Craig Stroupe | Associate Professor of Information Design | Department of Writing Studies | 1201 Ordean Court # 420 | University of Minnesota Duluth | Duluth, MN 55812 | 218-726-6249 | fax 218-726-6882 |

peter elbow
Peter Elbow, a key figure in the "process movement" in composition studies in the 1970s, and author of Writing without Teachers (1973)

Critical Focus

Writing About Texts, Not Things

When you write with critical focus, you constantly remind your reader that you are writing about a text and its author, rather than about that author's subject matter.

If you're discussing a non-fictional text like Nicholas Carr's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" for example, you should keep the focus on Carr's opinions, arguments, and language about Google, rather than directly on Google or society in themselves (which is a different kind of writing).

If you're talking about a fictional work like a Harry Potter novel, you should keep the focus on how J.K. Rowling presents characters and scenes in the writing, rather than discussing these characters as if they were real people, or these scenes were actual events.

What You're Judging or Interpreting

The word critic comes from the Greek word for judge. What you're judging or intepreting when you're writing with critical focus is always a writer's performance in the text.

Depending on the genre of that text, his or her performance might be artistic, intellectual, or rhetorical (or some combination of these).

Critical focus is not only a matter of crediting a writer like Carr or Rowling (and avoiding the appearance of plagiarism), but of providing a distance between this borrowed idea or wording and your own arguments, allowing you to--where necessary--distinguish yourself and your own ideas from his or hers.

How You Write Sentences Critically

In some respects, critical focus is a matter of how you write sentences.

You can signal your reader that you're focusing on the performance of the text by using the author's name or the title of the work as the subjects of lots of your sentences: for example,

"Carr argues that..."
"Rowling associates Herminone with...."

Biography of an Idea

Using critical focus also enriches your writing by situating your work in relation to other writers and works.

If you write about the idea of "Negative Capability" without mentioning that the poet John Keats coined the term, for instance, you leave out much of what the term/idea means.

On the other hand, once you put "Negative Capability" and John Keats together, an informed reader might say, "Ah! That idea comes from the Romantics, then!"

Ideas have meaning partly because of where--and who, what, when, why--they came from and what conversations or debates they've been a part of.

In this way, critical focus helps suggest the biography of any idea, phrase, term, or perception.