Critical writing


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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 looks at critical writing in detail, first by giving a definition of critical writing and considering how to write critically, then by contrasting critical writing with descriptive writing, with some examples. There is also a discussion of how critical writing relates to Bloom's taxonomy of thinking skills, as well as a checklist to help you check critical writing in your own work.


What is critical writing?

Critical writing is writing which analyses and evaluates information, usually from multiple sources, in order to develop an argument. A mistake many beginning writers make is to assume that everything they read is true and that they should agree with it, since it has been published in an academic text or journal. Being part of the academic community, however, means that you should be critical of (i.e. question) what you read, looking for reasons why it should be accepted or rejected, for example by comparing it with what other writers say about the topic, or evaluating the research methods to see if they are adequate or whether they could be improved.


How to write critically

In order to write critically, you need to use a range of sources to develop your argument. You cannot rely solely on your own ideas; you need to understand what others have written about the same topic. Additionally, it is not enough to use just a single source to support your argument, for example a source which agrees with your own view, since this could lead to a biased argument. You need to consider all sides of the issue.


Further, in developing your argument, you need to analyse and evaluate the information from other sources. You cannot just string quotes together (A says this, B says that, C says something else), without looking more deeply at the information and building on it to support your own argument. This means you need to break down the information from other sources to determine how the parts relate to one another or to an overall structure or purpose [analysing], and then make judgements about it, identifying its strengths and weaknesses, and possibly 'grey areas' in between, which are neither strengths nor weaknesses [evaluating]. Critical reading skills will help you with this, as you consider whether the source is reliable, relevant, up-to-date, and accurate. For example, you might examine the research methods used in an experiment [analysing] in order to assess why they were chosen or to determine whether they were appropriate [evaluating], or you might deconstruct (break down) a writer's line of reasoning [analysing] to see if it is valid or whether there are any gaps [evaluating].


As a result of analysis and evaluation, you will be able to give reasons why the conclusions of different writers should be accepted or treated with caution. This will help you to build a clear line of reasoning which will lead up to your own conclusions, and you will be writing critically.



What is descriptive writing?

Critical writing is often contrasted with 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;
  • state the theory;
  • explain the methods of your experiment;
  • give the biography of an important person;
  • provide facts and figures about a particular issue;
  • 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.


Examples of descriptive vs. critical writing

The following table gives some examples to show the difference between descriptive and critical writing. The verbs in bold are key verbs according to Bloom's taxonomy, considered next.


Descriptive writing Critical writing
Reports what happened Evaluates the significance of what happened
Hypothesises why something happened
Outlines what something is like Evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of something
States evidence Argues, using evidence
Explains what a theory says Determines why a theory is relevant
Explains an experimental method Justifies the use of a particular method over another
Quotes, summarises or paraphrases information from different writers Compares and contrasts the views of different writers
Considers the relevance or validity of information from different writers
Gives examples of different items Differentiates between items, possibly using examples
States the findings of an experiment Distinguishes between important and less important findings of an experiment
Lists details Evaluates the relative significance of details
Lists information Organises information in order of importance
Lists options Critiques the options in order to select the best one

Relationship to Bloom's Taxonomy

Bloom’s Taxonomy was developed in 1956 by Benjamin Bloom, an educational psychologist working at the University of Chicago. It classifies the thinking behaviours that are believed to be important in the processes of learning. It was developed in three domains, with the cognitive domain, i.e. the knowledge based domain, consisting of six levels. The taxonomy was revised in 2001 by Anderson and Krathwohl, to reflect more recent understanding of educational processes. Their revised taxonomy also consists of six levels, arranged in order from lower order thinking skills to higher order thinking skills, namely: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating, and creating.


Bloom's revised taxonomy is relevant since analysing and evaluating, which form the basis of critical writing, are two of the higher order thinking skills in the taxonomy. Descriptive writing, by contrast, is the product of remembering and understanding, the two lowest order thinking skills. The fact that critical writing uses higher order thinking skills is one of the main reasons this kind of writing is expected at university.


The table below gives more details about each of the levels, including a description and some keys verbs associated with each level. Although the verbs are intended for the design of learning outcomes, they are nonetheless representative of the kind of work involved at each level, and are therefore relevant to academic writing.


Descriptive writing Critical writing
Bloom's level Creating
Evaluating
Analysing
Applying
Understanding
Remembering
Descri-
ption
Recognising or recalling knowledge from memory (definitions, facts, lists, previously learned information). Constructing meaning from different types of functions (written or graphic), or activities e.g. interpreting, exemplifying, classifying. Carrying out or using a procedure through executing or implementing, for example using models, presentations, interviews or simulations. Breaking materials or concepts into parts, determining how the parts relate to one another or to an overall structure or purpose. Making judgments based on criteria and standards through checking and critiquing. Putting the elements together to form a coherent or functional whole; reorganising elements into a new pattern or structure.
Key verbs cite
define
describe
draw
enumerate
find
identify
index
indicate
label
list
match
name
outline
quote
recall
recite
recognise
record
repeat
report
reproduce
retrieve
review
select
show
state
tabulate
tell
trace
write
characterise
clarify
comprehend
contrast
convert
describe
discuss
distinguish
elaborate
estimate
explain
express
extend
extrapolate
generalise
give an example
infer
interpolate
paraphrase
restate
rewrite
summarise
translate
adapt
apply
calculate
change
compute
construct
customise
demonstrate
determine
discover
employ
graph
illustrate
investigate
manipulate
model
modify
operate
perform
personalise
practise
predict
prepare
present
produce
relate
show
simulate
solve
use
analyse
associate
attribute
break down
categorise
classify
compare
contrast
criticise
deconstruct
diagram
differentiate
discriminate
distinguish
examine
illustrate
infer
integrate
link
organise
outline
relate
select
separate
simplify
appraise
argue
assess
check
conclude
consider
convince
criticise
critique
decide
defend
detect
determine
evaluate
experiment
grade
hypothesise
interpret
judge
justify
measure
monitor
rank
rate
recommend
reflect
relate
review
score
standardise
support
test
validate
arrange
assemble
build
combine
compile
compose
constitute
construct
create
derive
design
develop
devise
formulate
generate
hypothesise
integrate
invent
make
manage
organise
plan
prepare
produce
propose
publish
rearrange
reconstruct
reorganise
revise
rewrite
synthesise
write


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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
Critical vs. descriptive writing Is there a good balance between critical and descriptive writing (generally more critical writing than description)?
Arguments Are the arguments supported using evidence from other sources (not just the writer's own ideas)?
Is more than one source used?
Analysis and Evaluation Does the writer analyse the evidence from other sources, e.g. by breaking it down, comparing or contrasting, categorising, organising?
Does the writing evaluate the evidence from other sources, e.g. by identifying strengths and weaknesses, critiquing, criticising, making judgements?
Conclusions Are the writer's conclusions justified? Is there a clear line of reasoning leading up to the conclusions?


References


Academic Phrasebank , The University of Manchester (2020) Being Critical. Available at: http://www.phrasebank.manchester.ac.uk/being-critical/ (Accessed: 11 September, 2020).


Churches, A. (n.d.) Bloom’s Digital Taxonomy. Available at: https://edorigami.edublogs.org/blooms-digital-taxonomy/(Accessed: 1 September, 2020).


Colorado College (n.d.) Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. Available at: https://www.coloradocollege.edu/other/assessment/how-to-assess-learning/learning-outcomes/blooms-revised-taxonomy.html (Accessed: 1 September, 2020).


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


Shabatura, J. (2013) Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Write Effective Learning Objectives. Available at: https://tips.uark.edu/using-blooms-taxonomy/ (Accessed: 1 September, 2020).


Sheffield Halam University (2020) Critical Writing. Available at: https://libguides.shu.ac.uk/criticalwriting (Accessed: 1 September, 2020).


Teesside University (2020). Critical Writing: Help. Available at: https://libguides.tees.ac.uk/critical_writing (Accessed: 11 September, 2020).


University of Hull (2020) Critical writing: Descriptive vs critical. Available at: https://libguides.hull.ac.uk/criticalwriting/descriptive-critical (Accessed: 11 September, 2020).


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).


Wilson, L.O. (2020) Bloom’s Taxonomy Revised. Available at: https://thesecondprinciple.com/essential-teaching-skills/blooms-taxonomy-revised/ (Accessed: 1 September, 2020).


Yale University (2017) Bloom’s Taxonomy. Available at: https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/BloomsTaxonomy (Accessed: 1 September, 2020).



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Sheldon Smith

Author: Sheldon Smith    ‖    Last modified: 28 April 2020.

Sheldon Smith is the founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com. He has been teaching English for Academic Purposes since 2004. Find out more about him in the about section and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.



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