Skip to main content

Critical Writing

The home of our Skills Centre online study guide and electronic resources to build your critical writing skills and use of argument.

Welcome

Critical writing header. Black text on a lime green background.

 

Looking for sessions and tutorials on this topic? Find out more about our session types and how to register to book for sessions. You can view our full timetable on our website, or view up-to-date availability in UniHub Appointments and Events

Not sure where to start developing your academic skills? Take the SkillsCheck for personalised recommendations on how to build your academic writing and study skills alongside your course.

Introduction to critical thinking

In order to write critically, you need to be able to think critically. Critical thinking skills are useful in many aspects of your life. The world of work expects employees to be objective, critical thinkers. Assessment tasks at university aim to help students develop critical abilities. There are many tests that employers use to measure thinking skills. The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal (W-GCTA) (Pearson TalentLens (2019) is one such test often used for graduate recruitment. The domains it tests are also useful in academic writing at university; for example, academic writing values critical skills that present ideas in a clear, structured, well-reasoned way, communicate a certain point of view and convince others of your argument.

Effective critical thinkers can:

1. Make correct inferences

When you make inferences from writing, it involves forming an opinion from information that you have which often requires reading between the lines. Ideas may not be fully stated and ideas may be implied subtly, therefore this involves interpretation.

2. Recognise assumptions

Assumptions are often embedded in writing. Journal articles and chapters you read may contain taken for granted ideas which may need challenging. Assumptions could involve particular biases of the writer or relate to known theories, although they may  not be openly stated. It may imply viewing ideas through a particular lens. There could be other explanations which could be explored, which is why identifying assumptions is important. Does the writing  give a complex understanding or a simple understanding?

3. Make deductions

When making deductions, you are looking for cohesion and strong logic in arguments presented, To make deductions you need to identify strong and weak arguments which flow from fact and opinion and identify where deductions can and cannot effectively be drawn from ideas presented.

4. Come to conclusions

When you read widely, you need to interpret and consider what it means for action, behaviour or implementation in your setting. What do you conclude in relation to your developing perspective and argument? How does this contribute to your presentation of ideas or help you answer your assignment or research question? Is the evidence-base strong enough to make you adapt your behaviour and practice? Can you make recommendations from what you have read?

Ask: 'So what?'  How is the information relevant and significant?

5. Interpret and evaluate arguments

You can view arguments as presenting chains of logic based on propositions. You need to identify robust and insubstantial arguments. Stronger arguments are more likely to persuade the reader and weaker arguments could be flawed, meaning you may not be able to draw conclusions.

Weak arguments could arise from missing information and gaps in logical presentation of ideas, under-claiming or over-claiming, fuzzy logic (where there is no clarity on what is true or false), ignorance or minimization of alternative explanations, inappropriate emphasis on certain cherished ideas, bias and hidden agendas, poor application of ideas to a setting or particular context.

Are all facts and opinions equal from your reading? Should you give more weight and heed some messages from reading or arguments more than others?

Enhance your critical thinking

Academic writing requires that we go far beyond using our general knowledge to support an idea or way of action, instead we have to read widely to find evidence and research, reason and argue and reference ideas.

When writing your assignment, always check the assessment criteria. You will probably notice that higher marks are awarded for critical thinking, analysis and evaluation of ideas. Textbooks provide basic information and are useful for orientating yourself around a subject or field when you first start to learn subject matter. To gain more marks, you will need to read journal articles.

Here are tips to help you improve your critical abilities:

Tip 1: Practise identifying the difference between descriptive and critical writing


Descriptive writing merely offers information without any further comment or evaluation. The table below shows how elements of descriptive writing might be translated into more critical staments and observations:
 

Descriptive writing

Analytical and evaluative writing

States what happened

Identifies the significance of events and the impact

Identifies the significance

Judges the value (strengths and weaknesses)

Gives the story so far

Weigh one piece of information against the other and draws interim conclusions/ offers interpretation

States the order in which things happened

Makes reasoned judgments and possibly  debates causes/ theoretical underpinnings

Says how to do something

Argues a case according to evidence/ develops a rationale (reasoning behind) how/ exploring the evidence base

Explains what a theory says

Demonstrates through reasoning and evidence why a theory might be suitably applied or agues why application could be problematic

Explains how something works

Indicates why something will work (best)/ explores conditions that would make implementation challenging

Notes the method used

Indicates whether something is appropriate or suitable and could debate factors that could drive variance of the method

Says when something occurred

Identifies why the timing is important/ debates factors that could impact on timing

States the different components

Weighs up the importance of component parts/ may develop a rationale for priorities/ weighted contributory factors

States options

Gives reasons for  the selection of each option, may explore interplay between options/helping and hindering factors or conditions that could influence the choice of options

Presents a list of details

Evaluates the significance of listed details

Presents a list of randomly-ordered information

Structures the information in relation to concepts of importance or significance. May offer priority/ ranking with reference to criteria (external framework with evidence/referenced  or personally argued.

States links between items

Shows the relevance of links between pieces of information

Gives information

Draws conclusions, interim conclusions, identifies issues for consideration/ explores contributory and complicating factors

Adapted from Cottrell (2005); table developed further from University of Plymouth (2010) original version

 

Here's an example of how a descriptive statement might be developed into a critical argument using the table above:

Descriptive writing Analytical and evaluative writing

States what happened:

The elderly patient fell out of bed and fractured their femur. The patient was offered the opportunity to raise a formal complaint.

Identifies the significance

The elderly patient fell out of bed and fractured their femur. The patient was offered the opportunity to raise a formal complaint.

The accident appears to have occurred because the cot sides were not put up which was not in accordance with procedure (Dept of Health, 2019)  (theory of causation). This patient is frail and elderly and fractured bones leading to subsequent immobility during the recovery period is potentially detrimental to their ongoing recovery adding to the hospital stay (Antoniou, 2019), undoubtedly incurring additional costs (Brandt, 2018)  (analysis of impact-personal and organisational).  This incident highlights poor practice indicating a possible training need and requirement for improved health and safety awareness (Iqbal, 2017)  (significance of event in wider context-systemic issues which need addressing). As the cot sides were not placed in accordance with ward policy, it is possible that the trust could attract litigation from the patient and their family (Smythe, 2019) (potential consequences/liabilities).
Tip 2: Generate questions when you are reading books and articles, interrogate theory to test it.


Can you find other work/research that supports what you have read? Are there ideas that run counter to what you have read? Are the claims made reasonable and well-argued? Do you have any concerns or criticism?

Tip 3: Explore the context and situational factors when applying ideas to your setting to evaluate the practicability of the application of ideas.


For example, you might read about research from other countries or other settings; but what are the factors that would prevent effective implementation in the UK?  Are you comparing like with like, or are there certain conditions that are different?  Can you compare research from different situations? Can you draw useful parallels?

Are any recommendations implied? What problems could you forecast with real-world implementation? Are there any foreseeable problems or anticipated problems adapting ideas to your setting or context? Are there barriers to implementation? Could you comment on conditions which need to be in place to ensure effective implementation? What conditions would hinder implementation in your context?

Tip 4: When reading research or articles ensure you take note the difference between fact and opinion.


This will help you identify evidence that can be relied upon and identify personal views of the writer. Fact relates to data: research findings, statistics, figures, information generated from valid primary research. Opinion relates to the personal view of the writer and what they have inferred when writing. Opinion always involves a level of interpretation.

Tip 5: Construct arguments


It is important to develop an argument in academic writing. It is not appropriate to string ideas together; there must be a developing logic and a reasoned stance from evidence.

Paragraph model for critical writing

Often in assignments, you are expected to critically evaluate - this means to assess the relevance and significance of concepts relating to a specific topic or assignment question. Introduce your point. Give examples from reading. Is there support for your argument or can you identify weaknesses?  Are there different perspectives to compare and contrast? Build your explanation and create your objective, reasoned argument (case or thesis) based on the evaluation from different perspectives. You will include your conclusion and point of view, communicating your stance, having made a judgment on research you have found and its significance in contributing to answering your assignment question.

Use the TED model to integrate critical thinking into your writing:

Topic Make your point clearly introducing the main topic of your paragraph.
Evidence Give examples from critical reading and sources that support your argument.
Discussion Explain the significance of your evidence and how it links to the topic of your essay.

Each example of evidence in your writing should have a clear purpose or function. Be explicit and tell the reader what it contributes to your reasoning.
 

What is an argument?

What is an argument?

Premises are claims or assertions and when linked they lead the reader to a conclusion. Claims are presented as statements or claims to truth. If your readers contest the validity of  any of the premises, they will probably have to reject the  conclusion you have drawn; your entire argument will fail. Premises are often chained together to strengthen an argument as more reasons offered, lead to a strong, authoritative conclusion.

Let's take our essay title: Should boxing be banned?

Here’s a simple argument:

Premise 1 During a boxing bout a fighter has a 48% risk of a brain injury (Leiden, 2019).
Premise 2 Research has shown that of those with brain injuries 28% die (Bronagh, 2018).
Premise 3 The number of people with lasting health problems as a result of boxing head injuries is estimated at 36% of all fighters worldwide (Bronagh and Maloney, 2019). Cognitive functioning, memory, decision making, and mood regulation can be badly affected (Kavanagh, 2019).
Conclusion

Therefore, boxing is dangerous and places participants at long-term risk of impaired health outcomes; it should be banned.

Obviously, in academic writing your arguments are often more complex and you will introduce more background reading, evidence, research, statistics and figures to back up your developing stance. Here’s an example of a more complex argument structure and plan which builds through the development of broad themes and premises:
 

This essay will build an argument that boxing is dangerous and should be banned by quantifying the risk to sportspeople and society.

 

Introduction: An introduction could include the following:

  • Your outline of  the topic or background information
  • Offer your rationale for the topic.
  • Definitions or any key terms
  • Main concepts, your approach, sequence and ordering of any information
  • How will you address the assignment question? Use verbs to indicate your  purpose: analyse, evaluate, illustrate, critique.
  • Identify if you intend to apply any particular theories

Paragraph 1: Content and background to argument

Evidence of deaths, brain-injured sportspeople, concussions over last 20 years in both professional and amateur boxing in the UK.

Paragraph 2: Exploration of social/ health costs

Statistics on number of post-boxing injuries lasting longer than 6 months, cost to the health service. Includes figures from Dept of Health.

Paragraph 3: Exploration of personal impact and costs

Evidence on personal impact on people injured in terms of quality of life, lack of independence, reduced ability to take part in life: meaningful work activity and purpose, impact on family, loving relationships, employment, social  life. Refers to wide journal reading and evidence from longitudinal studies.

Paragraph 4: Exploration of impact of growing boxing trend on young men.

Explore concept of boxing as popular sport amongst young men, particularly those from working-class origins. Include statistics. Explore legal concepts in sport: duty of care, protection, safeguarding.
nclude evidence from reading on severity of injuries on growing brains. Refers to wide journal reading and evidence from longitudinal studies. Build argument young people should be protected from harm. Challenge whether sport should be banned or not. Explore parallel occurrences relating to dangerous sports.

 Conclude with a summary of your argument

Validity

Ensure that your arguments are valid. The conclusions must flow from the premises and there must be an internal logic to the claims made.

Avoid flawed arguments. Here’s one:

  1. Freud was a clever man (premise one-true).
  2. Freud had a beard (premise two-true).
  3. All men with beards are clever. Conclusion-untrue. We cannot conflate having a beard with always being clever. Premises can be true, but they can still lead to a false conclusion.

Criteria apply to Freud: certainly, he was a man with a beard. Freud happened to have a beard and allegedly, he was clever. However, not all bearded men are clever, therefore this argument fails because the conclusion 'all men with beards are clever' is not true.

To explore more content on what makes a good argument, follow this link.

How to find arguments

Arguments are likely to emerge from wide reading. Read journal articles around your topic. What are debates within a topic area or field? What themes are emerging? Which main ideas are contested? If you present a view, offer an opposing point of view and anticipate and neutralise counter arguments. What major ideas prevail? Are there new ideas? Are any ideas outmoded and why? Remember to use regular signposting to the reader to indicate what sense you make of the different threads of information contributing to your overall argument.

Criticality and your subject area

Different subject areas may require different approaches to criticality. Ask your subject tutors for advice on what they understand by good critical writing.  It is likely you will need to read widely to obtain research and evidence no matter what the subject. Be guided by your assignment question and spot the key verbs. Are you being ask to analyse or evaluate?

Criticality in your field could emphasise particular thinking and writing skills. Check this list below and try to identify thinking processes that may be important for your subject area/field. Some critical ways of writing may not be expected in your subject. There may be different emphases placed in our subject area. Bear the following possibilities in mind when you are preparing your assignment answers.

  • Providing supporting evidence and arguing an opinion based on reading;
  • Examining cause and effect;
  • Analysing constituent parts or factors, deconstructing;
  • Comparing and contrasting-processes, functions, ways of doing things, different theories and outcomes;
  • Offering solutions to problems;
  • Making recommendations after discussing options;
  • Synthesising information and identify new thinking;
  • Theorising about causes, other contributory factors, problems, failure, unexpected outcomes;
  • Innovating: taking known ideas and combining them and adapting them to introduce something new;
  • Discussing conditions which help and hinder;
  • Identifying trends, categories, criteria;
  • Drawing parallels;
  • Discussing why something will or won't work/ did or did not work e.g. in science;
  • Asking critical questions and using theory to explain phenomena;
  • Identifying contradictions, discrepancies, inconsistencies, lack of clarity on any issues;
  • Applying particular theoretical perspectives or lenses to offer understandings;
  • Exploring complexity, rather than offering simple explanations;
  • Being aware of fallacies, mental traps and biases in the thinking of others and yourself;
  • Contributing new ideas and understandings to the discussion of your subject area;
  • Sometimes it is possible to use theory from another setting to explain phenomena e.g psychological theory could explain phenomena in a management problem;
  • Analysing gaps between theory/ policy and implementation in reality- Are any recommendations implied? What problems could you forecast with real-world implementation? Are there any foreseeable problems or anticipated problems adapting ideas to your setting or context? Are there barriers to implementation? Could you comment on conditions which need to be in place to ensure effective implementation? What conditions would hinder implementation in your context?

How to ensure articles to back up ideas are appropriate

Ideally apply criteria for supportive evidence such as:

  • articles in journals should be 3-5 years old (unless otherwise stated);
  • peer reviewed journals;
  • with authoritative authors;
  • journal articles already cited by others.

You could use tools to analyse research validity, such as CASP tools. The CASP website provides a range of tools for different types of research studies such as systematic reviews, quantitative research, qualitative research, randomised controlled trials. 

More resources

Use the following links to explore further resources and short online courses to build your critical thinking and writing skills:

Further learning:

For postgraduate students:

Book a Skills Centre session

Why not attend a workshop on Critical Writing or Advanced Critical Writing?  Some workshops are also available for those off-campus as webinars. You can gain feedback on your writing style by attending a Writing Forum or book a Skills Centre 1-1 with an academic skills tutor. These are available in person or by phone.

All sessions are bookable through Unihub