What is Academic writing and how is it different?
Most academic writing follows a number of specific rules and you are expected to follow them whilst writing at university.
Academic writing contains a number of consistent features:
Uses clear formal language (no colloquial/slang words)
Includes evidence from other experts in the field (references)
Answers or debates a specific question or field (focused)
Has clear organisation and layout (logical structure)
Is grammatically correct.
It might sometimes feel like academic writing doesn’t come naturally to you. This may be because it includes words that we don’t use in everyday conversation. Remember that the more you read within the context of your discipline, the more familiar it will become
There are many types of academic writing and if you have been asked to write a personal account or a reflective piece then it may not necessarily include all the features listed above. This is why it is important for you to ready your assignment guidelines carefully, as the requirements can vary from assessment to assessment.
Our friends at the University of Hull have created a brief step-by-step guide to how you might want to approach writing an essay:
Our colleagues at the University of Wolverhampton have created a general guide to how write a report, as it is a general guide it is important that you check the assignment brief from your school, to make sure you are familiar with what is expected from you.
This section gives examples of the difference between descriptive and critical writing:
Whereas descriptive writing states what happened, critical writing identifies the significance of what happened.
Whereas descriptive writing states what something is like, critical writing evaluates the strengths and weakness of something.
Whereas descriptive writing gives the story so far, critical writing analyses how the story so far impacts on the current state.
Whereas descriptive writing says how to do something, critical writing analyses why things are done a certain way.
Whereas descriptive writing explains what a theory says, critical writing shows why a theory is relevant or identifies the strengths and weaknesses of a theory in practice.
Whereas descriptive writing explains how something works, critical writing indicates why something will work (best).
Whereas descriptive writing notes the method used, critical writing identifies whether a method was suitable or appropriate.
Whereas descriptive writing says when something occured, critical writing identifies why the timing is of importance.
Whereas descriptive writing identifies the different components of something, critical writing weighs up the importance of component parts.
Whereas descriptive writing states options, critical writing gives reasons for selecting each option.
Whereas descriptive writing lists details, critical writing evaluates the relative significance of details
Whereas descriptive writing lists in any order, critical writing structures information in order of importance.
Whereas descriptive writing states links between items, critical writing shows the relevance of links between pieces of information.
Whereas descriptive writing gives evidence, critical writing argues a case according to the evidence.
Whereas descriptive writing provides information for comparison, critical writing makes a reasoned judgement on provided information.
Whereas descriptive writing gives information, critical writing draws conclusions.
Adapted from Cottrell (2008)
This video gives an introduction to thinking critically, something that is very important to not just University study but is a key skill that helps us to become more independent as a learner or worker.
Taking a critical approach to your work is a skill that can be finessed with practice. As well as helping you produce more sophisticated arguments, it means you are less likely to take what others tell you at face value and take a more informed approach to what you read in the news.
Imagine two students having a spirited debate in the Student Union bar after their lecture. Bill says, “In the European Union, Article 2 of the European Convention of Human Rights prohibits the use of capital punishment.” Bill has simply outlined a fact without giving any analysis or informed argument about whether he believes the death penalty should be reintroduced in the UK.
His friend Sarah says, “Although it could be argued that capital punishment is ‘ultimate deterrent’ and provides retributive justice for the victim, it does not have any place in the modern justice system. Miscarriage of justice cases such as Derek Bentley illustrate that there is too much potential to go wrong.” Sarah has formed an argument and given a point of view, backing it up with examples. She has also used a counter argument to strengthen what she is saying.
Differentiating between descriptive and critical writing
Students who write descriptively tend to accept what they read; being critical is a higher level skill that involves taking a closer look at each source and evaluating it on its own merits.
If your essay title includes instruction words such as ‘outline’, ‘identify’ or ‘state,’ this suggests your lecturer wants you to write descriptively. Instruction words such as ‘evaluate,’ ‘analyse’ or ‘argue’ suggest that a more critical approach is needed. If you have been asked to write a critical essay on the development of Marxism, you should briefly describe what is meant by this concept and then go on to analyse the key reasons for its expansion. Some students fall into the habit of describing at great length before beginning their critical analysis, which is problematic as it is not what they have been asked to do.
LearnHigher, 2012. What’s the difference between descriptive and critical analysis? [online] Available at: https://tinyurl.com/yaqjpfp7 Accessed 8th August 2017
Descriptive Writing: States what happened, outlines links between items, says when something occurred, list in any order. gives information, explains how something works.
Critical Writing: Identifies the significance, shows the relevance of links between items of information, identifies why the timing is important, structures in order of importance, draws conclusions, indicates why something will work best.
Developing this skill
During your studies you may be asked to write an assignment asking for your view on a certain topic. When you start your research for the essay, you may read a variety of academic sources, perhaps with differing approaches. It is now up to you to decide what view you will argue in favour of. Whilst reading, consider:
Which arguments do I agree with? Why?
Which do I disagree with? What are my reasons for this?
What are the implications for the future?
Can I see any flaws in this argument? For example, if the research you are reading pertains to 1950s America and you are writing about contemporary France, is it still relevant or not? Why?
Does the writer’s argument rely on any underlying assumptions? Can these assumptions be criticised? Consider the statement: ‘VAT increases the price customers pay for goods.’ This relies upon the assumption that businesses will pass on the cost of VAT to customers, which may not be true. Businesses may choose instead to absorb the cost themselves.
If the writer gives a number of reasons for their opinion, do you agree with all of them? Some reasons may be weaker than others.
Does the writer use emotive or biased language to sway your opinion? Are they an expert in their field?
If a poll or sample has been used, is it representative? A political poll of 20 pensioners in Yorkshire the day before the General Election may not give an accurate picture of the likely result.
It may be a good idea to make notes in the margin as you read each source, as this will come in handy when planning your essay.
Refining your work
After you have finished writing your assignment, put it away for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes. Do your reasons support your conclusion? Are there any gaps in your logic? As you have critiqued other academics’ work, try to apply the same approach to your writing. This will ultimately make your argument stronger.
Some students believe that if they use quotes, this will make their argument stronger. However an essay made up of quotes and nothing else would receive a poor mark. Quotations should be used to support your argument, rather than dominating your work. When they are used, you should explain their relevance to your argument and discuss their significance.
Using cautious language is known as ‘hedging.’ It is tacit acceptance of the fact that as an undergraduate or postgraduate student, it is unlikely you have published any original independent research of your own. Thus it is difficult to make any strong statements with any certainty. Even for those who have published research, they can only put forward theories and not absolutes. For example, it would be problematic to say that ‘exercise helps with depression’ unless this has been proved beyond all reasonable doubt. Thus it is best to use cautious language and modal verbs, such as ‘it may show’ and ‘it could be said.’
Examples of hedging include:
Police kettling increases public safety at protests.
It could be suggested that police kettling may increase public safety at protests.
Scott’s 2017 research does not use a large enough sample size to be scientifically valid.
An alternative viewpoint may be that Scott’s 2017 research may not have used a large enough sample size to be scientifically valid.
Here is a quick video from our friends at the University of Hull, who have made a great introduction to get you to start thinking about the reflective thinking process.