Critical writing is a specific genre – one of many you will have to master for academic purposes. Most often, it is compared and contrasted with descriptive writing. While descriptive writing aims to explain the topic to the reader and inform them, critical writing seeks to evaluate, compare, contrast, and provide the writer’s perspective on the topic. An outstanding critical paper should also encourage the reader to ponder the subject and investigate further.
However, critical writing goes deeper than merely a genre distinction. It is an entire method underpinning science. “How can it help writing my paper for me?” you might ask. Criticality is the essence of academia if you will. To write critically is to develop your own voice as a scholar. Believe me, you need that.
To be good at critical writing, you have two skills to master: critical thinking and clear, coherent writing. Both are vital not only for your success in college but for the rest of your happy and fulfilling life. And that’s what auntie Lissa is going to teach you today.
What Is Critical Writing
Critical writing involves a lot of research, reading, note-taking, pondering, and investigation. The goal of a critical paper is not to criticize and be negative about your topic. It’s about objectivity and evaluation of the subject based on hard evidence.
Jeffrey J. Williams describes criticality in academia as “being thoughtful, asking questions, not taking things you read (or hear) at face value. It means finding information and understanding different approaches and using them in your writing.” He is a Literary and Cultural Studies professor at Carnegie Mellon University and an advocate of academic freedom, who coined the term “Critical University Studies.”
While descriptive writing states facts, explains theories, and describes the situation as is, critical writing evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence, examines the reasons behind the present state of things, and identifies the significance of what happened.
Critical writing interrogates different perspectives and optics and explains why a particular one is best or more fitting for this case. In short, critical writing is trying to understand what is really going on – and that’s precisely what you are supposed to do as a burgeoning academic. Yet first, you must learn to think critically.
How to Think Critically
Let’s be honest, thinking critically is hard. It goes against our instincts and the inner workings of the brain. Our brain is lazy. It evolved in an environment that was much more dangerous but more stable and simple in its dangerousness. That is why attention is a limited source. That is why we have all the biases and stereotypes – to make quick and easy life-or-death decisions. It served us well way back when. However, you don’t want to be a caveman in the modern world, do you?
Moreover, info space today is a new kind of jungle – and there are new predators lurking behind the trees. They know how to exploit your primordial brain with its silly old ways. They play into your biases to make you do exactly what they want you to do.
That is why you will need to learn critical thinking. Yes, it doesn’t come naturally. It’s a muscle that has to be built with constant exercise, but in the world of info bubbles and torrents of information competing for your attention every minute, it is a new survival strategy. Your two major weapons are going to be skepticism and objectivity.
Skepticism means you do not automatically accept anything you see, hear, or read as true. Instead, you start questioning. One of the rookie mistakes students make is taking everything they read in scholarly literature as a fact. They taught you that you could trust the course book, right? Wrong! Question everything! Questions are the root of criticality. Inquiry is a noble tradition going back to Socrates and his method known as maieutics. The name comes from the Greek word “maia,” meaning “midwife.” Socrates likened himself to a midwife whose questions assisted others in giving birth to their ideas. This method helps you to identify your unexamined assumptions and challenge them, thus eliminating contradictory or circular logic. You follow this line, asking question after question until you find the answer. Sounds pretty basic, but did you know that even today they use the Socratic method in the Supreme Court to imagine the unintended effects of the law they deliberate?
Of course, it might seem a bit awkward for you to critique notable academics and experts in the field as a new student. However, doubt and questioning are at the foundation of academic debate. Asking questions is an essential part of being a student. Bernard Marr, an author, speaker, and strategic advisor to businesses and governments, calls curiosity “a key trait of critical thinkers” and encourages everyone to “channel your inner child” who asks lots of “who,” “what,” and “why” questions.
Objectivity is just another side of the coin. It’s a skepticism turned within. While you question and critique everything, you must also acknowledge your own biases and everything that influences your perspective. To be objective, you should acquire a more neutral approach. Otherwise, you will focus on your opinion instead of developing a sound argument and finding the truth. Be aware of these common cognitive biases:
- Confirmation bias is a tendency to notice information that confirms your beliefs and give it more weight than information challenging your assumptions.
- The availability heuristic is a tendency to estimate the likelihood of something based on how many examples come readily to mind. For instance, people often see the news about plane crashes but rarely about car accidents. Hence, they assume planes are more dangerous.
- The anchoring bias is a tendency to overestimate the first piece of information you hear and downplay the rest, also known as “baby duck syndrome.”
- The false consensus effect is a tendency to overestimate how many other people agree with your beliefs and values.
- The survival bias is a tendency to concentrate on results that made it past some selection process and overlook those that did not due to their lack of visibility.
- The hindsight bias is a tendency to view events as predictable, even if they are entirely random, also known as the “I knew it would happen” phenomenon.
- The misinformation effect is a tendency for memories to be retroactively influenced by later events and fill the “gaps.”
- The actor-observer bias is a tendency to ascribe our actions to external influences while attributing other people’s actions to internal reasons. For example, you might think that you failed the test because you got a lot of trick questions and did get enough sleep, while your classmate failed because they are lazy and didn’t revise as hard as you did.
- The halo effect is a tendency to let our first impression about a person influence our overall opinion of them, also known as the “what is beautiful is good” principle.
- Optimism bias is a tendency to overestimate the probability of good things and underestimate the likelihood of bad things happening to us.
This is just a tiny sample of biases that can influence your thinking. Biases are unavoidable because they stem from how our brain is wired by evolution. However, understanding them helps us to be more self-aware and objective.
How to Write Critically
When you’ve built a toolbox for critical thinking, you are ready to write critically. However, before you write, read extensively on the topic. You must gather as many perspectives and as much evidence as possible. The more knowledgeable you are, the more confident you will be with writing critically about this subject. Don’t forget to analyze the reasoning of every author and assess the credibility of every source.
As you read, identify areas of consensus and dispute about the subject within the academic community. Engage with the reading critically: note where you agree or disagree with the authors, and identify their limitations, biases, and weak spots in their arguments.
Once you’ve identified your position on the topic and the slant of your paper, you can begin writing. As you write, remember to remain objective and dodge your own biases: include not only those ideas and theories that support your position but all relevant evidence.
To be effective, your critical writing must be clear and concise. To achieve this, follow the classical structure:
- Outline the issue or research you are exploring and give an overview of existing theories, the main finding of existing studies on the topic, etc. Highlight the similarities and differences in the various perspectives.
- Give your position or argument as a thesis statement. Your perspective should be based on your analysis of the existing research and evidence – a synthesis, not simply siding with one of the authors.
- If necessary, define key terms and explain concepts you will use in your paper.
- Provide context by referring to existing theories and concepts, and compare and contrast your approach with previous research.
- Evaluate existing research and theories and identify their limitations.
- Develop your take on the topic using evidence and examples from trustworthy scholarly sources, such as peer-reviewed journals and academic articles.
- Interpret and explain the data you’ve collected.
- Give recommendations, or suggest possible solutions for the problem based on your findings.
- Summarize your ideas and findings.
- Explain the significance or relevance of your research and a new approach.
- Give suggestions for further research if the evidence isn’t sufficient or doesn’t provide efficient solutions to the problem.
Of course, to ensure your writing is clear and straightforward, you must proofread it before submitting it. Plan enough time for editing. Ideally, let your paper sit for a day or two and then come back to it with a fresh eye. While you edit, ask yourself these questions:
- Is my position stated clearly and unequivocally?
- Does it follow logically from the evidence I provide?
- Are all concepts and terms easy to understand and defined where appropriate?
- Have I correctly referenced all my sources and attributed quotes?
When you are happy with the content of your paper, you may focus on proofreading for grammar, spelling, punctuation, and formatting details.
That’s it! Not rocket science, but does require some time and effort. The main idea I want you to walk away from this post is this: critical thinking is not a talent you either have or don’t. It’s a skill to exercise and build. When you’ve made it a habit to ask questions, evaluate sources of information, and confront your own biases, critical writing follows naturally. Stay skeptical and love writing!