Writing a Critical Essay Does Not Mean “Rip to Shreds” Armed only with an Introductory Textbook

For many people the words ‘critical’ and ‘criticism’ have negative connotations. Of course it’s not helped by the impression many people have of professional critics who spend their lives reviewing the accomplishments of others. Tales are told of critics who can ‘make or break’ plays or restaurants who can with the flick of a pen and a few well chosen acid-tongued ‘put downs’. It’s therefore perhaps not surprising that when students are faced with the prospect of writing their first critical essays that they think they have to don a black cape and mask and go MwaahhHHHAHAHAHAHA a lot.

Critical essays should offer balance. They are not  opportunites for students to be ‘smart arses’ armed only with the knowledge on an introductory textbook. Many students fall into this trap. The general rule is: the more you’ve read the more critical you can be. If you try to dazzle with insights and wit based on a chapter in a textbook, it simply comes across as immature academic development, laziness and arrogance.

Often students rely too heavily on introductory texts because it is easy. It’s important to recognise that they serve the function only to introduce you to a topic, not become the fount of all of your knowledge. The publishing process in academia is notoriously slow. With the review process, it may take two years to get research into a journal. Then the textbook authors get their hands on it and after the editing and publishing process the information finds its way to you. By that time it is already out of date. Remember that textbook authors are often generalists rather than specialist researchers. So, once the textbook has set the scene and context, you should head for the journals.

Another main problem is that students are not necessarily taught how to write critical essays and so fall back on erroneous assumptions of what it means to be critical. This is more often than not ‘rip it to shreds’. Rarely, if ever, is this a wise approach. So what it?

Start by imagining that you are writing the essay of an intelligent fifteen year old. If you’re ask to ‘critically analysis’, don’t launch in with ‘theory X is a load of old rubbish and Dr X has a drink problem and was molested by gibbons when he was a child”. Instead begin by giving the reader a neutral account of the theories in question. Once you have established that, you can give an account of the pros (positives) of the theories, and then the cons (negatives). Obviously, reading around a topic will help to develop your critical skills as you  encounter different perspectives. You are hardly likely to get this level of detail in a textbook.

This approach will communicate to your tutor that you are developing good academic skills. Yes it’s more work, but you aren’t studying to regurgitate what you already know or to demonstrate that you can get by for three of four years paraphrasing one book. Unfortunately some students do try this approach. Learning is about pushing the boundaries of what you know, and hopefully you may come up with critical analyses that is not in the textbooks.

Library cards to the ready and step away from that introductory textbook!

You can also find other insights of study skills and essay writing in my other posts:

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Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks) – Part Two

In order to highlight the importance of giving yourself time between finishing and essay an handing it in, I like to offer this second post on Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count. I’d like to say it was intentional but that wouldn’t be strictly true, otherwise known as an ‘out-and-out-lie’. The truth is, I published my previous post without giving myself any thinking time and in so doing I missed a couple of points.

Missed Point Number One: Give yourself thinking time between finishing the essay and handing it in. That way you won’t miss important points such as this one. This all comes down to planning. Aim to finish your essay 24 to 48 hours before the deadline. That way you’ll give yourself time to have a break from it before giving the essay the final polish. You are also less likely to miss important points.

Missed Point Number Two: Spell check and proof read your essay. The two are not the same. The computerized spell check will pick up the obvious errors, including a few grammar problems too. However, it is not a substitute for proper proof reading. I find it useful to use the old-fashioned method and actually printing a copy of the essay. On screen editing is fine, but we often associate computers with speed and have a tendency to skim read rather than really looking at the essay in detail. You will be surprised at how many mistakes you will find. If you can get someone else to read through your essay they will often pick up things you have missed. Basically, you are so tied to the material that you will tend to see what you want to see. Going back to point one, giving yourself time between finishing and handing in really helps with proof reading. Another good technique is to read the essay out loud. If it sounds clumsy or stilted then it will read clumsy and stilted to the person marking it. A common mistake students make is that they try to use big words. The effect is that sounds like badly written dialogue in a costume drama. You should be aiming at the level of an intelligent 15 year old reader, not trying to sound like a mad professor in a comedy sketch.

These two additional points help to create a good impression of diligence. Why lose marks ?

For the other five points, see the previous post: Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks)For other study skills related posts see: Study Skills on this Site

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Writing Good Essays: First Impressions Count (. . . and gain you marks)

First impressions count. So, it’s important when writing essays not to lose marks by not creating a good first impression. If an essay ‘looks the part’, it has a chance of being marked more favourably than one that looks like it was churned out the night before the deadline. Now, this is not a cue to rush out and buy expensive folders or ribbons or write on papyrus. Of course, it helps if the essay doesn’t look as if it has been wrestled from a toddler or used as a coaster. However, the most important thing is that it looks as if it might be a good essay by a diligent student. Here are five pointers that will gain you extra marks by just playing by the rules:

(i) Follow the submission guidelines and be conservative. If the guidelines ask for 12 point font on one side of the paper and 1.5 line spacing, then don’t submit something that can only be read with a magnifying glass. Different universities/colleges/departments/tutors have different rules about things like sub-headings. Obey them. The paper should always be white, not cream or powder blue or pink or monogrammed or ‘wibbley-edged’. Just basic paper, preferably recycled so you can do your bit for the planet. Although you won’t be marked down for  not being ‘green’. . . you may well be if the paper is the colour of lark’s phlegm. As your academic career advances,  if you submit a paper for publication in a journal, there will be submission guidelines. If you don’t follow the rules you won’t even be considered, so get into the good practice now.

(ii) Learn to use the appropriate referencing system. In psychology it’s usually the Harvard (author-date) system. You shouldn’t guess or make-up your own version. You learn the correct referencing format including how to to cite references in the text. Even with references included, you still have to be able to read the essay out loud. You don’t abandon the standard rules of punctuation. Learning the referencing system from the start will save you lots of lost marks on each essay. It also communicates to the essay marker, that you are a diligent student. This may mean that your essay is looked upon more favourably than one which looks like it was referenced by someone who doesn’t give a damn.

(iii) Write a good introduction. You will note that I didn’t begin this piece with ‘In this blog post I will outline how to pick up extra points on essays’. That would have been exceedingly dull. Do a little work to set the scene. It only takes about 50 words to set the context for the essay. It’s standard for all journalists of newspaper and magazine articles. Now you don’t have to be sensational, but you do have to evoke interest. Imagine your essay is found by someone who has to sleep on a park bench. Those first 50 words might mean that they take the time to read your essay to take their mind off the cold. If it starts ‘In this essay I will discuss’. . . chances are it will go straight up the vest or down the pants for insulation.

Your introduction, where possible, should contain the essay question paraphrased, so that anyone reading the essay will know exactly what the question is, without having to look at the question. It will also help you to stick to the point. Finally, your introduction should contain a brief statement of the path your essay will take – a very brief summary of what to expect. All of this makes your essay easier for the reader (marker) to process and it looks more professional. This good impression may mean that the marker may be a little more forgiving.

(iv) Follow the simple three point- rule. In your essay, (i)Tell ’em what you’re going to tell ’em (Introduction); (ii) Tell ’em (Main Body); (iii) Tell ’em what you’ve told ’em (Conclusion). The introduction as we have seen, sets the scene. In the main body you present your evidence. In the conclusion you briefly summarise the material you have already introduced and offer a conclusion. Think of it like a court case. Opening arguments, evidence then closing arguments.

(v) Write a good conclusion. This follows pretty much the same pattern as the Introduction. You briefly summarise the main themes in the main body. Again you offer a paraphrased version of the question and you offer a conclusion based on the evidence introduced in the main body. Now’s not the time to sneak in a few tasty morsels than you saved for the grand finale. If it’s evidence, it goes in the main body. Again think of a court case. You don’t start calling your star witness during your closing arguments.

Of course, you still have to write a good main body and support all of your points with up-to-date references from a range of sources. However, the five pointers above will ensure that the main body is received in a more positive light. To ignore these pointers is to needlessly throw marks away. Simply presenting your essay in a more professional and appropriate way could take your mark up into the next grade band. The sooner you present yourself as a serious or diligent student, however far from the truth that may be, the sooner you will stop losing valuable marks.

Contact info@drgarywood.co.uk to discuss one-to-one academic coaching for study skills, essay writing and  exam techniques

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