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I am writing a University Dissertation proposal on Big Data. I have recently received my feedback and while there are good, constructive points one of the main issues in the marking is it is "too descriptive". I do not understand what this means really, when we are talking about a literature review how can it not be descriptive - you are talking about what has already been found.

The exact feedback is:

Your literature review is overwhelmingly descriptive in character and its needs more of a critical edge, evaluating the main contributions to the literature. Having a critical edge is essential, if you want to achieve a high mark in the final dissertation.

So the question is: What is descriptive writing and what is critical writing, preferably with examples.

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By paraphrasing the feedback as "too descriptive", I think that you're slightly mis-reading the criticism. The issue isn't that your proposal is too descriptive, it's that it's too exclusively descriptive. Being descriptive is great; but you need to add a critical component as well. –  PLL Dec 11 '13 at 21:11

4 Answers 4

up vote 24 down vote accepted

The difference between descriptive writing and critical writing is much like the difference between a newspaper report and an opinion column.

Descriptive writing is the act of reporting on what's in the literature:

Smith found that when X occurred Y and Z also happened.

Critical writing analyzes what has been done, and takes note of trends, as well as possibly offering feedback on the overall quality of the research:

Smith found X occurred in the presence of Y and Z, as did Jones. However, Doe has demonstrated that Y and Z normally occur in conjunction with one another, so it is not clear if X actually influences Y and Z, or if it is an independent effect.

What you can see from the above is that critical writing does require some descriptive writing, but it goes well beyond it in terms of the depth of analysis.

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To extend aeismail's comment slightly, a good critical analysis will not only summarize and critique findings, but also extrapolate conclusions from multiple studies to support/disprove current theories. Each individual paper provides evidence to some small piece of the overall puzzle; a good review will tie together many related (and some unrelated) papers to build an argument towards a general conclusion, using the individual research findings as support for their argument.

Note that the individual results are almost expected to contradict each other. You can frequently have a batch of papers supporting theory A, and a second set of papers supporting theory B. This should be noted and identified as well; these are the current trends in your field of research.

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I would like to tackle this question from another angle for you.

You have done a literature review for the dissertation proposal. You report your findings from those literature after you study them, so you have descriptive writings in the proposal.

But, what do you propose to research? Have you discovered anything? Have you challenged the existing literature? What do you want to research? Why do you want to research that topic? What are your arguments? What would be your own approaches? Why would your approach work? Etc.

Those are the things they are looking for. They want you to have critical edge in the proposal.

I found a link from University of Leicester about What is critical writing very helpful, at least to me. It contains several sections, What is critical writing? What is descriptive writing? The difference between descriptive writing and critical writing, examples and other useful information.

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I find this answer to be the most compelling thus far. However, I have to wonder why the reviewer used the term 'critical edge' rather than something less-abstract and more-informative. –  LordStryker Dec 13 '13 at 13:26

Echoing what others have said, while reviewing the literature, you need not only summarize findings. That's what "Descriptive" means in this context - not that your writing shouldn't describe current findings, but that your writing only describes current findings, without any analysis, criticism or synthesis.

For example, I once wrote a review on the reasons why a particular disease follows a particular seasonal pattern. A purely descriptive review would have described the various theories as to why this phenomena exists, and stopped there. Instead, I evaluated the extended evidence for each (i.e. for X to be true, Y must also be true. We have no evidence that Y is true, which puts X on shakey ground), identified which were mutually incompatible, and suggested which might actually be describing the same mechanism in two different forms.

What your evaluators are looking for, in all likelihood, is not merely a listing of the current thought in the field, but work that shows you are interacting with that work. That you think someone might be wrong - or are at least critically evaluating what is currently being written. That you can extend where the field is going in unique directions based on what's been done before, etc.

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