Critical Thinking: The Parent of Good Writing

             

Instantly Boost Critical Thinking in Writing with These 7 Questions

What is critical thinking?

Critical thinking is the process of identifying and solving problems by gathering information, analyzing and evaluating evidence, discovering patterns, and reasoning logically. Critical thinking in writing means asking the right questions and questioning the old, no-longer-obvious answers. It means, in the end, finding solutions that are effective and efficient—and, often, new.

Critical thinking in writing is itself critical.

Let’s say that you ask one of your employees to write a recommendation report. In this report, she is to consider whether your company should change the vendor who provides the paper for your copying machines, printers, and paper publications. The report will recommend either staying with the old vendor or choosing a new one.

How should this writer proceed? That’s where critical thinking comes in.

The first thing we recommend is that the report writer consider two basic questions:

  1. Who will read the report?
  2. What is the purpose of the report?

If the only answers the writer can come up with are “my boss” and “to help my boss choose a paper vendor,” she’s not thinking critically. For one thing, it’s likely that the report will have many readers, including the CEO, the CFO, the COO, the Chief Procurement Officer, and maybe even some department heads who use a lot of paper.

The purpose of the report may likewise be a bit more complex: it may be used, for example, not just to help in the paper-buying decision, but also as a model for future recommendation reports about other vendors, and its recommendation will certainly influence the work of many others in the workplace (anyone, for example, who will have to make copies with cheap but inferior paper, if that’s the recommendation).

And, of course, another purpose of the document is to make the writer’s supervisor appreciate her reliability, thoroughness, and intelligence.

Ask the following 7 questions to strengthen and boost critical thinking in writing projects.

  1. What information should be included? Cost and quality of paper, of course, but what about payment schedules, customer service, warranties, vendors’ histories and reputations, recycling strategies, and so on? What information is relevant, and what isn’t?
  2. What sources of information should the writer consult? The Internet? Vendors’ sales staffs? Fellow employees? The opinions of other companies like the writer’s own?
  3. What level of technical sophistication should the report assume about its readers? For example, can the writer assume that her readers will understand the difference between, say, 20- weight/96-bright paper and 24-weight/92-bright paper?
  4. What’s the best way to present information? Should pricing information, for example, be presented in paragraph form, in charts, or in tables? Should testimonials from other companies about potential vendors be presented in bulleted lists or in paragraphs?
  5. How should the report be organized? Much like code needs to be ordered to execute the right way, or an engineering design needs its component parts to fit together just right to work right, a written document relies on its organization to communicate information effectively.
  6. How should it be designed? Words are foundational, but they’re not the only element of any communication. The design – including layout, formatting, and visual elements – can serve to strengthen, reinforce, and contextualize the writing.
  7. What tone and level of language sophistication should the document display? This, in turn, depends on the audience. What will they understand, respect, and respond to?

These can be challenging questions, and only someone practiced in thinking critically knows to raise and answer such questions.

You may also notice that not a single one of these questions says anything about subject-verb agreement, active verbs, parallel structure, sentence fragments, or commas.

It’s true that proper grammar and punctuation, and an effective style, are important in any document; but far more important is the critical thinking that goes into it. The best grammar and the most stylish writing in the world are not of much use if the content and design of a document are not appropriate to the task—if they don’t make the document persuasive and usable for its audience and purpose.

And that comes back to critical thinking.

Anyone who can apply critical thinking in writing can learn to write well.

It’s a good bet that many, if not most, of your employees already know how to think critically. How can we be so sure of this? Because the one skill necessary to do any complex job is also the one skill central to writing well: The ability to think critically. If they couldn’t do it, they couldn’t do their jobs!

And that means almost anyone can learn to write well.

Writing is not some mystery that only those with some rare magical talent can unravel. Given some basic direction, they can learn to apply their critical-thinking skills to their writing projects just as they do to all their other responsibilities. Once your employees understand that they already have the one important skill they need to write well, you’ll find that, when you ask them to produce documents for you, they will work more efficiently, effectively, and confidently.

With training, any employee can learn to apply his or her critical-thinking skills to writing. overall, your employees should understand that they already have the one skill central to writing well: the ability to analyze a problem and come up with an effective solution.

One final note: Studies show that critical thinking informs all good writing, and, perhaps surprisingly, that the act of writing improves one’s ability to think critically.

For a more comprehensive consideration of questions to fuel critical thinking, read our white paper, “Critical Questions to Ask When Writing.”

Do you need help analyzing your teams’ writing process? Or do you want to know how to improve critical thinking in your teams’ writing? We offer customized onsite and online business, technical, and scientific writing course.

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