The Relationship Between Clear and Critical Thinking and Writing
Critical thinking can lead to clearer thinking and clearer writing. During writing, especially when writing for a given audience, it is necessary to engage in critical thinking when planning out an argument and providing the premises and conclusions. When critical thinking is not applied, our thoughts come across as unstable, and arcane. Critical thinking, however, allows us to better word our thoughts, making our paragraph more concise and usable.
When writing a piece, and even when reading someone else's writing, critical thinking comes into play throughout the activity. Critical thinking allows you to determine, when writing:
- Is my idea/argument a good or a bad one?
- Is my idea/argument valid and defensible? Or is it invalid and indefensible?
- Is my position on the issue rational and reasonable?
- Do I deal with the complexity of the situation or do I use clichés and stereotypes to get points across?
- Do I delve deep into the topic or only touch upon surface issues?
- Do I address other points of view properly?
- Do I question my own ideas and test them for validity?
- Do I have specific goals in mind with this writing?
Critical thinking, especially when applied to writing, is guided by intellectual standards, including accuracy, precision, clarity, depth, breadth and relevance. Intellectual integrity is always preserved in critical thinking-guided writing.
When engaging in critical thinking, and more so when writing to a given audience, it is necessary to think about the following things, to ensure that you are writing as critically and clearly as possible:
- What is the purpose of my thinking and writing?
- What precise questions am I answering, or trying to answer or explore?
- What perspective am I using?
- What resources am I using and what sort of information am I presenting?
- How am I interpreting the information? Are there other, equally valid interpretations?
- What concepts are central in my line of thinking?
- What conclusions am I coming to? What are the premises to those conclusions?
- What assumptions am I making? Should I be making them?
It is important in critical writing that the writing critical thinker engaged in self-assessment and self-improvement. The various levels of thinking are all assessed, for validity, precision, accuracy and context. There should be integrity to the whole writing process. Not only must the piece be analyzed critically as a whole, but the constituents must also be examined.
Conclusions arisen out of the writing should be predictable and well-reasoned. The premises upon which the conclusions are founded should be solid, valid, and well-reasoned. As the writing goes along, the thinking should be checked. Is it valid? Is it truth-preserving? Are there alternatives?
Further, any position taken should be examined for potential weaknesses and limitations. Metacognition is key here: how was the position arrived at? What steps were taken to ensure validity? Were there any steps taken to explore other aspects of the position?
Of course, the critical thinking à critical writing progression can flow the other way, with critical writing leading to better critical thinking. Writing can enhance critical thinking because the writing process requires an individual to make their ideas explicit to a given audience, and to evaluate among tools necessary for effective communication.
When writing, there is an opportunity to think through arguments. This cultivates an awareness of a given perspective, and allows for an examination of the validity of an argument. Writing helps to organize information and allows for the consolidation of concepts, ideas, facts and opinions. When critically writing, knowledge is restructured, and complex problems can be worked through.
Analytical writing skills depend on clarity of thought. There are a number of steps to ensure that the piece being written is following a clear path:
- Engage in an active acquisition of information
Do not assume that even reputable sources are the ultimate truth-bearers. To be a critical thinker means to be a questioner of everything. The same occurs when writing critically: any piece of information should be accounted for by being examined, parsed, and validated, using the steps outlined in previous chapters for argument analysis. There should always be an active questioning of the information.
- Look thoroughly at the evidence and do not jump to conclusions:
a. Look at the evidence: Always ask yourself, "is there more evidence?", "is there more valid evidence?" Always be aware of the possibility that there be more evidence and other arguments that you are unaware of.
b. Examine to specificity of the argument: is it to general? Is it too confounded by extraneous details?
c. Are there alternative explanations? May arguments are presented as being logical and sound, and have evidence to support them. However, alternative explanations may always be available. It is important to keep in mind cases of observationally equivalent hypotheses.
- Be aware of tautologies and truisms. A tautology is a statement that repeats itself. Redundancy should be avoided unless it adds directly to a piece of writing. For example, when asked what the weather will be like tomorrow, a tautological responses could be, "it is either going to rain, or it is not going to rain." The answer can never be disproved; it is intrinsically correct. The weather tomorrow indeed will either be rainy, or it will not be. A truism is a self-evident truth. An example of a truism is: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." Both tautologies and truisms should be avoided in critical writing.
- Oversimplification should be avoided by examining alternative explanations. Oversimplified explanations are brief ones that lack depth and breadth, both hallmarks of critical thinking.
- Poke holes in all arguments, including, and perhaps especially, yours.
To begin writing, a number of steps should be taken:
- Plan ahead when selecting a topic. Ensure that is it the right topic to engage in for a particular purpose. In order to do this effectively, it is important to understand what your goals and initiatives are. This will allow you to plan ahead effectively. Organization is also a key at this point: prioritize concepts and arguments, and r=organize how they will be presented. The chronology must make sense.
- Determine how you will gather your evidence. What kinds of sources should you use and where can you find them? How do you know they are credible?
- Define how you will approach your argument. Gather your evidence and understand the material. This will help you understand what the arguments already are, what strengths and weaknesses they have, and how you want to approach an argument. Bear in mind that all arguments must be valid and reasonable, and all conclusions must be supported by valid premises.
- Break the argument into its constituents and analyze the relationships between and among them. This can be done by compare/contrast, cause/effect, ranking, and drawing inferences.
- Summarize the evidence critically. Organize it, and examine all its relationships.
- Present your arguments using the skills you've learned in previous chapters.
Poor writing, that is, writing lacking in critical thinking, typically is reflected by a number of characteristics. These characteristics include:
- The thesis or argument is a repetition or prompts, and shows no indication of where the rest of the writing will lead to.
- Simple summaries are relied upon, rather than integrative analyses. It is critical that relationships between concepts are described, rather than merely pointing out the existence of relationships.
- There is no order, or poor order, in the summaries, argument presentation, evidence, or general organization of the writing structure. Chronology is lacking, there is no segue in between paragraphs, and summaries are weak.
- Arguments are presented, but the relationship between them are not.
- There is a heavy use of abstractions: words or phrases used to sound like critical thinking when they are actually not indicate of analytic thought.
- Conclusions are not properly supported by the evidence. The premises may not be valid, or even if true, do not logically support the conclusion. A conclusion can be proven incomplete or invalid using other scenarios.
Revising is a necessary component of critical thinking. Once the first draft is completed, it is important to review what has been written, and ensure that the writing is concise and the arguments valid. Poke holes in your own arguments; play devil's advocate with yourself. It is not enough to have done this once; this process should be repeated to ensure accuracy and validity in your writing. Always work to re-assert your arguments in various forms. Having different communications relating to your argument may help you better see relationships and determine if your premises are valid. Review the evidence. It is not enough to have done this once. New evidence comes into being regularly. It is important to ensure that the latest evidence and the most applicable is being used in your arguments, especially if your writing occurs over the course of an extended period of time.
Revising also helps you to reconsolidate the information you have already explored. When forced to review, it becomes easier to see different angles of an argument, and the different of the relationships between the constituents of an argument. Revising may also help you to recognize new relationships, or do away with ones that are no longer deemed to be valid.
It is also important to have other critical thinkers review your work. While you should ideally be able to explore your own arguments recognize its validity and reasonableness, it is always helpful to have others review your work. Having a different perspective analyze your arguments may allow you to examine new relationships, reconsider old ones, and potentially better understand the premises purportedly supporting your conclusion.
Also, having another critical thinker break down your argument into its constituents may help you recognize blanks or biases that you may not have realized you even had. Having another aware thinker may help you in your own metacognitive thinking; when someone else pushes you and your arguments, it forces you to evaluate, and re-evaluate, your own thinking processes. Another critical thinker explaining their own thought processes can help you become more aware of how you approached your own arguments, what kinds of biases and tendencies you may have had or used in your analyses, and what evidence or premises did you overlook or not support. Further, having another critical thinker arrive at the same conclusion you arrived at is always a good checkpoint. Having another critical thinker arrive at a difference conclusion than you arrived at is also a good checkpoint: comparing the two conclusions can help you determine which one, if either, is more valid. Perhaps they both are, and both need to be incorporated into your argument. Or perhaps neither are, and everything needs to be re-evaluated, including the evidence you gathered. One argument, perhaps yours, perhaps the other, may be valid. It is always important, however, to keep an open mind, be metacognitive, and be reasonable in your approach. Nothing damages the critical thinking process more than a lack of awareness and open-mindedness to arguments.
- Quitadamo, I. J., & Kurtz, M. J. (2007). Learning to Improve: Using Writing to Increase Critical Thinking Performance in General Education Biology. CBE-- Life Sciences Education, 6(2), 140–154. doi:10.1187/cbe.06-11-0203
- Resnick L. B. Education and Learning To Think. Washington DC: National Academy Press; 1987
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