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Critical writing: Descriptive vs critical

“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.”

Tom Chatfield, Critical Thinking

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

Descriptive 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.

a visual representation of the text

Critical writing

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.

A visual representation of the text

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 

Adapted from Cottrell 2008:286
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.

Persuade don't inform