is: what if your source says one thing, but most other writers say something completely different? In critical writing you therefore need to consider more than one viewpoint. This leads to the first part of the simple definition of critical writing, which is:

  • Critical writing uses more than one source in developing an argument

Another mistake beginning writers make is to use several sources but to string quotes together (e.g. A says this, B says that, C says something else), without really analysing what these writers say. In critical writing, you need to evaluate and analyse the information from sources, rather than just accepting it as being true. This leads to the second part of the simple definition, which is:

  • Critical writing evaluates and analyses the information from different sources

Putting this together, a simple definition of critical writing is as follows:


  • Critical writing is writing which evaluates and analyses more than one source in order to develop an argument.

What is descriptive writing?

Descriptive writing simply describes what something is like. Although you need a critical voice, description is still necessary in your writing, for example to give the background of your research, to state the theory, to explain the methods of your experiment, to give the biography of an important person, or to outline the history of an event. You should, however, keep the amount of description to a minimum. Most assignments will have a strict word limit, and you should aim to maximise the amount of critical writing, while minimising the number of words used for description. If your tutors often write comments such as 'Too descriptive' or 'Too much theory' or 'More analysis needed', you know you need to adjust the balance.


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What is critical writing?

A simple definition of critical writing was given above, namely: writing which evaluates and analyses more than one source in order to develop an argument. To expand on this, we need to consider what 'evaluates' and 'analyses' mean. Your writing will contain evidence from other writers. Evaluating this evidence means identifying the strengths and weaknesses of this evidence (and maybe 'grey areas' in between, which are neither strengths nor weaknesses). Critical reading skills will help you with this, for example as you consider whether the source is reliable, relevant, up-to-date, and accurate. Analysing means giving reasons why the conclusions of these different writers should be accepted or treated with caution. Once you have evaluated and analysed different sources, you should have a clear line of reasoning which leads up to your conclusions, based on the evidence.


Summary

The features of descriptive and critical writing given above are similar to the stages of the Gibbs reflective cycle described in the study skills section. They can be summarised as follows:

  • describe - give the background to your research, explain your methods, summarise an event, etc.
  • evaluate - what are the strengths and weaknesses of the arguments and evidence from other writers?
  • analyse - why should the conclusions of other writers may be accepted or treated with caution?
  • conclude - what are the conclusions, based on the evidence?

Checklist

Below is a checklist for critical writing. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.


  Item OK? Comment
Descriptive vs. critical writing What is the balance between descriptive and critical writing? Is there more critical writing than description? (To help with this, you could use two coloured pens, one for description, one for critical writing.)
Evidence Are the arguments supported by more than one source? Are there any unsubstantiated statements, i.e. statements without evidence?
Evaluation Are the strengths and weaknesses of the sources identified? Are the sources all reliable, relevant, and up-to-date?
Analysis Are there reasons why the conclusions of other writers should be accepted or treated with caution?
Conclusions Are the conclusions justified? Is there a clear line of reasoning leading up to the conclusions?


References

Cottrell, S. (2013). The Study Skills Handbook (4th ed.), Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan


Learning Development, University of Leicester (2009) What is critical writing. Available at: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/ld/resources/writing/writing-resources/critical-writing (Access date: 8/12/14).




Next section

Find out about other important skills such as definitions and classification in the next section.




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