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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.

 

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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?

Descriptive & Critical Writing

Descriptive writing merely describes information without any further comment, questions or evaluation. The table shows how critical writing can be added to descriptive writing, and if you click on the text, it provides pop-up examples using the topic of crumpets

The BBC (Parr, 2020) reported that in 2018, a worldwide shortage of CO2 led to the Warburtons crumpet production facility temporarily closing. Crumpets are low in calorie, keep people fuller for longer, and contain 15% of the recommended daily allowance of salt (Parr, 2022). When Emma woke up, she decided to eat crumpets for breakfast. Parr (2022) found that when observed, participant A added butter to their crumpet, followed by marmite. When making crumpets, Parr (2021) suggests that the batter should be left to rise before cooking. According to Parr (2022), trypophobia, which is the irrational fear of lots of holes, is the reason why some people fear crumpets. You can warm up crumpets in a toaster. Toasters turn electrical energy into heat, and flow along metal filaments which toasts a crumpet. Parr (2022) surveyed 999 participants to discover the most popular breakfast choices in the UK. Sales of crumpets in the UK increased during Spring 2020 (Parr, 2020). Research by Parr (2020) suggests that people like crumpets because they taste delicious, have a great texture, and they can be made in just three minutes. A person can choose to add butter to their crumpet, or include extra toppings such as jam, marmite, or peanut butter. Crumpets can be eaten at various times of day, for example, at lunch, breakfast or as a supper. (Parr, 2018). People who eat breakfast in the morning, such as crumpets, are statistically healthier than those who do not eat breakfast (Parr, 2018). Crumpets are relatively quick to make. The CO2 shortage impacted the daily lives of the regular crumpet consumer, who would have either had to select an alternative breakfast item, or go without breakfast altogether. This could have led to more permanent changes in breakfast habits, which could affect future crumpet sales. For example... Although crumpets can help in terms of maintaining a healthy weight, eating too many crumpets could lead to an increase in blood pressure (Parr, 2017). Therefore, a reduction of crumpets, or changing to a lower salt option, may be necessary. Eating crumpets possibly provided Emma with the idea of using crumpets as the context for this description and critical writing table. Another possible answer is that crumpets may have seemed like a good option to provide a lighthearted application to an often-difficult topic. It is likely that both options played a part. Participant A may have added butter to her crumpet first as the heat would help the butter melt, compared to marmite which is already a liquid. However, this reason contrasts ParrParr’s controversial ‘Marmite first’ theory. The reason for this is that the yeast must have time to activate, and this is also what causes the holes in the crumpets (Parr, 2020). However, various chefs disagree on how long the wait should be, Chef Parr (2022) recommends 45 minutes, whereas Pärr (2020) suggest just 15 minutes. Therefore… For example, research by the University of Essex (2013) theorise that trypophobia comes from our evolution, where people used to fear dangerous animals with similar patterns. Although other researchers agree that evolution is involved, academics in Japan suggest that trypophobia is instead linked to an evolutionary fear of skin diseases. Therefore, there is no one answer as to why people have the phobia. Toasters are recommended over oven grills because of the timer function, which prevents the crumpet from being burnt, resulting in a better crumpet. This also works when making toast from bread. Surveys are a suitable method of collecting information from a large number of participants (ParrParr, 2013), such as the one in Parr’s research. Having a large number of participants can help improve the validity and generalisability of the findings, which helps us to take Parr’s findings seriously. A suggested reason behind this is due to the covid-19 lockdown. Similar comfort foods increased in sales during this time, such as chocolate (Parr, 2020). This could be due to people looking for comfortable and familiar in a time of great change and unfamiliarity. Ultimately, the most important component could be the texture. As Parr suggests (2006), the spongy consistency allows the butter to be soaked up, while also providing a different sensation on the tongue to toast. The reason why people prefer butter is likely due to its simplicity, which is preferred when people are tired in the morning (Parr, 2003). Although people can eat crumpets at any time of day, most people eat them in the morning for their breakfast (Parr 2022). This may be because people prefer a quick, easy, and light meal when they are tired and in a rush to get ready for the day. However, it may not be the eating of breakfast that makes people healthier. It may just mean that the type of people who have a healthy lifestyle, such as regular exercise and not smoking, are also more likely to eat breakfast. As discussed, crumpets have many benefits, such as being tasty and easy to make for tired people in the morning. Therefore, they are a good option for breakfast. >
 

Descriptive writing

Critical Writing (Your comments on the descriptive writing)

States the findings/ what happened

Identifies the significance of the findings/ what happened or the impact

Describes what something is like

Evaluates something (strengths & weaknesses)

Describes the story so far

Weighs one piece of information against the other & comes to a potential conclusion

States the order in which things happened

Makes reasoned judgments & possibly debates causes/ theoretical underpinnings

Describes how to do something

Argues why something should/ shouldn't be done that way

Describes a theory

Demonstrates through reasoning and evidence why a theory might be suitably applied/ argues why application could be problematic

Explains how something works

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

Describes the method used

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

Describes 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 components or weighted contributory factors

States options

Gives reasons for the selection of each option, may explore connections between options/helping & hindering factors that could influence the choice of options

Presents a list of randomly-ordered information

Structures the information in relation to importance or significance. May offer ranking with reference to criteria.

States links between items

Shows the relevance of the links between pieces of information

Describes information

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

Adapted from Cottrell (2005); developed further from University of Plymouth (2010).

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