It is common for feedback on student writing to focus on the need to engage more critically with the source
material. Typical comments from tutors are: ‘too descriptive’, or ‘not enough critical analysis’. This Study Guide
gives ideas for how to improve the level of critical analysis you demonstrate in your writing.
What is critical writing?The most characteristic features of critical writing are:
• a clear and confident refusal to accept the conclusions of other writers without evaluating the
arguments and evidence that they provide;
• a balanced presentation of reasons why the conclusions of other writers may be accepted or may
need to be treated with caution;
• a clear presentation of your own evidence and argument, leading to your conclusion; and
• a recognition of the limitations in your own evidence, argument, and conclusion.
What is descriptive writing?
The most characteristic features of descriptive writing are that it will describe something, but will not go
beyond an account of what appears to be there. A certain amount of descriptive writing is needed to establish
• the setting of the research;
• a general description of a piece of literature, or art;
• the list of measurements taken;
• the timing of the research;
• an account of the biographical details of a key figure in the discipline; or
• a brief summary of the history leading up to an event or decision.
The difference between descriptive writing and critical writing
With descriptive writing you are not developing argument; you are merely setting the background within
which an argument can be developed. You are representing the situation as it stands, without presenting any
analysis or discussion.
Descriptive writing is relatively simple. There is also the trap that it can be easy to use many, many words from
your word limit, simply providing description.
In providing only description, you are presenting but not transforming information; you are reporting ideas but
not taking them forward in any way. An assignment using only descriptive writing would therefore gain few
With critical writing you are participating in the academic debate. This is more challenging and risky. You need
to weigh up the evidence and arguments of others, and to contribute your own. You will need to:
• consider the quality of the evidence and argument you have read;
• identify key positive and negative aspects you can comment upon;
• assess their relevance and usefulness to the debate that you are engaging in for your assignment; and
• identify how best they can be woven into the argument that you are developing.
A much higher level of skill is clearly needed for critical writing than for descriptive writing, and this is reflected in the higher marks it is given