Throughout university, many of your assessments will require you to write critically – but what exactly does that mean? Writing critically involves developing and applying a range of discrete skills in how you think, how you read the works of others, how you synthesize and use evidence, and how you construct and defend stances within your own written work.
The tabs of this guide will support you in building a critical foundation for your writing practice. The sections are organised as follows:
The word ‘critical’ usually means ‘negative’. A ‘critical person’, for instance, finds fault with things. But this isn’t what we mean by writing critically. Instead, writing critically means to be analytical, thoughtful and questioning.
You may come across assignments asking you to ‘critically analyse’ a source, or ‘critically engage’ with an article. What these assignments are asking you to do is not simply read the source and summarise what it says, but to actively engage with it – to analyse its arguments, assess its strengths and limitations, and/or to identify what your own informed opinion is in relation to the topic.
Above all else, critical writers are always questioning. They don’t accept material at its face value. Instead, they pick it apart piece by piece to see how it holds up to scrutiny. They want to know who wrote it, what they’re arguing, and how they came to their conclusions. If you want to be critical, start by questioning everything!
You can identify arguments and assess their strengths and weaknesses by critically reading the text. Rather than passively absorbing the information, critical reading involves constantly questioning the text as you go along. Here are some good questions to bear in mind as you read:
Once you’ve read through the piece of work, there are a few things you can try to help with your critical analysis:
Critical writing is concerned with arguments. Almost every academic piece of work will have an argument to make, so it’s important that you can identify an argument when you see it. By ‘argument’ we do not mean ‘disagreement’. A disagreement could simply involve the clashing of two opinions based on little evidence or reason. An academic argument, meanwhile, persuades the reader of the validity of a specific claim or stance by applying reason and evidence. For example:
Disagreement: You shouldn’t eat that sandwich. It’s got mayonnaise in it and I don’t like mayonnaise.
Argument: You shouldn’t eat that sandwich. It’s three months out of date and it’s covered in fungi. You’ll probably get sick.
When you come to study a source or a text, make sure you can identify the author’s argument. The same goes for when you come to write an essay: what exactly is your argument? When you’re analysing a text you will offer your judgment of the successes and failures of the text, as explained in the prior tab.
A good argument should include:
Lots of things! The most common mistake is to make an assertion without using evidence or sound reasoning to support it. But there are some other traps which a great many people often fall into:
This is when you argue that because a particular set of circumstances were present, they caused a particular outcome. This flawed tactic is sometimes known as post hoc ergo proctor hoc ('after this therefore because of this').
Example: The survey indicated that students with Instagram accounts performed worse on their maths exams than students without Instagram accounts; therefore, using Instagram impedes people's maths abilities.
Weakness: Correlation does not necessarily imply causation – not every set of circumstances are linked. The logic is flawed in the example above because it assumes a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables that are more likely to be coincidental.
You need to be able to show that there is a direct relationship between the circumstance and the outcome. Correlation alone isn’t enough.
This is when you argue that because the writer or speaker has a negative quality or carried out a negative act, their argument is wrong.
Example: The MP claims his agricultural reform bill will reduce pesticide pollution; however, this is the same MP who voted against an act to improve urban air quality in 2012. Therefore...
Weakness: In this flawed rhetorical tactic, the negative qualities or actions being critiqued are often completely irrelevant to the situation at hand. In the above example, the critique looks relevant at first glance, but what has the writer said about the actual content and efficacy of the agricultural reform bill? Nothing! The writer has attacked the MP for his past record on pollution-related legislature, but the writer hasn't critically considered the new proposal (and its validity or lack thereof).
This is when a false argument (the 'straw man') is created by the opponent and then attacked. Usually the person’s argument is distorted or misrepresented.
Example: Author ABC writes, 'By making vegan options available in all campus dining outlets, the university can create a more inclusive culture.' Writer XYZ responds, 'Eliminating meat from campus menus will in fact create a discriminatory culture, not the inclusive culture that Author ABC asserts.'
Weakness: Author ABC's argument has been deliberately misrepresented. ABC argued for the addition of vegan options; they neither implied nor overtly stated that meat options should be eliminated. The latter is a fictionalised argument – a 'straw man' – that Writer XYZ first invents and then attacks.
This is when you argue that if one thing occurs, other things will automatically follow which are bad or undesirable. It's fair to argue that Thing A will lead to Thing B if you have relevant evidence and sound logic to support the claim; however, in the case of a slippery slope fallacy, the logical evidence is insufficient or altogether absent.
Example: UK universities should not cut funding for creative arts degrees. If they do cut funding, our society will have fewer artists, writers and performers. Without people working in these careers, no one will have movies to watch, novels to read, or new music to listen to. The lack of creative entertainment will spark a surge in anxiety and depression rates across the nation, ultimately placing an untenable burden on the mental health services of the NHS.
Weakness: Unless you can substantiate your claim through evidence and sound reasoning, it does not automatically follow that a series of terrible events will occur because one thing changes. The opening sentence of the argument above could be defended logically – the problem isn't the starting stance or claim, but how the writer argues their case (i.e., the writer spirals into a series of unsubstantiated, grandiose 'ripple on' effects rather than anchoring their case in significant evidence).
This is when you present an artificially limited number of options and make your audience choose one or the other of these options.
Example: When treating a patient with social anxiety, one must consider the patient's comfort in choosing whether to prescribe an SSRI or recommend CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). Because Patient X expressed nervousness about the potential side effects of a pharmaceutical intervention, I suggested a six-week course of CBT.
Weakness: There may well be other options available – you’re just not presenting them! The example above looks reasonable at a glance, but it falters under critical scrutiny because the writer falsely implies that only two specific treatment options exist for social anxiety (when in fact, a broader range of options exists).
This is when you argue that because lots of people agree with a point it must be right. Alternatively, you argue that because something has been that way for a long time it must be right.
Example (popularity): A 2021 poll revealed that over 60% of Americans believe social media has been bad for democracy; therefore, social media is harmful to democracy.
Weakness: Just because a lot of people agree with something doesn’t make it right or true. In this case, the main claim that 'social media is harmful to democracy' might be true in some (or many) ways, but the writer's method of argumentation is flawed. Unless your claim is about opinions or perceptions rather than objective facts, appealing to popular opinion isn't an academically sound way to support a claim.
Example (tradition): The elves of Elf-on-Thames have celebrated their birthdays by chucking rocks at passing pedestrians for the past 600 years. Therefore, the elves should be permitted to continue chucking rocks at pedestrians on their birthdays.
Weakness: Just because something has existed for a long time doesn’t mean it’s right. In this example, the writer uses only historical precedent to build their argument that the elves be permitted to keep chucking rocks. This is a weak argument that leaves the writer vulnerable to logical counterattack: for example, does the elves' tradition not constitute assault under UK law, and do the pedestrians not have a right to public safety (i.e., fewer chucked rocks) as they walk?