I started professional writing over 7 years ago when writing rules were simpler. There were only a handful of technical aspects to master in order to be a good researcher: be familiar referencing styles, get good data, use impeccable grammar, avoid plagiarism and write well. But after years of being used to writing this way, suddenly a wave of unexpected changes hit me: universities wanted to see more technical writing skills in students. Client feedback on my work started changing; supervisors no longer fussed over petty issues like a missing comma in List of References. Obviously, I had to modify my writing habits. Though I didn’t face much difficulty adapting to the other changes (like quicker deadlines and using new software and testing methods for analysis), the biggest challenge was to learn critical writing.
Critical writing, in technical terms, means “not necessarily writing about the topic in a negative way; it is simply making sure that you have considered all sides of the argument” (University of Cumbria, UK). Sounds simple? It definitely isn’t. Here I have listed the 3 most important lessons I learnt in the process of mastering critical writing.
Lesson# 1: At first, you will fail
The first time I was asked for a critical evaluation was in a dissertation. At that time there was little guidance on the hows and whys of critical writing; and most blogs on it were cryptic. I took 3 days to write a 600-word critical review of the topic. By the end of which my brain was scrambled eggs and confidence level at an all-time low. After hesitantly submitting it to my client, I decided not to wait for the feedback before I attempted critical writing again. The feedback came soon: it was not impressive and client was asked to rewrite the whole part.
Lesson# 2: Never criticize a report before knowing the basics
When my first time was (expectedly) a disaster, I sought help from a dear colleague who immediately penned an article on how to do a critical review. In addition, she said 10 wise words to me: focus on the Who, When, Where, Why, How and What. I followed a few simple steps in my second try:
- Gathered 8-10 latest reports on the topic, published in renowned journals.
- Focused on 6 main elements of each report:
- Who wrote it?
- When was it written/researched/ published? (preferably not older than 4 years)
- Where was it written? If the report is set in a location that is demographically and geographically too different from yours then its relevance diminishes.
- How was the research conducted?
- Why was the report written? (Knowing the aim of the research is important)
- What was studied in the report?
I wrote the information in bits and pieces and arranged them in a logical order before I started to criticise it. This gave me clarity and ease in writing.
Lesson# 3: Negative points are not always essential.
When we think of the word “critic”, we quickly assume that he/she would have more negative things to say than positive. This isn’t always the case. A critic reviewing a movie or food would focus on the pluses as much as the minuses in order to form a realistic and unbiased opinion. The same applies to critical writing. On my fourth or fifth try, I summarised the author’s perception before passing my judgment on whether or not I agreed with the author. I reasoned my opinions well. This cautious approach paid off well as the supervisor was happy with my reasoning.
Last but not the least, practice leads to perfection. It is impossible to perfect the task of critical writing overnight, but follow a few simple rules creatively and you too will get the hang of it soon enough.