Chapter 6: Thinking and Analyzing Rhetorically

6.8 What is Critical Analysis

Julie A. Townsend

What is critical analysis?

Critical analysis is a term that students may hear often, especially as they progress through university courses and move into the twenty-first century workforce. Teachers and future employers want to see critical analysis applied in a variety of ways. Every context will have different ways that are standard for critical analysis of situations, data, and problems. Broadly, critical thinking is a way of looking at a situation that goes beyond first impressions and cliches. This section will describe specific techniques for critical analysis that can be used across different situations, especially for discovering more about writing and topics relevant to writing studies.

How can I do critical analysis?

William Thelin in Writing Without Formulas offers eight concrete ways to perform critical analysis: “interrogating the obvious,” “seeing patterns,” “finding what’s not there,” looking at “race, class, and gender,” “twisting the cliché,” “unearthing agendas,” and asking, “who profits?” (28—47). The following sections are originally derived from Thelin’s categories but are modified to better study writing in context, since many first-year writing classes at CSU following the “writing-about-writing” theme (as described by Downs and Wardle in “Teaching about writing, righting misconceptions”).

This chapter will work from an example scenario in which the writer aims to detail and understand the reading, writing, communication, and education that is taking place in one online asynchronous course. The writer’s originating research question is: What kinds of reading, writing, communication, and education takes place in this one asynchronous course? After the writer has written down their initial thoughts on the course and how communication works in the specific situation, they can use the following guidelines to write more and dig deeper into the context they are studying.

Detailing the Basics

Before the writer can use critical analysis, they need to clearly identify and describe details in the context. Details can help the writer more clearly understand the situation they are studying. Details are also necessary for readers to follow along with the critical analysis that the writer is performing.

Questions to help the writer detail the basics for studying communication in one asynchronous online course

  • What did the instructor write?
  • What are the students expected to write?
  • Where, how, and why are they expected to write?
  • How does communication between students occur?
  • What about communication with the teacher?
  • How is the course organized?
  • What kinds of resources are used in the course?
  • Are students expected to read every word on the course page? What words are they required to read?
  • What kinds of external documents does the teacher expect students to use?

When the writer begins critical analysis with details of the basic situation, nothing is too mundane or obvious to skip over in the writing process. Specific details help the context come to life for both the writer and the readers. Writers should aim to draw a living picture of the situation. Then, from that living picture, the writer can work to analyze the situation in a more complete manner using the following suggestions.

Look for clusters, patterns, and coordination

After the writer has a drawn a clear picture for themselves and for the reader of what kinds of reading, writing, and communication are going on in the context they are describing, they can look for connections and links among these texts, resources, and people.

  • A cluster includes technologies, people, texts, or ideas that exist near one another in a situation.
  • Patterns include sequences of events that repeat.
    • o Clusters and patterns can help writers see the relationships between different elements and can help the writer see and understand a situation differently.
  • Coordination includes how humans use texts, technologies, and ideas in different tasks.
    • o Coordination can help the writer see how separate acts of reading, writing, and communication work together to complete larger tasks.

Questions to help the writer find clusters, patterns, and coordination while studying communication in one asynchronous online course

  • How does the student in the course group together texts to perform a task?
  • Has the instructor supplied readings that the students need to write about?
  • How does the student use assigned texts (possibly with other texts or technologies) in their writing process?
  • What about external texts that the student needs to gather? How do those texts work into their writing process?
  • Are certain texts often grouped together in the instruction or writing process?
  • What kinds of resources do students tie together to complete assignments?
  •  How do technologies outside of the course (like using social media or messaging classmates) work in conjunction with other texts and resources when the student is completing course work?

A deeper look at coordination

In writing studies, researchers can look for how texts are used in coordination with one another to learn more about the writing process and to describe how exactly people write and get work done. The concept of textual coordination (Slattery, “Technical writing as textual coordination”; Pigg, “Coordinating constant invention”) helps researchers to better understand how writers use resources (from computer programs to emails to syllabi to dictionaries) to write.

For research writing especially, writers tend to have multiple tabs or windows open on their computers with articles, websites, and the word processor they are using. The tying together of these resources by the writer is textual coordination. According to Shaun Slattery in “Undistributing Work through Writing”, the study of textual coordination emerged from researchers looking into how distributed work takes place in environments that are often mediated by computers (313). Many twenty-first century knowledge-working careers use a model of distributed work and rely on “the ability to identify, rearrange, circulate, abstract, and broker information” (Johnson-Eilola qtd. on Slattery 312). While most first-year writers may not have much career experience in knowledge working, they do have experience tying together resources and technologies. For example: reading a homework assignment and taking notes in a separate document and then using those texts in an essay is an example of textual coordination.

Looking through the lens of intersectionality

This section is borrowed (using Creative Commons Licensing) from “Unit I: An Introduction to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies” in the open-education resource textbook An Introduction to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. “Within intersectional frameworks, race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, and other aspects of identity are considered mutually constitutive; that is, people experience these multiple aspects of identity simultaneously and the meanings of different aspects of identity are shaped by one another. In other words, notions of gender and the way a person’s gender is interpreted by others are always impacted by notions of race and the way that person’s race is interpreted. For example, a person is never received as just a woman, but how that person is racialized impacts how the person is received as a woman. So, notions of blackness, brownness, and whiteness always influence gendered experience, and there is no experience of gender that is outside of an experience of race. In addition to race, gendered experience is also shaped by age, sexuality, class, and ability; likewise, the experience of race is impacted by gender, age, class, sexuality, and ability.” For more information on intersectionality, read more in their chapter and textbook.

By asking questions about race, class, gender, ability, sexuality, and the intersections between these categories, writers can perform more critical analysis.

Questions to help the writer perform analysis with intersectional lenses while studying communication in one asynchronous online course

  • What is the race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability of the authors of the readings we are assigned? How do these categories intersect in the lives of the authors?
  • Do the statistics of the authors assigned for students to read match with the demographics of experts in the field?
  • How are race, class, gender, ability, and sexuality distributed in the field overall?
  • If there are inequalities in the demographics of professionals in the field, are there initiatives that work towards inviting more diversity into the field?
  • What kinds of reading, writing, and communication are missing or different from similar contexts?
  • Could resources be added to enhance communication, representation, understanding, or ease of access? What would those resources be?

What could be added?

In this stage of analysis, the writer should take a few steps back from the details of the context they are studying so that they might be able to see what could be added to the environment they are studying. The writer could compare the context they are studying to other contexts to help see what might be missing.

Questions to help the writer perform analysis on what could be added?

  • What kinds of reading, writing, and communication are missing or different from similar contexts?
  • Could resources be added to enhance communication, representation, understanding, or ease of access? What would those resources be?


If the writer is performing critical analysis in a context where the previously discussed categories might not apply, “What is Critical Analysis?” by The University of Bradford offers a broad framework for critical analysis that can be applied beyond topics relevant to writing, reading, and communication. The University of Bradford describes critical analysis as part of the process that includes: “description,” “analysis,” and “evaluation” (2). For description, it suggests that writers focus on answering questions starting with “what”, “where”, “who”, and “when” (2). For the analysis stage, it suggests answering “how”, “why”, and “what if?” (2). Evaluation includes “so what?” and “what next?” Writers can use the categories outlined here to perform critical analysis that adds depth, texture, and details to thoughts and observations.

Works Cited

Downs, Douglas, and Elizabeth Wardle. “Teaching about writing, righting misconceptions:(Re)envisioning” first-year composition” as” Introduction to Writing Studies”.” College composition and communication (2007): 552-584.

Kang, Miliann, Donovan Lessard, Laura Heston, and Sonny Nordmarken. Introduction to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. UMassAmherst Libraries, Pressbooks.

Pigg, Stacey. “Coordinating constant invention: Social media’s role in distributed work.” Technical Communication Quarterly 23.2 (2014): 69-87.

Slattery, Shaun. “Technical writing as textual coordination: An argument for the value of writers’ skill with information technology.” Technical Communication 52.3 (2005): 353.

Slattery, Shaun. “Undistributing work through writing: How technical writers manage texts in complex information environments.” Technical Communication Quarterly 16.3 (2007):    311-325.

Thelin, William. Writing Without Formulas. Second edition. Cengage, 2009. “What is Critical Analysis?” Academic Skills Advice. The University of Bradford. Accessed 17 October 2019.



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