On this page:
“Descriptions: they report information about something, but they don't perform any kind of reasoning - and nor do they pass judgement on or analyse the information they contain.”
Many of students are told that their writing is too descriptive and not critical enough. But what does this actually mean? This page describes both sorts of writing so that you can see the difference and gives examples of how to make your writing less descriptive and more critical.
Descriptive versus critical writing
This is an essential element of academic writing but it is used to set the background and to provide evidence rather than to develop argument. When writing descriptively you are informing your reader of things that they need to know to understand and follow your argument but you are not transforming that information in any way. This is usually writing about things you have read, done (often as part of reflective writing) or observed.
When writing critically, you are developing a reasoned argument and participating in academic debate. Essentially you are persuading your reader of your position on the topic at hand. This is about taking the information you have described and using it in some way. This could be writing things like:
- why it is relevant to your argument,
- how it relates to other literature,
- how it relates to the focus of your assignment
- how a theory can be put into practice,
- why it is significant,
- why you are not persuaded by it,
- how it leads you to reach your conclusion.
The University of Leeds gives some good examples of descriptive vs critical writing on their website: Critical writing.
Table comparing functions of descriptive and critical writing
The table below gives more examples of the difference between descriptive and critical writing
|Descriptive writing||Critical writing|
|States what happened||Identifies the significance of what happened|
|States what something is like||Evaluates the strengths and weakness of something|
|Gives the story so far||Analyses how the story so far impacts on the current state|
|Says how to do something||Analyses why things are done a certain way|
|Explains what a theory says||Shows why a theory is relevant.
Identifies the strengths and weaknesses of a theory in practice.
|Explains how something works||Indicates why something will work (best)|
|Notes the method used||Identifies whether a method was suitable or appropriate|
|Says when something occurred||Identifies why the timing is of importance|
|Identifies the different components of something||Weighs up the importance of component parts|
|States options||Gives reasons for selecting each option|
|Lists details||Evaluates the relative significance of details|
|Lists in any order||Structures information in order of importance|
|States links between items||Shows the relevance of links between pieces of information|
|Gives evidence||Argues a case according to the evidence|
|Provides information for comparison||Makes a reasoned judgement on provided information|
|Gives information||Draws conclusions|
Persuade don't inform
To summarise, when you are writing critically you are persuading the reader of your position on something whereas when you are writing descriptively you are just informing them of something you have read, observed or done. We take you through the process of deciding on, and demonstrating your position in your writing on the next page: Deciding your position.