Academic writing styles: Critical academic writing

critical discussionAcademic writing is far from a one-size-fits-all genre. Applicable to the broad variety of academic disciplines and their unique approaches to conducting and documenting research efforts in the field, one might find it challenging to identify clearly what constitutes academic writing.

In our latest series of #AcWriChat TweetChat events on Twitter, we explored four commonly accepted academic writing styles: descriptive, analytical, persuasive, and critical. This article focuses on the discussion about the last of those four styles – critical academic writing.

Defining critical academic writing

According to the University of Birmingham publication, “A short guide to critical writing for Postgraduate Taught students”, “Critical writing is an involvement in an academic debate. It requires ‘a refusal to accept the conclusions of other writers without evaluating the arguments and evidence they provide’”.

During the TweetChat event, Eric Schmieder defined critical academic writing as “the result of critical thinking and analysis of a specific research topic to develop a well-founded argument for a specific course of action”.

A Lancaster University publication adds that “The aim of academic writing is not to present ‘the right answer’, but to discuss the controversies in an intelligent way.” and shares fifteen tips for showing your critical thinking in your writing, summarized below.

  • Make sure you are answering the question
  • Give enough context that the reader can follow your ideas
  • Include references to the material you’ve read
  • Try to group different studies thematically and make links between ones that are related
  • Explain source material to your reader to show why it is relevant
  • Discuss the ideas that come from these source texts in your writing
  • Justify your judgements – say why you think an idea is relevant / valid / interesting
  • Acknowledge the drawbacks or limitations of ideas, even the ones you agree with
  • Avoid absolute statements – use hedging language to make your statements more convincing
  • Don’t be afraid to make intelligent suggestions or hypotheses
  • You are supposed to make judgements based on evidence, so your conclusions must be meaningful
  • Note that conclusions are usually plural – there is seldom one, simple and straightforward conclusion to anything worth discussing
  • Don’t ignore arguments you disagree with
  • Avoid praising authors just because they are famous in the field
  • Check that your argument flows logically

Differences between critical writing and persuasive writing

Schmieder responded to the question of differences between critical and persuasive writing stating, “Although critical writing is persuasive in nature, the persuasion is made using evidence and research from the literature and with careful consideration of alternative perspectives and arguments.”

An online resource from the University of Sydney also identifies the need for multiple points of view in critical writing, claiming “While persuasive writing requires you to have your own point of view on an issue or topic, critical writing requires you to consider at least two points of view, including your own.”

Constructing a good academic argument

Acknowledging that multiple points of view are being considered in critical academic writing and understanding that the author will be presenting evidence to support their argument or claim in the manuscript, we posed two questions for consideration during the chat.

  1. When considering other points of view, how does this affect your argument?
  2. What constitutes a good academic argument?

Schmieder offered that “A good academic argument makes an evidence-based claim designed to advance a specific field of study. It also demonstrates an understanding of the foundational research for the claim and the implications of the results on the field.” Addressing the effect of other points of view on an argument, he stated, “I think other points of view can strengthen your argument. Either by providing evidence to support your argument or by providing food for thought when constructing your argument to effectively debate counterclaims”.

A Belmont University resource titled, “Writing an Argument”, states “The purpose of argument writing is to present a position and to have an audience adopt or at least seriously consider your argument.” Further, it notes that “Good argument writing is critical, assertion-with proof-writing. It should reflect a serious attempt on the writer’s part to have considered the issue from all angles”.

The Simon Fraser University “Resources on argumentation in academic writing” claims that “Argumentation is less about trying to change ‘what readers believe, think, or do,’ and more about convincing ‘yourself or others that specific facts are reliable or that certain views should be considered or at least tolerated’”. In another resource titled, “Building Good Arguments”, they describe six elements of a well-reasoned argument: claim, reason, qualifier, warrant, backing, and conditions of rebuttal.

The Writing Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers that “by considering what someone who disagrees with your position might have to say…, you show that you have thought things through, and you dispose of some of the reasons your audience might have for not accepting your argument.”

Critically evaluating source materials

According to the Cleveland State University Writing Center, “Critical reading means that a reader applies certain processes, models, questions, and theories that result in enhanced clarity and comprehension.”

Critical evaluation of source materials allows you, as Schmieder noted during the chat, “to evaluate the strength of the argument being made by the work”. The University of Toronto resource, “Critical Reading Towards Critical Writing” echoes this mindset, stating “To read critically is to make judgements about how a text is argued. This is a highly reflective skill requiring you to “stand back” and gain some distance from the text you are reading.”

For those new to critical evaluation of a source, however, we asked “What aspects are important to consider when critically evaluating a source?”

According to Sheldon Smith, founder and editor of EAPFoundation.com in an article on Critical Reading, “In addition to what a text says, the reader needs to consider how it says it, who is saying it, when it was said, where it was said (i.e. published), and why it was said (i.e. the writer’s purpose)”.

But why is it important to be able to critically evaluate source materials?

Schmieder offered an analogy from his teaching career in response, “For years having taught programming languages, I have always told students that they can’t learn to write code until they can read and understand existing code. The same is true with writing critically. Without understanding a good argument, you can’t write one.”

The University of Minnesota Center for Writing says, “When you understand how what you read is written, you can work to incorporate those techniques into your own writing”, while the Walden University Academic Skills Center offers that “You are not simply absorbing the information; instead, you are interpreting, categorizing, questioning, and weighing the value of that information.” in support of critical reading processes.

Effectively receiving criticism on your own writing efforts

Many times, critically evaluating the work of others is much easier than receiving critical feedback on your own writing efforts. To address this aspect of critical writing, we closed the TweetChat with the question, “How can you effectively receive criticism on your own critical writing efforts?”

Schmieder responded saying, “I think you have to face criticism with an open mind and a willingness to learn. Sometimes the comments are harsh, but mostly they are well-intentioned efforts to help you improve. Consider the source and select ones whose feedback you value when possible.”

To better respond to critical feedback on your writing, we suggest checking out a TurnItIn resource that shares 7 Ways Feedback Improves Writing for students and the UNC Writing Center resource which offers the following seven tips for Reacting to Other People’s Responses to Your Writing:

  1. Remember that your writing group is trying to help you become a better writer.
  2. Put yourself in the critic’s shoes.
  3. Keep in mind that every reader is different.
  4. Try not to be defensive.
  5. Remember that a criticism of one piece of writing is not an indictment of you.
  6. Listen to praise with the same intensity that you listen to criticism.
  7. Keep track of the kinds of feedback that you receive again and again.