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Writing Critically In Essays

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It is common for feedback on student writing to focus on the need to engage more critically with the source material. Typical comments from tutors are: ‘too descriptive’, or ‘not enough critical analysis’. This study guide gives ideas for how to improve the level of critical analysis you demonstrate in your writing. Other study guides you may find useful are: What is Critical Reading?Using Paragraphs and The Art of Editing.

What is critical writing?

The most characteristic features of critical writing are:

  • a clear and confident refusal to accept the conclusions of other writers without evaluating the arguments and evidence that they provide;
  • a balanced presentation of reasons why the conclusions of other writers may be accepted or may need to be treated with caution;
  • a clear presentation of your own evidence and argument, leading to your conclusion; and
  • a recognition of the limitations in your own evidence, argument, and conclusion.

What is descriptive writing?

The most characteristic features of descriptive writing are that it will describe something, but will not go beyond an account of what appears to be there. A certain amount of descriptive writing is needed to establish for example:

  • the setting of the research;
  • a general description of a piece of literature, or art;
  • the list of measurements taken;
  • the timing of the research;
  • an account of the biographical details of a key figure in the discipline; or
  • a brief summary of the history leading up to an event or decision.

The difference between descriptive writing and critical writing

With descriptive writing you are not developing argument; you are merely setting the background within which an argument can be developed. You are representing the situation as it stands, without presenting any analysis or discussion.

Descriptive writing is relatively simple. There is also the trap that it can be easy to use many, many words from your word limit, simply providing description.

In providing only description, you are presenting but not transforming information; you are reporting ideas but not taking them forward in any way. An assignment using only descriptive writing would therefore gain few marks.

With critical writing you are participating in the academic debate. This is more challenging and risky. You need to weigh up the evidence and arguments of others, and to contribute your own. You will need to:

  • consider the quality of the evidence and argument you have read;
  • identify key positive and negative aspects you can comment upon;
  • assess their relevance and usefulness to the debate that you are engaging in for your assignment; and
  • identify how best they can be woven into the argument that you are developing.

A much higher level of skill is clearly needed for critical writing than for descriptive writing, and this is reflected in the higher marks it is given.

Finding your academic voice

When you engage in critical writing you are developing your own academic voice within your subject. Wellington et al. (2005, p.84) offer some suggestions for distinguishing between the academic and the non-academic voice. They suggest that the academic voice will involve:

  • “healthy scepticism … but not cynicism;
  • confidence … but not ‘cockiness’ or arrogance;
  • judgement which is critical … but not dismissive;
  • opinions … without being opinionated;
  • careful evaluation of published work … not serial shooting at random targets;
  • being ‘fair’: assessing fairly the strengths and weaknesses of other people’s ideas and writing … without prejudice; and
  • making judgements on the basis of considerable thought and all the available evidence … as opposed to assertions without reason.”

Wellington J., Bathmaker A., Hunt C., McCulloch G. and Sikes P. (2005). Succeeding with your doctorate. London: Sage.

Try to get into the habit of writing critically, by making sure that you read critically, and that you include critique in your writing.

Stringing together of quotes

It can be tempting to string together quotes to support an argument, feeling that the more quotes you include, the stronger your argument. It is important, however, to remember that you also need to interpret the quotes to the reader, and to explain their relevance, discuss their validity, and show how they relate to other evidence.

Strategic use of paragraphs

There are several ways in which you can use the paragraph to enhance your critical writing.

You can use paragraphs to make a clear and visual separation between descriptive writing and critical analysis, by switching to a new paragraph when you move from description to critical writing, and vice versa. This can help in:

  • emphasising to the reader that you are including both description and critical analysis, by providing a visual representation of their separation; and
  • pushing you to produce the necessary critical writing, especially if you find that your description paragraphs are always longer, or more frequent, than your critical analysis paragraphs.

A paragraph break can provide a brief pause for your readers within a longer argument; giving them the opportunity to make sure they are keeping up with your reasoning.  Paragraphs that are overly long can require readers to hold too much in their mind at once, resulting in their having to re-read the material until they can identify the point you are making.

You can also use paragraphs to push yourself to include critical writing alongside descriptive writing or referencing, by considering each paragraph almost as an essay in miniature. Within each paragraph you would:

  • introduce the point you want to make;
  • make the point, with supporting evidence;
  • reflect critically on the point.

If it’s worth including, it’s worth telling us why

A certain amount of descriptive writing is essential, particularly in the earlier parts of the essay or assignment or dissertation. Beyond that, however, there is a danger that too much descriptive writing will use up valuable words from your word limit, and reduce the space you have for the critical writing that will get you higher marks.

A useful habit to get into is to make sure that, if you describe some evidence relevant to your argument, you need then to explain to the reader why it is relevant. The logic of your explanation contributes to the critical component of your writing.

So, a sentence or two might describe and reference the evidence, but this is not enough in itself. The next few sentences need to explain what this evidence contributes to the argument you are making. This may feel like duplication at first, or that you are explaining something that is obvious, but it is your responsibility to ensure that the relevance of the evidence is explained to the reader; you should not simply assume that the reader will be following the same logic as you, or will just work out the relevance of the quote or data you have described.

Line of argument

So far this study guide has considered the detail of what you write. The other key element in critical writing is the overall structure of your piece of writing. For maximum effectiveness, your writing needs to have a line, or lines of argument running through it from the Introduction to the Conclusion.

Just as you have used paragraphs on a micro scale to present your critical writing, so you need to consider the ordering of those paragraphs within the overall structure. The aim is to lead your readers carefully through the thread of your argument, to a well-supported conclusion.

Example of effective critical writing

The text below is an example of good critical writing, and is based on essay material supplied by University of Leicester’s School of Psychology.

The author refers to the available evidence, but also evaluates the validity of that evidence, and assesses what contribution it can realistically make to the debate.

There are a number of inherent methodological difficulties in evaluating treatment efficacy in this area, and this has contributed to controversy within the research literature surrounding treatment outcomes for this group of offenders (Marshall, 1997). Firstly, while there is no doubt that the primary criterion of treatment success is a reduction in the rate of re-offending (Marshall et al., 1999), reconviction data does not, in isolation, provide a realistic representation of actual levels of re-offending by this group. It is well established that there is a discrepancy between re-offending and reconviction rates: the latter underestimating the number of offences committed (Grubin, 1999). Indeed, a significant proportion of offences committed by offenders are either unreported, or do not result in the offender being convicted (Abel et al., 1987).

You can see how the author is considering the available evidence, but also the limitations on that evidence, and will be taking all of this into account in drawing conclusions.

Checklist for an overall review of your writing

It is always worth taking a critical look at your own writing before submitting it for assessment. The kinds of questions that might be useful to ask at that stage are:

What is the balance between descriptive and critical writing?

While a certain amount of description is necessary to set the context for your analysis, the main characteristic of academic writing is its critical element. A useful way to check this balance in your own writing is to use two coloured pens and to mark in the margin whether the lines are descriptive or critical. The balance will change at different points, but you need to make sure there is enough of the colour that represents critical writing.

Why should the reader be convinced by what I’ve just written?

Remember that, just as you are asking ‘Why should I believe what I’ve just read?’, the readers of your work will be asking the same question of your writing. A critical read through your own writing may reveal gaps in your logic, which you can rectify before you submit it for the critique of others.

Is my conclusion trailed and supported sufficiently well by my preceding analysis and argument?

Check out the conclusions that you have drawn, then locate and check the supporting evidence you provide earlier on. This is a good way of making sure you haven’t forgotten to include a crucial piece of evidence. It is also a way of checking that, when your reader comes to the end of your writing, the conclusions make sense, rather than being a surprise, or an unconvincing leap of logic.

Have I included any unsubstantiated statements?

Sometimes a generalised, sweeping statement can slip through: the kind of statement that might be acceptable on conversation, but not in academic writing. There are three main ways of dealing with such statements:

  • present the evidence to support the statement
  • re-phrase the statement to sound more cautious e.g.: ‘it could be argued …’ or ‘this suggests that …’
  • remove the statement


A critical essay provides interpretation and analysis of a set text, piece of music, a painting, or play. It must be written with an academic purpose; it often proposes a sound argument. Although frequently confused with a review, a critical essay is more similar to a formal essay. It should incorporate scholarly observations, with all facts correctly referenced.

Steps for Writing a Critical Essay

  1. A text, film, piece of music, or play must be selected by the instructor or student. No matter what you choose to write your critical essay on, you must ensure you are fully informed about it before writing an essay on it.
  2. Relevant material from which references can be drawn must be sought. Journals, books, articles, and online material are suitable, as long as the references are scholarly, not popular.
  3. Notes must be written about the text in question, and an argument must be constructed. A stand must be taken by the writer in favor of a particular view.
  4. The body, in the form of three or more paragraphs, must be written first. Each paragraph must discuss one point that supports the argument.
  5. A conclusion is written next, summing up the points, summarizing the argument, and giving a one-sentence closing.
  6. The introduction is written last to make sure it presents the argument clearly. It must contain a strong thesis statement that also sums up the argument.
  7. The finished essay must be read a number of times, corrected, edited, and finally proofed for errors.

Critical Essay Topics

  • Doping in the Olympics
  • Impact of videogames to children
  • Changing gender roles
  • Impact of technology
  • Factors leading to juvenile delinquency
  • How to avoid recidivism?
  • Wonders of the ancient world
  • Atlantis
  • Ways of managing inflation
  • Importance of entrepreneurship

Key Points to Consider

  • An argument can be based on the qualities of the text in question. Thought must be given to the kinds of readers or audiences to whom the writing might be addressed by the author of the set text.
  • A critical essay must examine the text, question it, and evaluate it. The writer must state what kind of text it is, and whether it achieves the aims of its author. That is, does it entertain, does it educate, does it instruct, or does it inform?
  • A suitable combination of main and secondary points must be used in the three or more body paragraphs, which contain the central thrust of the essay. Ideas, notions, and concepts taken from the initial set of notes must be reworked to produce an argument.
  • Rhetorical questions must not be used, since they are a weak and predictable way to form an argument, and truisms must be avoided. Making a point using the findings of an authoritative author is always best.
  • Persuasive techniques must be used in an effective manner to argue the value or lack of value of the text. The most common techniques are to appeal to emotion, to evidence, and facts supported by citations. These techniques must adhere to a discipline, such as logic.
  • A critical essay does not merely accept the decisions and opinions of others, however. It must question, analyze, and propose alternative views, options, and attitudes.

Critical Styles

One style to use when writing a critical essay is the claim and evidence style. The writer must make a number of claims about the set text, or anything else you have chosen to examine. These claims are then supported by evidence found in other texts, which are used as references.

Another effective style is the new information method. Here, the writer provides fresh research which has not yet been used by others to discuss the given subject.

Examination and exploration is a style that looks into the fine details of a text or piece of art, and explores all the possible motivations, inspirations, and reasons the creator of the text or piece of art might have had during the creative process.

Do and Don’t

Do
  • Do seek out more than one fact or piece of information, supported by a reference, for each argument made in a critical essay. Use quotes when the exact words of the author are used.
  • Do describe the set text or piece of art accurately to demonstrate you have examined it in depth.
  • Do make it a point to understand that a critical essay is not one long stream of negative criticism.
  • Do use philosophical notions such as logic, deduction, and inference to support your points.
  • Do use opposing arguments and approach a view from both sides.
  • Do paraphrase accurately and effectively when interpreting references from books and journals.
  • Do invite opposition to your argument, and state your knowledge of differing opinions on the given text.
Don’t
  • Don’t make categorical statements without the support of referenced facts and quotes.
  • Don’t lose track of your argument.
  • Don’t introduce new material in the concluding paragraph.
  • Don’t actively or negatively criticize the set text in a subjective manner.
  • Don’t use colloquialisms, popular rhetoric, magazine-style prose, or commonplace examples. Keep the argument scholarly at all times.
  • Don’t neglect your quality of writing and quality of thought. A sound argument couched in poor language or a poor argument phrased in excellent style will not disguise a lack of preparation.

Common Mistakes

  • Avoid driving a point home too strongly. It is enough to support your claims with evidence without strong language or repetition.
  • An effective critical essay must appeal to the reader’s sentiments, but not in an overstated fashion.
  • Avoid making points that are mere opinions.
  • Make sure your language matches the argument style.
  • Do not omit direct quotes from relevant texts. Ensure all your references are up-to-date and appropriate to the subject and theme.
  • Avoid using too many negative sentences. A critical essay can be just as positive as any other piece of writing: analysis, interpretation, and questioning need not be negative.
  • Avoid presenting facts and data, but omitting a clear and well thought-out thesis argument. Make a logical outline or plan, and keep to it.

A well-written critical essay is one where the writer has made a clear argument in flawless language. Logic, sound reasoning, and an investigative attitude are always seen by examiners as foundations for a well-organized discussion about a set text.

Now that you have acquainted yourself with the basic critical essay writing tips and rules, you can check out our critical essay samples to link theory with practice.

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