I have a reputation amongst family and friends for being able to write a ‘killer’ letter. It’s a skill I’ve developed not just in my work for clients, but over many years of writing letters of complaint (you know what I mean…). On reflection, I don’t believe I write good letters because I’m a copywriter or even a good writer. I actually put it down to a course I was offered whilst studying for my A levels, called ‘critical thinking’.
I’ve heard some people sneer at critical thinking, perhaps because it’s not a solid subject like maths or a science, but it taught me many useful life skills and I’m happy to defend it. Whereas other subjects teach facts, critical thinking taught me how to question and recognise types of argument – it inspired in me a new, expanded and more inquisitive outlook on life. It also developed my ability to form a sturdy argument of my own, backed up by logical and structured reasoning. Completing the course helped my application for a Masters degree, which I applied for without completing one at undergraduate level, and has been vital in building many of the further skills I now use daily in my research and writing work.
What is critical thinking?
Sheila Cottrell, an author on the subject, describes critical thinking as a process. Critical thinking enables us to better understand and question the reasons and arguments put forward by others, and makes us more effective at forming our own. According to Cottrell, the process involves a large range of skills such as: identifying arguments and conclusions, evaluating evidence, weighing up opposing arguments, identifying assumptions, recognising regularly used techniques to make a position more appealing, reflecting in a structured way, using logic, synthesising information and presenting a view in a structured, clear and well-reasoned way.
How does critical thinking help me in my writing?
The skills I developed improve my writing in a variety of ways, whether or not I am putting forward an argument at the time:
- I don’t just write what I think sounds good, but work on a sound structure first to meet the needs of the reader (i.e. have I used a sound argument, or is this information structured in a way the reader can access what they need?). The wording is secondary to the structure, and often comes more naturally as a result.
- I am able to cut through a large quantity of information and identify the important points the reader needs to use or remember. I then scrap or restructure the less relevant information so that the key messages stand out.
- When writing an executive summary, for example, I can easily identify and summarise the key points from the main document.
- When producing a persuasive argument, I identify and write sound reasoning which leads to a logical conclusion the reader can easily follow.
- I can spot more readily when material I am working with isn’t reliable enough for the project I am completing, or isn’t adequately backed up with evidence.
If you’d like to read more about critical thinking, there are plenty of books on the market to satisfy your curiosity. One no-waffle guide I used as a refresher before my MA, was an old version of Critical Thinking for Students: Learn the skills of analysing, evaluating and producing arguments by Roy van den Brink-Budgen (most recently published in 2013). I also really enjoyed Anne Thomson’s Critical Reasoning: A practical introduction, although it is much wordier. There is also the popular and recent Palgrave study skills guide, Critical Thinking Skills, by Stella Cottrell, which I referred to for the definition above.
Janine is a freelance communications consultant based in Cumbria. If her writing skills would be useful to your organisation, you can contact her on 07707 038 092 or email email@example.com