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This leaflet is available in other formats on request.

September 2011

Academic writing and critical analysis

Studying in Higher Education
When you come to university you are entering a world of academic debate. Through your lectures, seminars, reading and assignments, you are expected to engage with the work of researchers and writers in your area of study. To do this successfully you should adopt an open and questioning approach to your studies - do not just accept what you are being told!

What is academic writing?

When you start to write assignments you are not expected to just write about your own views and opinions. Nor are you expected to merely describe the work of the writers you have been studying. Academic writing requires something different. It involves: identifying and selecting relevant information, evidence and theories; critically reading and analysing this work and structuring an essay which answers the question you have been set.

What is critical analysis?

Most of your assignments will ask you to critically analyse aspects of the topic you are studying. It may help to understand the difference between criticism and critical analysis. Criticism is a negative process. When we criticise someone we are pointing out only their faults. On the other hand, critical analysis is a positive and creative process as it involves close consideration of an idea, theory or piece of evidence, for example, interpreting and evaluating it and comparing it to other ideas.

The importance of critical reading

Do not expect to read reports, books and journals as if you are reading a novel or magazine. To write critically, you must first read critically and actively. Some students make pencil notes in the margins of their books or on photocopies of articles to pick out key points. Start reading with a questioning frame of mind. Critical analysis of texts involves reading with the following in mind: Accept that there can be many different perspectives or ways of looking at a particular topic. Try to understand why the writers you are reading disagree and what the different points of view mean.

not just accept what writers and researchers say. Question their ideas. What evidence do they use? Is it credible evidence?

you see any bias or hidden assumptions in a writers work? Are his/her own views, beliefs and attitudes reflected in the work?

are the advantages and limitations of the theories or research that you are studying?


the implications and significance of the ideas - what outcomes would follow from the views being put forward?

This handout will help you to understand what is meant by academic writing and critical analysis and will provide you with information on how to develop your skills in these areas.

This leaflet is available in other formats on request. September 2011

What is meant by argument in academic writing?

Although in everyday speech the word argument means to quarrel or disagree, in the academic world, to argue means to make a case for an idea or theory and to back it up with evidence. In your assignments the use of argument will probably take the following forms: Identifying and critically discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the theories that you are writing about. or contrast between two or more theories. For example: Writer X argues that because, however, Writer Y argues that because

In writing this way, you are setting out your critical understanding and interpretation of the academic debate or argument that is taking place between different writers in a particular area of study. It is important that you present your ideas or argument logically; that each idea or point flows onto the next, and that you dont contradict yourself or make claims that you cannot back up with evidence.

Some tips on writing style


of the best ways of developing your academic writing and critical analysis is to read

journal articles in your area of study. Read articles for style as well as content. You could set yourself the task of reading at least one relevant journal article each week. Academic writing is formal in style, not chatty, so dont write as you would speak. Do not use slang expressions (e.g. this idea is over the top) and always write words out in full (for example could not instead of couldnt).

cautious language. Because research and theories are being developed and updated all the time, writers tend to use cautious or tentative language. For example: Rodriguezs research seems to suggest that or it could be argued that or it appears that emotive language such as the results were brilliant and try and use objective language i.e. the results were unexpected, it was a major contribution.
Avoid Be

objective. Try to stand back from the arguments and debate and take an overview of the situation. Most academic writing uses the third person, in other words the writer does not use I. (However, check the use of I with your tutor. If you are writing a reflective piece of work it is usually acceptable to use I)

correct grammar. Try and learn and understand the correct use of using full stops, commas, colons and semi colons, hyphens and apostrophes. There are lots of books which cover grammar in the University Library.

paragraphs effectively. Each paragraph should have a point or argument. The start of each para-graph should present this point and each paragraph should link smoothly with the previous one.

Further reading

S. (2008) The Study Skills Handbook. 3rd edn. Hampshire: Palgrave. (especially chapters 9

and 12.)


the Learn Higher website for more advice on academic writing and other aspects of study skills: