10 Tips for Critical Essay Writing

The ability to write a critical essay is a key skill for all students. It is relevant to most if not all subjects, and it is relevant to students at all levels of their education from secondary (High) school through to postgraduate study at university level. It is a fact of life that, as a student, you will be asked to write essays, and those essays will be better if you adopt a critical approach. In this post I will provide ten top tips for avoiding the pitfalls that plague many student essays. So, if you have ever felt bemused or crestfallen over an essay returned to you covered in the harsh red pen of your lecturer then read on - these tips should help you avoid further disappointment.

  1. Answer the question asked. This may sound trite but it is not uncommon for a student to misunderstand the question, to write an essay that answers a different question or, quite simply, to not answer any question at all. When faced with a question, particularly in the stress of an exam setting, it may be tempting to take a blunderbuss approach and include everything you know on the general topic in the hope that some of it will hit the mark. But, that is not what is required and a failure to properly address the question asked will inevitably result in a poor or even fail grade. Look for key words and phrases that will help you to keep a narrow focus and determine whether you should be writing a descriptive (what is...) or a prescriptive (what should be ...) essay. The key is to identify the crux of the question and to work out what you need to include in order to provide an answer.
  2. Structure your essay. Every essay needs to be properly structured with a beginning, middle and end. The beginning should be an introduction to your answer, which should do two things: Provide some background context, and explain how you are going to answer the question. The middle is where you address the question by constructing a critical argument that takes the reader along the path from the question towards the answer. The end is your conclusion, which should draw together the strands of your argument to end with a final statement that answers the question. You should avoid introducing new arguments or new information into the conclusion. The key is to make sure your essay has an engaging introduction, a well structured argument, and a strong conclusion.
  3. Do what you say you are going to do. As a reader (or an examiner), it is annoying to be told that the essay will include a particular discussion only to find that it does not. If you say you are going to do something then you must make sure that you do (this applies equally to claims in your conclusion that you have done something - make sure you have). It may help to leave writing your introduction until you have finished writing the rest of the essay, although this is not really practical in the exam setting.
  4. Make sure your arguments connect. In answering the question you will need to construct a chain of arguments (claims with reasons to accept the claims). It is important that each argument in a chain connects with the subsequent argument. You can do this by using the conclusion (claim) of one argument as a premise (reason) for the next argument.
  5. Support any claims you make. Without supporting evidence you are simply making an assertion and the response of an examiner or critical reader will be - "okay, but why should I accept that claim?". To turn a claim into an argument you need to explain why it should be accepted, in other words you need to provide the evidence that will give the reader a good reason to accept the claim. The key here is to use empirical (factual) evidence or reasoned argument to support any claims you make.
  6. Use the best evidence available. When you provide evidence to support your claims you should always use the most accurate and recent information you can find. For example, if you claim that the cost of living is rising then you need to provide data that shows what the cost of living was in the past and what it is today. For the current cost of living it would be better to use data from 2013 than from 2012 or 2011, assuming that the data is available. If no recent evidence is available then say so. Let your examiner know that you have thoroughly researched the issue and not just settled on old information.
  7. Use Primary Sources. where possible your information should come from the original or primary source. If you are writing on a science topic for example, then your claims should be based on data from the original research paper and not from the secondary source of a review. Similarly, if you are explaining what the law is then you should use the relevant statute or case to support your argument. The reason for this is that it reduces the risk that you will be using unreliable information. Never use a secondary source for factual information unless you are unable to access the original source. Where this happens you must accurately reference the source. If you are unable to access a primary source it may help to speak to your lecturer or teacher.
  8. Consider what other commentators have said on the issue. As part of a critical essay you should include discussion of what the leading commentators have to say. This should not just be those writers that agree with your arguments. You also need to address commentators who provide an alternative approach. In considering these counterarguments you should explain why they fail and why your approach is better. Every argument is strengthened by demonstrating the flaws in alternative or counterarguments, i.e. you should counter the counter arguments.
  9. Avoid the inclusion of irrelevant material. Every thing you include in your essay should have a purpose. That purpose is to answer the question. It may be tempting to include material that you find interesting, especially if you put a significant amount of effort into researching and writing the relevant section. However, if it does not help you to answer the question then you must resist the temptation and you should edit it out (you can always save it for another time, so you do not need to feel that your work has been wasted just because you are not including it in your current essay). Most examiners will deduct marks for including irrelevant material as it suggests that you have not fully understood the demands of the question.
  10. Avoid committing Plagiarism. Plagiarism is a form of intellectual dishonesty. It is committed by using information or material from other sources and not acknowledging that use in an appropriate way. Importantly it does not require any intention to cheat and can be committed inadvertently. To avoid it, make sure you reference your sources and indicate where sections have been directly quoted. You can reduce the risk of inadvertent plagiarism by making sure that any notes you take are meticulously referenced and that any quotes are clearly indicated as quotes. It also helps to use multiple sources as this reduces the temptation to paraphrase rather than to construct your own argument. If you do paraphrase another writer's work, make sure you do more than just change the odd word or simply rearrange the order. You must put the argument in your own words or quote it. Finally, it is more likely to occur where you leave the essay until the last minute, so give yourself plenty of time. If in doubt, quote it rather than paraphrase. Reference all your sources, whether quoted or paraphrased. remember that electronic plagiarism software makes it much easier to detect than it used to be.

*Image courtesy Flickr creative commons.

Rory Maclean

About Rory Maclean

I am a freelance writer, proof reader and copy editor with a background in academia and an interest in academic writing, law and ethics, and fiction.

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