Students sometimes receive feedback such as "your essay is too descriptive" or "you need to show more critical analysis". While some description may be necessary – for instance if you are providing background information - most university assignments require you to produce work that is analytical and critical in its approach.
Your tutors want to know what you think
Your writing needs to show your interpretation of the evidence and source material, how you have used that information to demonstrate your understanding, and your subsequent position on the topic. Being critical in your writing means engaging in academic debates and research happening in your subject area.
The sources you select, the way you show how they agree or disagree with other pieces of evidence, and the way you structure your argument will all show your thought process and how you have understood the information you have read.
Use evidence to strengthen your position
Always keep your reader in mind and try to anticipate the questions they would ask - refer back to the Critical thinking questions (PDF) to help you with this. You can use evidence to help you strengthen your position, answer readers' questions, and "neutralise" opposing points of view.
Remember to keep descriptive statements to a minimum - there is no need to provide large amounts of background or historical information.
Make sure you move from description to analysis and evaluation - give your interpretation of the facts, and explain the significance, consequences and/or implications of the statements you have made.
See our advice on structuring a paragraph for more information on how to attach analysis and evaluation to each point you make.
Descriptive vs critical writing examples
The following examples demonstrate the difference between descriptive writing and critical/analytical writing. They are taken from Cottrell, S. 2003. The Study Skills Handbook. 2nd ed. London: Palgrave.
State what happened vs identify its significance
To write critically you will need to not only describe what happened, but also identify the significance of what happened.
"The data shows that the incidence (new cases) of asthma rates in children under 15 years old increased rapidly from 1977, peaking in 1993 and then declining, though rates still remain significantly higher than pre-1976 levels."
"The trend, from 1977 until 1993, of a rapid rise in rates of asthma diagnosis in children under 15 years, suggests that one of the causal factors was particularly prevalent during this time, but has since declined in importance or effect."
Explain the theory vs show its relevance
Descriptive writing will explain what the theory says. To write critically you need to go further and show why that theory is relevant.
"Carl Rogers' theory of a person-centred approach focuses on the freedom of the individual to determine what values should be used to measure successful personal outcomes or benefit, and is particularly relevant for social workers when wanting to take into account the diverse needs of the client group."
"Carl Rogers' theory of a person-centred approach is particularly suitable for social workers wanting to work with a client group with diverse needs because it allows the client to determine what values should be used to measure successful outcomes, rather than those externally determined by, for example, the service, state or dominant culture in society."
Note the method used vs indicate its appropriateness
Rather than simply noting the method used, which is the descriptive approach, a critical writer will show how appropriate that method was.
"In addition to competency-based questions, the candidates were asked to complete an in-tray exercise, which required them to allocate different priority levels to tasks, as an appropriate method to measure their likely performance in the actual job."
"In addition to competency-based questions, candidates were asked to complete an in-tray task prioritisation exercise. This was because it was considered a more effective way to measure likely performance in the actual role as the majority of the job would involve similar tasks, with little interaction with customers and therefore less requirement for highly developed communication skills."
You can apply our critical thinking model to your own work; use our Judging your own work (PDF) questions to help you decide if your writing is critical. These questions will take you through the description-analysis-evaluation stages. Take a look at further examples of descriptive writing vs. critical/analytical writing (PDF)