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Critical writing

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Our Academic writing Practical Guide has in-depth support on all aspects of academic writing, including criticality:

Synthesis

Synthesis:

"the combination of components or elements to form a connected whole."

OED

You'll need to make logical connections between the different sources you encounter, pulling together their findings. Are there any patterns that emerge?

Analyse the texts you've found, and how meaningful they are in context of your studies...

  • How do they compare to each other and to any other knowledge you are gathering about the subject? Do some ideas complement or conflict with each other?
  • How will you synthesise the different sources to serve an idea you are constructing? Are there any inferences you can draw from the material?

Embracing other perspectives

Good critical research seeks to be impartial, and will embrace (or, at the very least, address) conflicting opinions. Try to bring these into your research to show comprehensive searching and knowledge of the subject.

You can strengthen your argument by explaining, critically, why one source is more persuasive than another.

Recall & review

Synthesising research is much easier if you take notes. When you know an article is relevant to your area of research, read it and make notes which are relevant to you. Consider keeping a spreadsheet or something similar, to make a note of what you have read and how it relates to the task.

You don't need elaborate notes; just a summary of the relevant details. But you can use your notes to help with the process of analysing and synthesising the texts. One method you could try is the recall & review approach:

Recall

Try to summarise key words and elements of the text:

  • Sketch a rough diagram of the text from memory — test what you can recall from your reading of the text;
  • Make headings of the main ideas and note the supporting evidence;
  • Include your evaluation — what were the strengths and weaknesses?
  • Identify any gaps in your memory.

Review

Go over your notes, focusing on the parts you found difficult. Organise your notes, re-read parts, and start to bring everything together...

  • Summarise the text in preparation for writing;
  • Be creative: use colour and arrows; make it easy to visualise;
  • Highlight the ideas you may want to make use of;
  • Identify areas for further research.

Critical analysis vs criticism

The aim of critical reading and critical writing is not to find fault; it's not about focusing on the negative or being derogatory. Rather it's about assessing the strength of the evidence and the argument. It's just as useful to conclude that a study or an article presents very strong evidence and a well-reasoned argument as it is to identify weak evidence and poorly formed arguments.

Criticising

The author's argument is poor because it is badly written.

Critical analysis

The author's argument is unconvincing without further supporting evidence.

Finding the right balance

Being too critical isn't just a question of attacking the author rather than the argument. You can overdo the analysis too, by wasting time on things that are already established in the question or are simply widely understood more generally. Take a look at the Google Doc below to see some examples of how not to get too picky:

Using evidence critically

Academic writing is based on using source information 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?

These resources will help you explore ways to integrate evidence and build critical arguments:

Building a critical argument [YouTube]Building a critical argument [Google Doc]

Critical language

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:

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