5 Tips for writing a critical essay
The following table provides a helpful summary of key questions you should ask yourself as you prepare an essay that demonstrates the level of criticality expected at postgraduate level. The suggestions in the ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ columns are equally important so pay attention to suggestions.
Table 3 Tips for writing a critical essay
|What?||Answer the question. Keep referring back to the title – both mentally and in your work.||Forget the title. It is amazing how many people do!|
|What?||Contextualise – give background to help your reader but include ONLY what is really necessary.||Just narrate or ‘splurge’, telling the whole story starting from the big bang and including everything you ever heard about the topic!|
|What?||Outline, trace or summarise briefly instead of including superfluous data or detail.||Describe in too much detail or include all your data – unless specifically asked to. Reserve your main effort for the most important parts – the analysis and discussion.|
|What?||Define your terms, the problem etc.||Tip-toe around the issue, not being specific.|
|How?||Show processes in a logical order.||Muddle everything together.|
|How?||Explain subtle points and finer details.||State the obvious, repeat or over-explain.|
|How?||Be precise, clear, direct and to the point. Be concise: reduce what you say to its essence in both your thinking and your communicating.|
Be vague or include detail that doesn’t help answer the question.
Oversimplify or see things ‘in black and white’.
|How?||Use definite, specific, concrete language. Use terms consistently – stick to one meaning for each, or explain if you need a different usage.|
Use loaded or deliberately emotive language.
Use colloquial expressions, phrases or clichés (e.g. the word ‘get’ can often be replaced by a more specific term appropriate to the context – e.g. ‘purchase’, ‘arrive’, ‘achieve’).
|How? / Why?||Use ‘signposting’ to help the reader follow your thread: provide the reader with strong ‘umbrella’ sentences at beginnings of paragraphs, ‘signposts’ throughout, and brief ‘so what’ summary sentences at intermediate points to help your reader understand your comparisons and analyses.||Assume the reader knows why you are including the information you are. Instead tell them explicitly why it’s relevant and what it shows, so that they can follow your line of thought without having to guess at connections you make in your head.|
|How? / Why?|
Emphasise an important point by giving it a prime place in the sentence or paragraph, or by reinforcing it with the language you use, e.g. ‘Something which needs particularly careful consideration is…’ or ‘It may appear that x is the case, but evidence shows that what actually occurs is y’.
Give specific examples to illustrate the points you make about how something happens in context.
|Repeat the same information in the same or slightly different words in the hope that the reader will not notice that you are padding it out! On the contrary, the reader will definitely notice and will be bored!|
|Why?||Support and illustrate your claims with appropriate evidence and examples. Exploit the information you have, and show your reading with up to date and appropriate references.||Copy and paste from texts books and articles. Refer to books, because they sound impressive, even though you have not read them.|
|How?||Develop your argument to reflect your actual findings and reading.||Decide what you think first and then twist the facts or refer to texts selectively to make them fit your claims.|
|Why?||Analyse and discuss issues, looking at pros/cons, strengths/weaknesses, patterns/trends, connections and complexities, and aim to propose a convincing theory with some input of your own derived from your research.||Make unproven assumptions and generalisations, especially from merely anecdotal evidence or personal experience alone.|
|Why?||Persuade and convince, showing why you think what you’re saying is interesting, relevant and valid.||Rely on persuasive language alone to make your point.|
|Why? / What if?||Start from a reliable premise (e.g. smoking has been shown to cause heart disease and lung cancer) and arrive at a reliable conclusion (therefore it is reasonable to say that smoking is a health hazard).||Construct a faulty argument on the basis of a weak premise, e.g. there is a strong correlation between people’s shoe size and the size of their vocabulary. Therefore having a large vocabulary causes your feet to grow.|
|Why? / What if?||Make intelligent suggestions, predictions and hypotheses using appropriate language to show that what is said is only one possible interpretation or belief. Useful words are: ‘highly likely’, ‘probably’, ‘not very likely’, ‘highly unlikely’, ‘often’, ‘usually’, ‘seldom’, ‘I doubt’, ‘I suspect’, ‘most’, ‘many’, ‘some’, ‘it could be said’, ‘it seems’, ‘evidence suggests’… Choose ‘it could be’ rather than saying ‘it is’.||Make absolute statements unless stating a very simple non-debatable fact (like ‘the Earth is a planet’ – and even then it is better to say ‘The Earth is considered a planet because…’ to allow for the possibility that someone may one day prove otherwise or re-categorise it…).|
|Why? / What if?||Account for weaknesses in your own argument, rather than leaving them for your reader to criticise – this will undermine your credibility, whereas pointing up your own faults will show thoroughness, and filling in the gaps will help convince.||Ignore or overlook faulty logic in your own or others’ work.|
|So what?||Comment / pass judgment, giving a reasoned opinion based on evidence analysis (Cottrell, 1999).||Write descriptive and repetitious comments rather than giving an opinion.|
|So what?||Consider and evaluate others’ ideas, whether they oppose yours or not.||Ignore opposing arguments, as this will weaken your own.|
|So what?||Reject and refute others’ theories if you find them unconvincing – AS LONG AS you can justify your response in scholarly terms, i.e. your objections are formed from your research.||Agree with or accept unquestioningly information, arguments, theories or the beliefs of others just because they seem like authorities – i.e. have published their written work.|
|What next?||Make recommendations according to the results of your study and your findings.||Moralise or preach, rant or tell people what you think they should do.|