Understanding critique vs. criticism

We all assign merit to the information we experience daily. We “judge” what we hear on the news. We “evaluate” a university lecture. We “like” or “dislike” a movie, a meal, a photo, a story. We’re all critics.

Some writer-readers struggle with this point, especially if they are young to writing and editing. Sitting in a judgment of another writer’s work often feels distasteful, and doing so may conjure negative memories of when we were misunderstood or dismissed by others.

Conversely, we might be willing to share our opinions with other writers while struggling with our competence. We can’t seem to say anything constructive. If we’re critiquing on Scribophile, we may feel that we are wasting one of the author’s coveted “spotlight” critiques.

Having used Scribophile on-and-off since 2009, I’ve seen countless readers qualify their commentary on my own work (“I don’t read your genre,” “I haven’t read your previous chapters,” “I’m not good with grammar,” etc.) and I’ve seen even more cry woe on the forums about how they can’t critique because they’re not experienced enough, not educated enough, or not talented enough. Others decry the very sort of criticism writers’ groups and workshop sites like Scribophile foster, suggesting that the perfunctory nature of such criticism is ultimately more harmful than helpful.

Scribophile as a community thrives on the principle of serious commitment to serious writing, and the foundation of that commitment is reading and responding to others’ work. If you want to explore some elements helpful to improving your critiquing skills, I invite you to get yourself some hot caffeine, strap on your thinking cap, and read on.

How to write a great critique in 3 steps

Listed here are some ideas I’ve found helpful for approaching others’ work; these tips are about your mindset as a critic. These ideas are by no means exhaustive. The best teacher is experience, and I encourage all writers to reflect on the ways in which they approach others’ work as well as how they can best contribute to the growth of others on and off of Scribophile.

1. If you’re genuine, you’ll be constructive

Being constructive means coming to the critique with the ultimate goal of helping the writer improve. It means always criticizing with good intentions for the writer. It does not equate to coddling—being so nice you’ll never say a hard thing—nor does it equate to browbeating—being so hard you’ll never say a nice thing.

Being dishonest or refusing to offer valid criticism where you’re able is a disservice to the writer. Don’t shy away from honesty. Few things are more constructive than hard truths delivered by critics who genuinely want to help and who tailor their criticism with an attitude of genuine interest.

As you interact with works on Scribophile or elsewhere, remember to always approach the task of criticism with a desire to be genuinely helpful. If your criticism is built on this foundation, your commentary will be constructive regardless of your competence and experience.

2. No jerks

As for literary criticism in general: I have long felt that any reviewer who expresses rage and loathing for a novel or a play or a poem is preposterous. He or she is like a person who has put on full armor and attacked a hot fudge sundae or a banana split.

—Kurt Vonnegut

Few things will more quickly deflate a writer than unnecessarily harsh criticism. Being honest and being brutal are not the same thing. Critics must learn to express hard truths without coddling and without being jerks.

Even rude people can be good writers with valuable insights into the craft. The problem is that if you express valid insights obnoxiously, the author won’t care. In order for people to listen, they must feel that the person criticizing them has their best interest in mind, and being harsh doesn’t communicate your best interest.

In my earliest days writing, I received some negative criticism from a writer who decided to berate me for penning a bad phrase rather than explaining to me why the phrase didn’t work. Because he was rude, I insulated myself to his criticism. Years later, I reviewed the work and realized his criticism was valid. The problem was not the content of his criticism, but its malicious delivery. Had he come to my work with the desire to be genuinely helpful, I would have listened to what he had to say, and I might even have gained some enlightenment during a formative time in my writing career. The critic did me doubly wrong not only by being obnoxious, but by retarding my growth as a writer.

Unnecessarily harsh criticism is a sign of literary and personal immaturity. Don’t be a jerk.

3. Don’t be too timid

Flattering friends corrupt.

—St. Augustine

Every writer likes to be praised, especially by those not obligated to praise them due to marital status or having given birth to them. But depthless praise can be just as damaging as heartless criticism. The reason for this is that it offers no real commentary on the work.

Refusing to offer criticism where it’s needed is one of the greatest disservices you as a critic can do for other writers. Some critics may fret that their criticism might be too discouraging if fully disclosed. Critics must contend with the reality that writing is art, people have opinions about art, and those opinions are not always going to be eruptions of praise. There is no safer environment to honestly and succinctly point out problem areas in a piece of writing than a forum designed for that very purpose.

None of this is to say that you shouldn’t commend a piece of work if it truly is fantastic or that you should not highlight the gems within a work. Again: constructive criticism is honest criticism. If a work is so well-crafted in your eyes that nothing worse than grammatical hiccups are present, tell the writer. They deserve to know they’ve done a fine job. Sometimes people genuinely deserve a “well done.” Don’t skimp on encouragement where it can be authentically offered. Even if a piece is messy, do your best to find a few strong points to highlight. It will express your best interest—especially if you had a lot of hard things to say.

The difference between a critique vs. criticism is whether it’s constructive

Be constructive, meaning, have the best intentions for helping the writer. This may mean telling hard truths. If hard truths must be told, do so respectfully. If praise is deserved, offer it. Highlight the strong points of a piece—even if they are far outweighed by the negative points. Be genuine in your motivations, and genuine action will follow.

Considering authorial intent while critique writing

This section concerns authorial intent and has as its purpose the critic’s growth as an interpreter of that intent. This section is not so much about judging an author’s intent as it’s about being aware of that intent and factoring that awareness into your commentary.

1. Context is king

It is important to appreciate the amount of subjectivity and pre-understanding all readers and listeners bring to the process of interpreting acts of human communication. But unless a speaker or author can retain the right to correct someone’s interpretation by saying ‘but that’s not what I meant’ or ‘that’s not even consistent with what I meant,’ all human communication will quickly break down.

—Craig L. Blomberg

While interpreters are always within their rights to read whatever they want however they want to, what they are not at liberty to decide is authorial intent—what the author desired the audience to receive from their work.

As a reader and a critic, you must be careful to understand an author’s work on their own terms while also interpreting those words. There is a substantial difference between, “This is how I’m hearing what you’re saying,” and, “This is what I say your words mean.” Don’t presume to tell an author what their work is supposed to mean, but do tell them how you’re interpreting what they’ve written.

A work-in-progress can suffer from a variety of ailments. Contextual questions are not cut-and-dry like questions of syntax, grammar, or, to a degree, plotting. Questions of context have to do with the interaction of author intent and reader interpretation. They’re murky waters to navigate because you as the reader have to exercise a bit of telepathy; you have to try and get inside the author’s head, ultimately “What is the author trying to convey with this sentence, this piece? Who is this piece for, and will it successfully communicate with that target audience? Is it clear that there is a target audience?”

Some authors are great at genre pieces; they know all the chords to strike, they know what the tone of the piece should be, the kinds of characters who should appear. Other authors can completely muck it up. They’ll write a romance piece that reads like a technical manual or a flowery memoir with a tangle of dead-ending tangents. It’s not always easy and natural for new critics to explain why something does or doesn’t work, but innately, we know. When those moments come up, let the author know.

2. The unintended/unspoken

Asking the question, “Is that really what you meant?” isn’t always bad. All of us have been misunderstood. Sometimes the results are humorous, but other times, we’re grateful for the opportunity to correct misunderstandings.

If in your criticism you find yourself questioning the use of a word or phrase, or even of a character, idea, or plot point, it’s advisable to bring such questions to the writer’s attention. It may just be you, but it may not just be you. Unless the writer has a philosophical axe to grind, they probably mean to communicate clearly, and it should at least be made known that they may have botched it up.

Conversely, there are instances where things left unwritten speak volumes. Perhaps a character “falls off the radar” in mid-scene, and it leaves you scratching your head? It may be appropriate to point out confusing instances of the unwritten for the author’s consideration.

Because my own novel employs many neologisms, critics jumping in mid-story often highlight those neologisms to make sure I’m using them as intended. While it can get tedious to say to myself, “Yes, that is what it means,” I am always thankful for keen eyes. This is the kind of sharp, considerate criticism each of us should aim for and be thankful for if we receive it.

3. Accounting for genre and intended audience

A genre is “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content.” When reading an author’s work, it’s crucial to take into account its genre and intended audience. If you’re even-handed in your critiquing, you’ll at some point be reading a story in a genre you might not otherwise touch, and while you might wish Twilight had been a one-off rather than a worldwide phenomenon, it’s inappropriate to harshly judge an author’s work simply because you don’t like their sort of story.

Consider the question of author intent and how that intent will resonate with an intended (or unintended!) audience. Sometimes, you must ignore whether or not a story resonates with you personally. Instead, ask yourself if it would resonate with your vampire-novel-loving daughter. Are the story, plot devices, characters, and verbiage appropriate for the intended audience? If yes, why or why not? If no, why or why not? Your personal tastes should not dictate the quality of your criticism. Train yourself to offer valuable insight even on writing you’d never pay money to read.

Remember these principles when reading work outside your sphere of interest. Being constructive doesn’t mean you have to love or even like the work. If something is written well, it’s written well—prejudices aside. If you’re truly unable to be objective, you would do the writer a better service by moving on.

4. Don’t pretend to be a non-writer

A film director watches other films differently than a moviegoer. A chef tastes a meal differently than the average person. As a writer, you necessarily see stories differently than non-writers. That’s not a bad thing.

We can be helpful to other writers by sharing our gut reactions no differently than an unversed beta reader. On the other hand, writers should be able to explain with more clarity than the average person why something does or doesn’t work in a story. A writer’s insight is of a different quality than a non-initiate’s insight. Both are needed for success, because if a writer one day moves on to pitch their work to those in the literary establishment, that work will not be judged by average readers until after it has survived the professional gauntlet.

All readers have the ability to share their gut reactions, but not all readers can slip on their “writer glasses” and offer critique on that level. Good critiques provide both types of insight, so as a fellow writer, bring your full experience to bear in helping others embarking on the same journey.

Understanding intent is part of a good critique

As best as you’re able, judge an author’s work on the basis of their intent—this includes noting instances of the unintended! In consideration of genre, judge the work not on the basis of your interest in the genre, but on the author’s skill at writing a piece that strikes the proper chords within the genre they’ve chosen. It’s not possible for you to read as a reader only, so don’t pretend to be something you’re not.

What makes a good critique?

A good writer may come out of any intellectual discipline at all. Every art and science gives the writer its own special ways of seeing, gives him experience with interesting people, and can provide him with means of making a living… It is not necessary—or perhaps even advisable—that the young writer major in literature.

—John Gardner

Contrary to the belief of a lot of new writers, learning to write and critique doesn’t require sixty-four credits of college English or an MFA. Plenty of writers and editors don’t hold English or Creative Writing degrees, and while I in no way wish to discourage those who choose to improve their writing and reviewing by taking the high road of formal education, neither do I wish to discourage the 98% of you reading this who haven’t and won’t be able to front the money and time for such an education.

The ability to forge valid criticism is an applied skill learned through a combination of technical knowledge and experience. We’re fortunate to live in an age where vast quantities of technical information are available at our fingertips. Contemporary writers are able to write informed literature like never before. So, too, are critics able to fact-check writers like never before.

Just as you’re willing to fact-check history or science before you include something in your story, it doesn’t hurt to do that for those you critique. Granted, they should do that themselves, but maybe they’re writing a genre you write, or maybe they’re writing about your field of work or interest? Being educated or experienced in any field will enrich not only your writing, but your critiquing. If you’re a fry cook, your ability to write or critique a scene in a modern commercial kitchen is better than that of someone who hasn’t had that experience. Because you know what it’s like to really work in a kitchen, you can speak to the authenticity of any such scene, and you can speak to the authenticity of the kinds of people who work in commercial kitchens. Your grammar may not be the best, but you still have something valuable to contribute.

Great writers are keen observers of life, and their writing both informs and is by informed by life. Bring the authenticity of your life to your writing and your criticism. You have perspectives, knowledge, and experiences others don’t. As you read and respond to authors, employ the skills and knowledge you already possess. Put your formal and informal education and your life experience to work. This is what it means to “write what you know” and, in our case, “critique what you know.”

Immerse yourself in all sorts of stories to get better at critiquing

One of the cardinal “writing for dummies” rules is that if you want to write well, you need to read a lot. I don’t doubt the validity of this statement, but books are only one medium of storytelling among many. My contention is that by immersing yourself in movies, television, and other storytelling mediums, you can learn about dialogue, plot, characterization, and all the other aspects of “storytelling” that appear no matter what medium you choose.

If you want to understand what makes a story great, seek out great stories. Immerse yourself in them. Though you may not be able to verbalize it, your innate understanding of what makes a narrative work will grow. This will improve both your writing and your critiquing.

Steal critiquing techniques from smart people–yourself included

Consider the critiques that have been most helpful to you. Why did they work? Reread them if you must. Then find a way to adapt the good things from those critiques into your own criticism.

Consider the critiques you’ve shared that have been helpful to others. What stood out to the author? You may even consider asking an author for feedback on your critique. Ask how you could have been more helpful.

Critiquing is a skill you can improve over time just like writing itself. But like writing, it takes practice and discipline. Make it easier on yourself by nurturing what works.

A reading list to improving your critique writing skills

There are many solid books on writing that will not only improve your writing, but your critical reading skills. Rather than provide you a hundred sources, here are a few I’ve been able to get my claws on, have dug into, and can personally vouch for:

  • Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder & Richard Todd. The writer-editor combo of The Atlantic share their wisdom through a tightly-edited, insightful, and entertaining survey of nonfiction writing that has plenty of benefit for writers of all stripes. The book’s section on “proportion and order” in narrative has revolutionized my own thinking about how stories should be structured.

  • How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, by Orson Scott Card. A good resource if you write these genres, Card provides practical advice on publishing, agents, etc., in addition to familiarizing the reader with dos and don’ts for writing Sci-Fi/Fantasy, including some technical questions. The book’s a bit dated by now—especially the parts about the publishing world—but there are some nuggets of timeless truth within.

  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner. Despite the Modernistic tendency of abusing the pronoun “he,” this may be the most formative thing I’ve read about novel writing. It’s slim, readable, practical, and comprehensive.

  • On Writing, by Stephen King. Something of an autobiography penned by one of the most successful authors of all time, this book is snappy, humorous, entertaining, and more than a little instructive for anyone looking to write and read better. King reminds his fellow writers that “Life isn’t a support system for art; it’s the other way around.”

  • Story, by Robert McKee. Considered by many to be the “screenwriter’s bible,” Story belongs in the library of every serious writer whether or not they ever aspire to the silver screen. McKee is a master of properly balancing a plot to satisfy an audience, and all writers should glean from his wisdom.

  • The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, by Stephen Koch. Koch flexes his student’s muscles by providing copious citations from the masters who have graced the past few centuries of literature. The author fades into the background at points while readers are treated to the musings and experiences of Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Hemingway, and others.

  • The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, by Christopher Vogler. Vogler is one of the most proficient living writers of the entertainment industry. Working primarily from the theses of the late cultural anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, Vogler illustrates the plot devices and character tropes that underlie the world’s oldest stories. Recommended for new writers of the speculative fiction genres and those who wish to write epics.

The value of criticism and critiquing

The arts too can be taught, up to a point; but except for certain matters of technique, one does not learn the arts, one simply catches on.

—John Gardner

The value of criticism is twofold: First and most obviously, it helps others. Second, and maybe not as apparent if you’re new to critiquing: It improves your own writing.

As you examine the work of others, you’ll be able to see what works and what doesn’t work. You will begin to notice patterns as you edit your own writing, and you’ll begin to sift out the problem areas. It’s difficult to judge your own work objectively. Doing it for others helps you get a clear head and recognize the ways in which you do the very things you criticize others for doing.

This article hasn’t had as a goal the outlining of a criticism “process.” The reason for this is that I could no more outline a criticism process than I could outline a fiction writing process. There is no single monolithic “right way to do it” that will unequivocally work for everyone. Herein are general guidelines and considerations that I’ve found helpful over the years and that others have appreciated. If you write critiques constructively, taking consideration of what the author is trying to do, and if you do so authentically, drawing on your experiences and knowledge, you’re on the right track for writing great critiques. The details of how exactly you accomplish that will become clearer to you as you engage in criticism. As in any discipline: Seek feedback and keep going.

Appendix I: “Line edits” and “critiques”

“Line edits” and “critiques” are not the same thing. These two types of reader responses address different issues, and in order to ensure that you receive the kind of criticism you’re seeking, you need to know what you’re displaying.

A “line edit” is a thorough, line-by-line examination of a manuscript. A good line edit requires an editor with a keen eye for detail and a working knowledge of contemporary grammar, syntax, and idiomatic English. The purpose of a line edit is to make a manuscript as readable as possible by removing technical errors. Typically, works that receive line edits receive them because they’re in need of them.

A “critique” is an in-depth review, touching on characterization, plot, theme, scene structure, poetry of language, and other related factors. Notice how I didn’t list anything about spelling or proper comma usage? It’s because that’s not critiquing; that’s editing. Typically, works that receive criticism as described here are free or mostly free of errors that distract readers from the story.

No one is perfect, and one of the best tools at our disposal on Scribophile is the inline critique option. Having never read nor submitted a flawless piece of writing for review, I can tell you that no one should be ashamed to receive a line edit. There are many sharp eyes and sharp minds browsing Scribophile, and even the best writer’s eyes glaze over after so many hours of staring at a white screen.

That said, part of what is absolutely necessary to receive genuine criticism as described above is a readable text. An unreadable text has never, in my experience, provided foundation for a fantastic piece of writing. Messy prose screams “messy story.” If you want criticism of story, your text must be as clean as possible.

If you’re willing to admit that your mastery of the technicalities of writing is not the sharpest, by all means, employ the knowledge and expertise of those on this site who do; it’s a wonderful resource. Readers can’t truly resonate with your story until you weave a piece of art that makes them forget they’re experiencing a piece of art. When you’re able to achieve this, you’ve removed the hurdles preventing your reader from authentically engaging with the story you’ve created. It’s at this stage in your writing that you can consistently receive deep criticism.

This is, of course, not to say that imperfect prose can’t be critiqued. Part of writing great critiques is learning to spot the gems in the story and encouraging the writer to press onward in spite of any shortcomings. If you’re honest and genuine, this won’t be a problem.

If all else fails, list at the top of your submitted piece the sort of critique you’re seeking by highlighting specific questions. “I’d love to know how you reacted when X happened,” for example. This will encourage readers to engage with the sorts of questions you’re asking.

Appendix II: The Benefits and Limits of Critique Groups

If you understand how to best leverage critique groups, they will be helpful and formative to your growth. As written above, critiquing others helps you grow; but there is more. The benefits of critique groups are threefold.

First, broad exposure. Want to know what people outside of your social circle will think of your work? A critique group will expose your work to people of different backgrounds. You can learn how a teen writer with big dreams or a Native American ex-botanist writing a memoir in retirement reacts to your story. This is the type of demographic insight you’d pay good money for when it comes time to sell your book. Even in small chunks, it’s valuable to know how different people experience your work.

Second, many eyes forge sharper prose. If three different people all trip over the same thing in your text, the problem is most likely not those three people, but your text. Especially if your text is hot off the press, you can catch errors early, and writers tend to be sharper with these sorts of things than the general population. Go look up the cost of a professional manuscript editor in your area, and you’ll be glad for many eyes combing over your writing.

Third, and most importantly: networking. The goal of sites like Scribophile and in-person critique groups should be to develop a network of people who will read the entirety of your work. Don’t get angry at forks for not being spoons—a reader jumping in mid-story will never give you the same level of commentary as someone who’s been reading since chapter one. If you’re ready for that level of reading, you need others to agree to read the book from start to finish. Use critique groups and sites like Scribophile to build relationships. Be attentive to others and share good critiques with them. As your relationships deepen, you’ll eventually find yourself with a list of contacts to trade with. But this requires you to be the kind of person people want reading their work. Behave professionally, and over time, you’ll find yourself surrounded by likeminded individuals who will give you the kind of meaty, informed commentary you need. The rule of thumb with critique groups and workshop websites is: You get out what you put in to them.

Appendix III: Still confused?

If you have questions I have failed to address in this article, I encourage you to contact me privately here on Scribophile or to reach out on social media. I’m happy to help.