Critical Writing and Thinking
Contributed by Susie Castellanos (PhD, Brown, 2000)
Department of English
This document is something I produced for an American Literature course in Spring 1998, but I believe you will find it useful for other kinds of courses that require you to think and write critically. I welcome your feedback.
Table of Contents
- On Critical Thinking
- Paper-Writing Tips and Guidelines
- Before You Write A Paper...
- Developing a Strong Argument
- Academic Writing: Some Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
- Common Grammatical and Stylistic Difficulties
- 11 Useful Things to Do When Writing a Paper
On Critical Thinking
All communication (whether writing, film, T.V., photographs, paintings, music, and so forth) relies on shared assumptions and makes its own implicit arguments. All of these forms of communication are texts. I happen to study literary texts, but you can also read as cultural "text" a movie like Titanic, a New York Times article on Iraq, a J. Crew catalogue, or a speech by Kenneth Starr. When you agree with a text, it's because you're inside its logic and agree with its assumptions. When you disagree, it's because you have different assumptions and it's somehow excluding you as a possible reader of its own ideology.
Given all this, what does it mean to "read a text critically?" To me, "critical reading" means figuring out what the text wants you to assume in order to be an insider. To do this, you must not only question the texts' assumptions about what is "true," but also question your own assumptions about what is "true." As you will discover, it is more difficult to question a text when you agree with and share its assumptions.
What follows are critical questions one can ask of any text. I encourage you to use these as a guide to your reading and writing of papers, both in this and other courses. Remember, these questions are not limited to literature--you can ask them of academic writers (like the critics we've read), of history books, and you can certainly ask them of me. I also encourage you to ask some of these questions of the cultural texts around you. Be a critical reader of the media that bombards you--it's trying to convince you to do something or believe something, usually to be a particular type of consumer.
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Questions to Help You Think Critically
- What cultural problem is being set up in this text? Does this cultural problem revolve around issues of class? of race? of gender? of nation? of a combination of these? How does the text resolve this problem--or does it resolve it?
- Why might readers at a particular time and place find this work compelling?
- Are there differences between your values and the values implicit in the text?
- What kind of cultural intervention is this text making?
- How does this text position you as a reader? That is, what assumptions must you have in order to be an insider to this text?
- What is the text setting up as "normative"? What is being set up against the normative as "different"? Are these linked to class ideology, race, gender, sexual behavior, etc.? In what ways?
- What are the various racial types in this text? How are they described (e.g., physical/mental characteristics, etc.)? How are these races constituted in relation to one another? Is the issue of defining "America" (or "human" or "man" or "woman") related to the discussion of race?
- What are the various classes in this text? How are they constituted in relation to one another? Is the issue of defining "America" (or "human" or "man" or "woman") related to the discussion of class?
- If you're reading something considered "American Literature," what is "American" about this text? How are critics who consider this "American" implicitly or explicitly defining this term?
- How is this text constructing:
- "woman"/female? (e.g., is it in opposition to "man"/male? to other kinds of women who are not normative? Is the normative notion of "woman" of any particular class, race, ethnic group, or sexuality?)
- "man"/male? (e.g., is it in opposition to "woman"/female? to other kinds of men who are not normative? To "children" (itself a constructed category)? Is the normative notion of "man" of any particular class, race, ethnic group, or sexuality?)
- "American"? Is this gendered, classed, or racialized in any way?
- non-"American"? Is this gendered, classed, or racialized in any way?
- In answering these, think about what is being set up as normative and central, and what is seen as peripheral.
- Is there any other social unit being privileged in the text? Any geographical, historical, or ideological location (e.g., "the South," "the city," "New England," "the past," "the river," "the home," "the family," "the nation," etc.)?
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Paper-Writing Tips and Guidelines
Before You Write a Paper...
- Have a clearly-articulated paper topic in mind
- Go back to the text(s) the paper is going to address. Re-read it/them (or the sections the topic mentions) with that topic in mind. Mark or copy out quotes that seem potentially useful for considering the issue at hand.
- Develop an argument that you will state in your first paragraph and proceed to back up in the rest of your paper. An argument is your "take" or position on something. (If it makes you more comfortable to initially think of your argument as a "hypothesis," do so. Like a scientific hypothesis, your argument will probably undergo modification as you research and write your paper.)
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Developing a Strong Argument
- A strong argument is convincing; it offers evidence to back up the position. In other disciplines, "proof" for your argument might include lab reports or statistics. In literature, evidence is usually a quote from a primary text and its analysis, and/or support from secondary sources.
- If no one would disagree with what you're saying, it's not an argument. Make sure that your claim isn't simply self-evident. If this is the case, you probably need a better focus. It is hard for a paper to have too narrow a focus, but it is easy for the focus to be too wide. When in doubt, narrow things down. Don't make sweeping generalizations you can't possibly back up ("Since the beginning of time, humans have believed that...").
- Along the same lines, avoid vague terms like "our society" or "the modern world," which are so general as to be meaningless. Specify what it is about "society" that you want to examine.
- Make sure each sentence in your paper says something. This may seem obvious, but often is not the case. For example, "The story makes an interesting comparison between the upper and lower classes" is a "filler" sentence because it does not convey any specific information. You should work into such a sentence some aspect of why you consider the comparison interesting. This commentary should be relevant to your argument as a whole. (As the above example suggests, vague adjectives like "interesting" or "unique" are fairly useless, as they don't convey much information. Instead of merely describing something as "interesting," explain what makes your argument or topic "interesting.")
- Make sure each sentence is relevant to your argument. Read one sentence at a time and ask yourself how each one relates to your thesis. If you don't know or the link is too long, either figure out and explain the link more concisely, or cut the sentence out entirely. Sometimes the art of writing is excising what is unnecessary.
- Make sure you are analyzing what a text is doing, not just summarizing it. If you ask the questions "how" and "why" rather than simply "what," you'll be on the right track. Some "what" questions that are helpful include: What are the implications of the issue being analyzed? What does it (the novel, the issue, etc.) assume? What is unclear, and why might this be? What are the effects of having the text do a particular thing? What is significant about the kinds of information provided or left out by the text? What is significant about the structuring of this information?
- If your paper has a strong argument, your title should be able to reflect that. If you can only come up with a title like "Women in Uncle Tom's Cabin," beware: you may not have an argument. Focus, focus, focus. What is your claim about the women in Uncle Tom's Cabin?
- VERY IMPORTANT: remember to answer the "So what?" question. Often the difference between a "B" paper and an "A" paper (apart from quality of argument, evidence, and writing) is the ability to explain why your argument and observations matter. A strong introduction and conclusion will usually explain the relevance of your work to some larger issue.
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Academic Writing: Some Common Mistakes and How To Avoid Them
- When discussing a written work, refer to the action it contains in the present tense: "Hamlet then says to Gertrude..." (not said). He says it every time.
- In academic writing, it is unnecessary to write "I think" or "In my opinion," since that is implicit throughout your paper; the paper was written by you, based on your own opinions and thoughts. (If this is not true, you are plagiarizing.) Note, however, that some disciplines permit the use of "I." For example, in the discipline of English, writers assert, "I argue that . . .."
- Speaking of plagiarizing: plagiarism is when you use someone else's ideas or wording without crediting them. This is a very serious offense that can result in expulsion. Err on the side of caution; if you're not sure whether what you're saying is too much like Jane Doe's argument, either cite her if you're rephrasing her argument or quote her directly, with citation. (This is one way of figuring out if you have an argument of your own; that is, if your whole paper is one long citation, you're probably just rephrasing someone else's argument.)
- Avoid singing an author's praises: "Thus, we see Hemingway's brilliance at work when..." Writing an essay on someone's work already implies it is of significance; approaching that work critically is a far more challenging task than bowing down to its greatness.
- When you quote material, don't let the quote stand alone; make sure you engage with it before and after it is given. Quotes longer than three lines should be set off as block quotes: single-spaced and indented ten spaces on the left.
- Nonsexist language is preferable, as well as simpler to incorporate than its detractors claim. The basic example would be "he or she" rather than just "he" for an abstract individual such as "the reader"; you can also use "one" or "they," as well as alternate between "he" and "she."
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Common Grammatical and Stylistic Difficulties
A number of style guides are available for those who are uncertain of the basics (e.g., Strunk and White's The Elements of Style). Some common difficulties include:
- split infinitives: "to not go" should be "not to go" because "to go" is the infinitive form.
- sentence fragments: make sure every sentence contains a subject and a predicate (verb clause).
- "that" vs. "which": There is a difference in usage: "which" introduces an incidental clause (sort of a "by the way, such and such is true"), whereas "that" introduces a clause integral to understanding the sentence. E.g.:
- "The lawnmower, which is in the garage, is broken": there's only one lawnmower, which is, by the way, in the garage. The "which" suggests that the clause "which is in the garage" is unnecessary for someone to understand the gist of the sentence--i.e., that the lawnmower is broken.
- "The lawnmower that is in the garage is broken"; there's another lawnmower elsewhere, so it's important to explain that I'm specifically speaking about the lawnmower in the garage.
- book titles should be underlined or italicized; article, short story, and poem titles should be given "in quotes."
- hyphenated words: usually used as adjectives, except when speaking of your "brother-in-law" (by the way, the plural is "brothers-in-law", not "brother-in-laws"). Example:
- "Nineteenth-century middle-class women had power": "women" is the noun, "nineteenth-century" and "middle-class" are the adjectives describing these women.
- "In the nineteenth century, the middle class had power": "century" is the noun, "nineteenth" is the adjective describing this particular century; "class" is the noun, "middle" is the adjective describing this particular class
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11 Useful Things to Do When Writing A Paper
- Try "talking" your paper ideas into a tape recorder, then go back and type in what you've said. This works well at both the early stages (when you're trying to figure out what to write) and at later stages (when you might be stuck with no ideas or too many ideas to sort through).
- Read something from your favorite writer. You'll be inspired to write and you'll learn something about their style, form of argumentation, and organization of ideas.
- Set a timer when you write and don't stop writing until it rings. If you're having trouble getting started, set the timer for just 15 minutes. (You'll probably end up writing for longer once you get started, but if not, you will have at least accomplished a bit of work.)
- Write at the same time every day. You'll write better if you get into a writing groove, and you're also less likely to procrastinate if you make it a habit (like taking a shower and brushing your teeth).
- If you find yourself with too many ideas and/or you don't know how to put your ideas in order
- make a list (or chart, or graph) of all your arguments or observations you have made thus far. Seeing them all in front of you will help you figure out which ones are related; it will also help you realize that maybe you only have one or two main points that you're saying ten different ways.
- go back and move things around to where they seem to go (use different-colored markers for each point).
- Another useful strategy: cut your paper into sections (or even paragraphs or sentences) with a pair of scissors and reassemble it.
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 The form and content of the following paper-writing tips were adopted from a handout produced by Jennifer Fleissner for one of her English courses at Brown in the mid-1990s.