7 Tips for Integrating Critical Thinking into your Writing
"Shouldn't you be writing?"
Posted Jun 21, 2019
The stress and tedium that can be associated with writing is a common subject of social media posting by academics, albeit often in a humorous manner. But, think about non-academics, whose main outcome measure of success isn’t based on writing. I wonder how they feel about writing. Though such social media posts may be shared for the purpose of light-hearted humour, there may well be some truth to them. I think it’s fair to suggest that many do not find academic or technical writing to be an easy or enjoyable task. What often increases the workload of this kind of writing is the need for an integration of critical thinking. Of course, some individuals are better at this integration than others and so, it’s useful to discuss how it can be improved. Thus, below are seven tips for helping you integrate critical thinking into your writing.
1. Know the nature of an argument.
Any piece of text that contains words like because, but, however, therefore, thus, yet, etc., is an argument. An argument isn’t just a heated debate, it’s an activity of reason aimed at increasing (or decreasing) the acceptability of some claim or point of view, through presenting reasons and/or objections that either support or refute the claim. You will have to address both, if not multiple, sides of the story—think of it as playing devil’s advocate. Treating your writing in this regard will ease the process and facilitate the application of the rest of these tips.
2. Do your research...properly.
You weren’t born knowledgeable; so, what you know must have been learned from somewhere else. Sometimes, knowledge can be gained from family, friends or life experiences; but, they have no place in academic or technical writing. As a result, you must search for credible information pertinent to the topic. Of course, everyone is biased; so you will already have a point of a view on a topic before you even start researching it. This is natural; however, don’t feed into this confirmation bias by corrupting your research strategy. That is, search for sources that both justify what you believe about the topic as well as sources that refute your perspective. Consider both (or, if more than two, multiple) sides of the story and be honest with yourself about which pieces of information: come from the most credible sources; are most relevant to the specificity of not only the topic, but the central claim itself; are the most logical; and are the most successful at avoiding bias. The sources you should be using are peer-reviewed academic journals—many of which are freely available through Google Scholar. Furthermore, give credit where credit is due—reference the research appropriately in your writing. I often explain to students new to academic referencing that it’s a great opportunity to show off the fact that they did their research and applied critical evaluation. The more references you have, the more evidence you have for having done your research!
3. Develop an organised structure.
Not a single word should be written before you have an organised structure for the piece outlined (I highly recommend argument mapping, which is a means of visually representing the structure of an argument and is supported by research as having positive effects on critical thinking [Butchart et al., 2009; Dwyer, 2011; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2012; van Gelder, Bisset & Cumming, 2004]). Organisation is an important disposition towards critical thinking and being this way inclined will allow you to adapt and cope with the potential ‘surprises’ that may be encountered during the writing process. Introduction, Body and Conclusion—the old stalwarts of any well-organised manuscript are obvious fixtures (see my next post for what goes into each); but, make sure that all of your reasons and objections are also appropriately organised, discussed and laid out within these sections (see Tip 7 for more on structuring reasons and objections).
4. "Quality, not quantity."
Don’t get me wrong, quantity is important. If you don’t present enough information, your argument won’t be convincing and may affect its impact…and if you’re a student, your grade as well. However, the quality of what you present is as much, if not more, important. To address this in your writing, consider the amount of information that is required to be discussed.
Outside of the Introduction and the Conclusion, good arguments generally contain 3 to 5 core reasons to support a claim. Each of those 3 to 5 core reasons requires justification as well; and, so, each needs another 3 to 5 reasons for support. That is, 3 to 5 reasons for 3 to 5 core reasons (don’t forget to include potential objections as well); thus, generally between 12 and 20 points require discussion. Consider this range as your anchor. With that, however, this anchor might require adaptation, depending on word count. For example, in a dissertation or thesis, this range may not be enough and thus, could be applied to each chapter. In cases of very limited word counts, perhaps only 9 points might be more feasible? Furthermore, ask yourself whether you have 12 to 20 points? If not, do more research. If you still haven't achieved the anchor, that’s fine—just make a greater effort to critically evaluate the points you do have (i.e. fewer points will afford you more than enough space for quality evaluation). Personally, I would much rather see 10 points discussed and evaluated well than 25 points merely presented.
5. "Avoid glorious bullsh*t."
I recall a story one of my high school English teachers relayed to my class about her first college assignment. She had come out of high school having aced her Advanced Placement English exam and expected her college marks to reflect her glowing track record. A big red "F" stained the front page of her first English paper, next to the feedback that I now relay to you—avoid glorious bullsh*t. It’s a memorable line that reflects the need to omit "waffle" from one's writing. Every paragraph, every sentence, every word has a purpose—if what you write doesn’t have a purpose (other than adding words to your piece), remove it.
The message is similar to concepts like "Keep It Simple, Stupid" (KISS) or Occam’s Razor (a philosophical principle consistent with the fundaments of critical thinking), which roughly translates from Latin as ‘More things should not be used than are necessary’. Simply, all of these recommendations suggest that less is more, which it truly is in many cases. So, in practice, remove unnecessary and ambiguous words. For example, unless you’re writing a literary piece, adverbs are often a good place to start cutting.
6. Write as if your granny was reading.
If you’re writing about a specialist topic, it’s likely that the language used to convey meaning will be somewhat complex, particularly to someone who's not an expert in that topic area. Similar to the case of the last tip, just because it’s wordy or reads complex doesn’t make it good writing. Being able to simplify a complex concept so that others can understand it is a much better example of good writing. This is of particular importance to students as well. For example, educators wouldn't have set a particular assignment if they didn't know the topic well—they don't want their students to teach them the material, they want them to explain it in their own words for the purpose of assessing their understanding of it. The student’s ability to paraphrase complex information into something accessible to novices is a primary indicator of learning, not repeating something complex, word-for-word from a few different texts. Write as if your granny was reading because if she can understand it, that means you understand it—as will others.
7. Ensure that you have analysed, evaluated and inferred.
Critical thinking refers to purposeful, self-regulatory, reflective judgment, consisting of a number of sub-skills (i.e. analysis, evaluation and inference), that increase the chances of producing a logical solution to a problem or a valid conclusion to an argument (Dwyer, 2017; Dwyer, Hogan & Stewart, 2014). In order to integrate critical thinking into your writing, its core skills need to be applied. Thus, perhaps the most important tip for integrating critical thinking into your writing is ensuring that you have appropriately analysed, evaluated and inferred.
Analysis is used to detect, examine and identify the propositions within an argument, their sources (e.g. research, common beliefs, personal experience) and the role they play (e.g. the main conclusion, the premises and reasons provided to support the conclusion, objections to the conclusion), as well as the inferential relationships among propositions. When it comes to analysing the basis for a person’s belief, we can extract the structure of their argument for analysis (from dialogue and text) by looking for arguments that support or refute the belief; and by looking for arguments that support or object to the previous level of arguments and so on. As a result, what we see is a hierarchical structure (see Tip 3), in which we can analyse each individual proposition by identifying what types of arguments others are using when trying to persuade us to share their point of view.
Evaluation is used to assess previously analysed propositions and claims with respect to their credibility (i.e. of a proposition’s source), relevance (i.e. of a proposition to the claim and other propositions), logical strength (i.e. in terms of the relationships among propositions) and the potential for omissions, bias and imbalance in the argument. Evaluation helps us establish the truth of a claim and when we do this, we can arrive at some conclusions about the overall strengths and weaknesses of arguments. So, if it’s not credible, relevant, logical and unbiased, you should consider excluding it or discussing its weaknesses as an objection.
Inference refers to the gathering of credible, relevant and logical evidence based on the previous analysis and evaluation of available information, for the purpose of drawing a reasonable conclusion. This may imply accepting a conclusion pointed to by an author in light of the evidence they present or proposing an alternative, equally logical, conclusion based on the available evidence. The ability to infer, or generate a conclusion, can be completed by both formal and informal logic strategies in order to derive intermediate conclusions as well as central claims. After inferring a conclusion, we must re-evaluate our resulting argument. When applying the skill of inference, we progress in a somewhat cyclical manner—from inference back to evaluation and again to inference until we are confident in our overall conclusion. An important by-product of this cycle is that our thinking becomes more complex, more organized and more logical.
Butchart, S., Bigelow, J., Oppy, G., Korb, K., & Gold, I. (2009). Improving critical thinking using web-based argument mapping exercises with automated feedback. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 25, 2, 268-291.
Dwyer, C.P. (2011). The evaluation of argument mapping as a learning tool. Doctoral Thesis. National University of Ireland, Galway.
Dwyer, C.P. (2017). Critical thinking: Conceptual perspectives and practical guidelines.Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J., & Stewart, I. (2012). An evaluation of argument mapping as a method of enhancing critical thinking performance in e-learning environments. Metacognition and Learning, 7, 219-244.
Dwyer, C.P., Hogan, M.J. & Stewart, I. (2014). An integrated critical thinking framework for the 21st century. Thinking Skills & Creativity, 12, 43-52.
van Gelder, T.J., Bissett, M., & Cumming, G. (2004). Enhancing expertise in informal reasoning. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology 58, 142-52.