Writing for students: why it’s critical to be critical

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Being able to think and write critically is key to the whole ‘being an academic’ thing that life at University is intended to foster.

In all likelihood, the fact you’re even at University means you probably have an above average ability for critical thought – you almost certainly don’t believe everything you read in The Sun (you read The Sun, really?), you ask ‘why’ all the time and you just can’t help but feel ‘The Apprentice’ is set up from the start – but translating that into academia might not be so simple.

Luckily, your favourite *Uncle Jackson, is here to guide you through how to make the most of your critical faculties in your writing.

*Maybe not favourite, but definitely top 10, right?

Question everything

Now, the astute among you would have spotted the test in the above paragraph. That’s right, I’m not really your Uncle, not even by marriage. That wasn’t true and it was your critical thinking skills that helped you deduce that.

You questioned my assertion and found it to be false. This is exactly what you need to do to make the most of these skills within your Uni work.

Never take anything at face value, whether that’s a comment from a peer, lecturer or in a text. Always ask ‘why?’. Sometimes, they won’t have a reason and their point will unravel. Congratulations you just took someone down a peg. Feels good doesn’t it?

Don’t be taken in by a title or authority

As I mentioned, this applies to anyone. Just because someone has a few letters after their name, doesn’t mean they can’t be wrong. Of course you should listen and take in what they say (or absorb what they’ve written) but don’t just leave it at that.

small_5272564106Marilyn Monroe once said It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it’. Think, ruminate and discuss a point and then sure, if it holds up, move on, but don’t just blindly accept it because it came from someone called Doctor Blah. They’re not a real Doctor anyway, they can’t save your life (apart from with education!) and they can’t travel through time, so don’t be awestruck.

Also, remember not to just take things at face value – in case you missed it, it was Aristotle, not Marilyn Monroe who said that quote above? Come on, keep up!

Read, read and read again

This is a rule for life generally but it certainly applies specifically here. When digesting a text with a critical eye (oh hi there awful mixed metaphor) it’s impossible to gain a full understanding on a first read-through.

At the minimum, it will require 3 read-throughs: the first to get a general overview, the second to begin to grasp each point fully and the third to pick out weaknesses and inconsistencies in arguments and points.

Ideally, you’ll read it a heck of a lot more times than that to really be able to get to grips with the subtle nuances of just how wrong they are.

When I read Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling for the first time (this was for an assignment, I’m not pretentious enough to do that just for fun) I had a nagging feeling that there was something wrong with his main arguments. On a second read-through I still couldn’t pinpoint it. Third time lucky, I realised I took umbrage with his “teleological suspension of the ethical” in the story of Abraham.

All fascinating stuff I’m sure you’d agree but my point here is it took me three reads for me to even realise what I felt was inconsistent, before I could even begin to think about formulating a response.

It then took a lot more reading to work out exactly what I would argue against and how.

Essentially, thinking and writing critically takes time to do well. Or does it? Don’t just let me tell you that, think for yourself!

Don’t just aimlessly criticise, back yourself

George Edward Moore said The lot of critics is to be remembered by what they failed to understand.”

He actually did, I promise. Don’t let yourself be one of those critics who counters an argument with nothing but misunderstanding and a lack of reason.

Reason is essential to thinking and writing critically. If you can’t back up your counter-points with a well-reasoned argument, then effectively you’ve lost the battle son*.

* I’m not your Dad, are you getting this yet? No, me neither.

Spend as much time, if not more, thinking about a suitable response as you do reading (or listening) to find weaknesses. Don’t be afraid to back yourself, in seminars or on paper – even if you’re wrong, your lecturers will approve of your trying.

So that’s it for this week. Next time we’ll be chatting about how to bounce back from a rubbish grade. Until then, I’ve existed in this universe and so have you. Or have we? Have you learnt nothing? Decide for yourself!

I’ve been …. Jackson Rawlings. Catch you on the flipside, students.

Jackson Rawlings on HowToWriteBetter.net

Jackson Rawlings


Go say hi and link up with Jackson on Twitter – he’s (@jacksonhraw) … and on Google Plus, too…

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photo credit: Luiz Fernando / Sonia Maria via photopin cc




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