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Critical writing: Deciding your position

“Ideal critical thinkers ... take a position and change a position when the evidence and reasons are sufficient”

Robert Ennis in The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Thinking in Higher Education, edited by Martin Davies and Ronald Barnett

Most essays that you write at university will require you to produce a reasoned argument to support a particular viewpoint. This viewpoint is your position—the overall stance you are taking about the issue at hand.

What is a position?

student standing on a cross holding a sign saying "My position"

A position is the overall stance that the writer of an essay takes in answering the question or on the issue/topic at hand (if there is not a specific 'question'). It is the central idea of your essay. If you could sum up your essay on a post-it note, what would it say? That would be your position.

Argumentative essays (the majority of university essays) require you to convince the reader of that position through a series of sound arguments (those that are backed up by credible evidence) which lead them to your conclusion. The purpose is to persuade the reader that your conclusion is a logical and sound one, based on the evidence you have presented.

Examples of positions

Some essay questions or assignment criteria make it easier to take a position than others. Instruction words and phrases like 'evaluate', 'assess' or 'to what extent' clearly require you to come to some sort of judgement which represents your position. With instructions such as 'analyse', 'examine', 'explore' or 'consider' this may not seem as obvious. However, there is still a need to come to a final conclusion that states a position. Look at the table below for some ideas:

Instruction What it means Some possible positions (there will be many more)
Evaluate Critically assess the worth, value or effect of something. It is essential; it is very valuable; it is not valuable; it is only valuable in some circumstances; it is becoming less/more valuable; it had a significant effect, it had a minor effect, it didn't have as much effect as x.
Assess Decide to what extent something is true. It is completely true, it is false, it is true/false in most circumstances, it is true/false in some circumstances; it is less/more true than it used to be; it should be true but it isn't; it can never be completely true.
To what extent... How much do you agree/disagree with something. To the full extent, to a large extent, to a moderate extent; to a small extent, not at all. 
Analyse Break something down into its component parts and decide how or whether they work together. The parts work together perfectly; the parts do not work together; some of the parts work together; the parts work together by...; the parts should work together but...; the one part that doesn't work is...; the part that works the best is...; the most important part is...
Examine Look carefully at, and draw conclusions. The conclusions can be summarised as...; the most important of the conclusions is...
Explore Look at different viewpoints and try to reconcile them The predominant viewpoint is...; the different viewpoints show...; the underlying theme(s) is/are...; despite the different viewpoints, the evidence suggests x is the most likely...
Consider View or contemplate attentively The overarching finding of the consideration is...; after considering x, it appears that ...; the most important elements of x are...; the most relevant elements of x in relation to y are...
Compare Describe the main points of similarity and difference between two or more things The most significant point of similarity/difference is...; the similarities/differences are important/relevant because...; there are x number of important similarities; there are only x significant differences.
Discuss Investigate and debate, giving reasons for and against *Many options* including implications; importance; relevancy; weight of evidence.

Deciding your position

Do some initial reading

You may well have an idea about what your position will be before you start an essay: you may have had a lecture on the topic and formed some opinions; the question or topic may resonate with personal experiences or you may consider something to be common sense. On the other hand, you may start with no idea of what your final position will be.

Either way, some initial reading is essential before you decide:

  • Try to approach the reading with an open mind, even if you think you already have an idea.
  • Be wary of confirmation bias—where you only see what you want to see in the literature.
  • Be prepared to change or at least modify any original viewpoint. 
  • Decide which position to plan your essay around—but be prepared to revise it further if your ideas develop as you write.

Books on your reading list are a good place to start—there may be whole books or at least chapters dedicated to the topic that will give an overview and help you understand the extent to which there is agreement or disagreement on the topic. This may lead you to dig a little deeper by reading at least the abstracts of some journal articles.

Your task is to get a feel for the range of viewpoints and decide which you feel you could argue most effectively. Sometimes it can be useful to purposefully argue a point of view that you disagree with (though this is harder).

The spectrum of relevant debate with different authors at different positions - you decide where along the spectrum you stand (which could be different to other students)

What if there isn't an obvious position to take?

Some topics are more contentious than others and will have a wider spectrum of possible viewpoints. However, even with topics where the authors all appear to agree, there will be nuances of difference. For example, none of the nursing literature will disagree that it is important for nurses to show compassion—but there will be different reasons why they think it is important or how it can be demonstrated. You can focus on these differences to decide your own nuanced position.

Let the evidence guide you

Imagine you are a yacht being blown by the weight of evidence for different positions as you read. You may have thought you were heading for position A but you may be swayed by the strength of the evidence directing you to different places.Deciding your position shown as a yacht being blown to different destinations depending on the weight of evidence

Which position is the right one?

There are no right or wrong positions. There are only unjustified positions—ones that are not backed up by relevant and appropriate evidence.

You do not need to hold the same position as your tutor or the other students on your module. If anything, an unusual, yet justified position can make your essay stand out and get you a high mark.