Critical Writing 101

Descriptive vs Analytical vs Critical Writing

By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Expert Reviewed By: Dr Eunice Rautenbach | April 2017

Across the thousands of students we work with, descriptive writing (as opposed to critical or analytical writing) is an incredibly pervasive problem. In fact, it’s probably the biggest killer of marks in dissertations, theses and research papers. So, in this post, we’ll explain the difference between descriptive and analytical writing in straightforward terms, along with plenty of practical examples.

analytical and descriptive writing

Descriptive vs Analytical Writing

Writing critically is one of the most important skills you’ll need to master for your academic journey, but what exactly does this mean?

Well, when it comes to writing, at least for academic purposes, there are two main typesdescriptive writing and critical writing. Critical writing is also sometimes referred to as analytical writing, so we’ll use these two terms interchangeably.

To understand what constitutes critical (or analytical) writing, it’s useful to compare it against its opposite, descriptive writing. At the most basic level, descriptive writing merely communicates the “what”, “where”, “when” or “who”. In other words, it describes a thing, place, time or person. It doesn’t consider anything beyond that or explore the situation’s impact, importance or meaning. Here’s an example of a descriptive sentence:

 “Yesterday, the president unexpectedly fired the minister of finance.”

As you can see, this sentence just states what happened, when it happened and who was involved. Classic descriptive writing.

Contrasted to this, critical writing takes things a step further and unveils the “so what?” – in other words, it explains the impact or consequence of a given situation. Let’s stick with the same event and look at an example of analytical writing:

“The president’s unexpected firing of the well-respected finance minister had an immediate negative impact on investor confidence. This led to a sharp decrease in the value of the local currency, especially against the US dollar. This devaluation means that all dollar-based imports are now expected to rise in cost, thereby raising the cost of living for citizens, and reducing disposable income.”

As you can see in this example, the descriptive version only tells us what happened (the president fired the finance minister), whereas the critical version goes on to discuss some of the impacts of the president’s actions.

Analysis

Ideally, critical writing should always link back to the broader objectives of the paper or project, explaining what each thing or event means in relation to those objectives. In a dissertation or thesis, this would involve linking the discussion back to the research aims, objectives and research questions – in other words, the golden thread.

Sounds a bit fluffy and conceptual? Let’s look at an example:

If your research aims involved understanding how the local environment impacts demand for specialty imported vegetables, you would need to explain how the devaluation of the local currency means that the imported vegetables would become more expensive relative to locally farmed options. This in turn would likely have a negative impact on sales, as consumers would turn to cheaper local alternatives.

As you can see, critical (or analytical) writing goes beyond just describing (that’s what descriptive writing covers) and instead focuses on the meaning of things, events or situations, especially in relation to the core research aims and questions.

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But wait, there’s more.

This “what vs so what” distinction is important in understanding the difference between description and analysis, but it is not the only difference – the differences go deeper than this. The table below explains some other key differences between descriptive and analytical writing.

Descriptive WritingAnalytical writing
States what happened (the event).Explain what the impact of the event was (especially in relation to the research question/s).
Explains what a theory says.Explains how this is relevant to the key issue(s) and research question(s).
Notes the methods used.Explains whether these methods were relevant or not.
States what time/date something happened.Explains why the timing is important/relevant.
Explains how something works.Explains whether and why this is positive or negative.
Provides various pieces of information.Draws a conclusion in relation to the various pieces of information.

Should I avoid descriptive writing altogether?

Not quite. For the most part, you’ll need some descriptive writing to lay the foundation for the critical, analytical writing. In other words, you’ll usually need to state the “what” before you can discuss the “so what”. Therefore, description is simply unavoidable and in fact quite essential, but you do want to keep it to a minimum and focus your word count on the analytical side of things.

As you write, a good rule of thumb is to identify every what (in other words, every descriptive point you make) and then check whether it is accompanied by a so what (in other words, a critical conclusion regarding its meaning or impact).

Of course, this won’t always be necessary as some conclusions are fairly obvious and go without saying. But, this basic practice should help you minimise description, maximise analysis, and most importantly, earn you marks!

Let’s recap.

So, the key takeaways for this post are as follows:

  • Descriptive writing focuses on the what, while critical/analytical writing focuses on the so what.
  • Analytical writing should link the discussion back to the research aims, objectives or research questions (the golden thread).
  • Some amount of description will always be needed, but aim to minimise description and maximise analysis to earn higher marks.

Psst… there’s more (for free)

This post is part of our research writing mini-course, which covers everything you need to get started with your dissertation, thesis or research project.

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