Being critical is at the heart of academic writing, but what is it and how can you incorporate it into your work?
University-level work requires both descriptive and critical elements. But what's the difference?
Being descriptive shows what you know about a topic and provides the evidence to support your arguments. It uses simpler processes like remembering, understanding and applying. You might summarise previous research, explain concepts or describe processes.
Being critical pulls evidence together to build your arguments; what does it all mean together? It uses more complex processes: analysing, evaluating and creating. You might make comparisons, consider reasons and implications, justify choices or consider strengths and weaknesses.
Bloom's Taxonomy is a useful tool to consider descriptive and critical processes:
Find out more about critical thinking:
Academic writing requires criticality; it's not enough to just describe or summarise evidence, you also need to analyse and evaluate information and use it to build your own arguments. This is where you show your own thoughts based on the evidence available, so critical writing is really important for higher grades.
Explore the key features of critical writing and see it in practice in some examples:
While we need criticality in our writing, it's definitely possible to go further than needed. We’re aiming for that Goldilocks ‘just right’ point between not critical enough and too critical. Find out more:
Criticality isn't just for writing, it is also important to read critically. Reading critically helps you:
Find out more on our dedicated guides:
Academic writing integrates evidence from sources to create your own critical arguments.
We're not looking for a list of summaries of individual sources; ideally, the important evidence should be integrated into a cohesive whole. What does the evidence mean altogether? Of course, a critical argument also needs some critical analysis of this evidence. What does it all mean in terms of your argument?
Find out more about using evidence to build critical arguments in our guide to working with evidence:
Critical writing is going to require critical language. Different terms will give different nuance to your argument. Others will just keep things interesting! In the document below we go through some examples to help you out:
Assignment titles contain various words that show where you need to be descriptive and where you need to be critical. Explore some of the most common instructional words:
define: give the precise meaning
examine: look at carefully; consider different aspects
explain: clearly describe how a process works, why a decision was made, or give other information needed to understand the topic
illustrate: explain and describe using examples
outline: give an overview of the key information, leaving out minor details
analyse: break down the information into parts, consider how parts work together
discuss: explain a topic, make comparisons, consider strengths & weaknesses, give reasons, consider implications
evaluate: assess something's worth, value or suitability for a purpose - this often leads to making a choice afterwards
justify: show the reasoning behind a choice, argument or standpoint
synthesise: bring together evidence and information to create a cohesive whole, integrate ideas or issues
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More guidance on breaking down assignment titles: