Have you ever received the feedback, “Your writing is not critical enough” and you’re not quite sure a) what that means, and b) how to actually be more critical?
In this post, the team from Learning Skills explains three steps to help you become more critical in your assignments.
Step 1: Know the difference between descriptive writing and critical writing (because you’ll need to use both)
In the past you might have ‘researched’ a topic by collecting facts and then outlining what you found. This is descriptive writing, and descriptive writing is important to show that you understand the key concepts in a topic.
However, university assignments usually require you to think critically about ideas, not just to describe them. When you write critically, you evaluate the ideas you write about and, above all, you answer the question why. Here are some other key differences between the two:
|Descriptive writing||Critical writing|
|States what happened||Analyses (identifies the most important features of a situation/theory)|
|Answers who-what-when questions
|Answers why questions (why something happened, why it is significant, why is it contentious)|
|Describes or explains (facts, theories)||Evaluates (good/bad, useful/not useful, strengths/weaknesses)|
|Does not try to persuade the reader||Presents arguments to convince the reader|
Step 2: Before you start, make a plan
When you do sit down to tackle an assignment, it’s far easier to set out a clear plan that drafts out answers to the following questions:
- What is your thesis (your 30-second answer to the question/your position)? Does it include an evaluation of the topic?
- What core arguments will you use to support your thesis? Are they relevant to your thesis? Do they answer why questions, as well as what and how?
- Do you have sufficient evidence (specific information) to support each argument?
While it’s completely okay to change your answer and structure as you write (it happens!), mapping out a plan will help you check that your answer has a critical focus.
Step 3: Highlight your critical thinking through your writing style
Maybe you feel that you are already thinking critically, but you’re frustrated because your readers don’t seem to pick up on it. Check that your writing style makes your thesis, arguments and evidence clear to your reader. The following strategies can help you:
- Thesis: Include your thesis in your introduction. It should be clearly written in one or two sentences and your reader should be able to underline it. Think of it as a sound bite in writing.
- Arguments: Summarise your arguments in your introduction, then deal with one in each body paragraph. Write a topic sentence for each paragraph to signal the argument you will cover.
- Evidence: Use evidence in the supporting sentences of your body paragraphs and don’t forget to reference it. You can also include a sentence after your evidence explaining how it supports the point you’re trying to make.
- Reasoning: Help your reader follow the steps in your argument through linking words and phrases. Visit the Academic Phrasebank for phrases to help frame your ideas.
What are your steps for successful writing? Share them in the comments below.