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Critical writing: What is critical writing?

“If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find confirmations”

Karl Popper, cited in: Critical Thinking (Tom Chatfield)

Critical writing needs critical thinking. While most of this guide focuses on critical writing, it is first important to consider what we mean by criticality at university. This is because critical writing is primarily a process of evidencing and articulating your critical thinking. As such, it is really important to get the 'thinking bit' of your studies right! If you are able to demonstrate criticality in your thinking, it will make critical writing easier. 

Williams’ (2009:viii) introduces criticality at university 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.

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking requires you to carefully evaluate not just sources of information, but also the ideas within them and the arguments they develop. This is an essential part of being a student at university. You cannot simply believe everything you read or are told. For some people, this can feel uncomfortable as this requires you to critique published authors and notable academics. While this may feel inappropriate, it is one of the foundations of academic debate. Indeed, for any given topic or issue, there are many equally valid academic positions. To be effective in your critical thinking, you need to use both scepticism and objectivity:

Scepticism

Scepticism requires you to bring doubt and a questioning attitude to your academic work. In essence, you must ensure you do not automatically accept everything you hear, read or see as true (Chatfield, 2018). This requires you toquestioning everything you hear, read or see . This is the first step towards developing a critical approach.

Objectivity

Objectivity requires you to approach your work with a more neutral perspective. While it is not possible to take yourself out of your work, when you are engaging in critical thinking you need to acknowledge anything that influences your perspective. This is very important as without this level of self-awareness you can focus more on your opinion than developing a reasoned argument. 


A short introduction to critical writing

Making your thinking more critical with questions

This page has so far demonstrated the importance of asking questions in all of your academic work and learning. Questions are the root of criticality. Questions engage you in active thought, requiring you to process what you are hearing, reading, seeing or experiencing against what you already know. All questions, however, are not as equally probing. Questions like 'what', 'when' and 'who' tend to be more descriptive in contrast to questions like 'how' or 'so what' which are much more critical.

When engaging in critical thinking, you need to use a range of questions to fully consider the topic or issue you are trying to understand. Descriptive questions are great for developing your initial understanding, but you also need to consider more analytical and evaluatory questions to fully engage in critical thinking. The diagram below introduces some of the core critical questions: 

Based on: University of Plymouth


Critical questions when reading

Most of your critical thinking should be directed towards your reading of the literature. This is because the literature forms the basis of all academic writing, serving as the evidence for whatever point(s) you are trying to make. Our Reading at University SkillsGuide contains some useful sections which apply criticality to determining source reliability and identifying an argument. Direct links to these can be found below: