Not just for Writers — Criticism versus Critique

When I spoke at the Writers’ Institute at UW-Madison, one of my topics was why critiquing is necessary. My presentation included defining the difference between criticism and critique:

I represented CRITICISM with scissor blades facing the recipient — putting a person on the defensive. We typically react (knee-jerk) to this style of communication, viewing it as an attack. Criticism is problem-oriented, negative, and critical.

I represented CRITIQUE with scissor handles facing the recipient — putting the person at ease. We typically respond (thought-filled) to this style of communication, viewing it as a gift. Critique is solution-oriented, positive, and helpful.

When you provide feedback (at home, work, or in a writing situation), is your message respectful, honest, useful, clear, and specific?


90 thoughts on “Not just for Writers — Criticism versus Critique

  1. You were at UW-Madison?! I am only a few hours away. Darn! I should have driven up to see that (as long as I was allowed to/was not an exclusive event). I personally love when I get critiques; it can be hard for me to accept the critique being that I am a very sensitive person, but I know that it’s just helping me become a better person in the long run. What I find most difficult in my classes is to get people to be willing to critique me! A lot of my classes have group-based projects and it seems like getting feedback is fairly difficult. I try to say with ease that “I won’t be offended with whatever you say, I just would like to know how my work is viewed in someone else’s eyes” or something along those lines so that they can feel comfortable but it still seems ineffective…any suggestions?
    Sorry for the ramble, but I very much enjoyed this read. Have a beautiful day, Ms. Laurie! 🙂

    • Nutrisassy – In my experience I find that even though we say our feelings won’t be hurt, when we ask someone we know to critique our work, they tend to inflate the positive because they don’t want to bruise our heart. Hence, I hire professionals. It’s their job to tell us precisely and exactly what’s working, and what’s not. I can highly recommend the professional critique work done at UW-Madison 🙂

  2. I really love the simple, yet powerful imagery you used in your post. I am a simple dude after all. 😉
    Being able to craft a dense, meaningful post from from an infinitely complex subject such as critique and criticism is the sign of a truly brilliant writer. Be well today and please take care!

  3. Some people can get very defensive about even ‘constructive’ feedback (don’t want to call it criticism), but I think this reflects their insecurity more than your inability to handle it properly. I find this often with young learners who hate being told they have made a mistake somewhere and come across as being very arrogant when they don’t even want to listen to positive suggestions or ways to improve their work. This is the frustrating side of teaching.

    • Fatimasaysell – I can see where that would be frustrating. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Kline, would first tell me several things that I’d done right. That was the delightful she always used to then serve a wee bit of positive, uplifting, constructive, and healing critique. It was much easier to swallow that way 🙂

  4. I am always so happy to read your blogs–lovely, honest, humble and beautifully written–each one. I love being respectful and encouraging.

    Let’s evaporate any desire towards criticism of other well-intentioned people and find the good. There are such an abundance of them on the payrolls. Today we have recourse to digital tools that have revolutionized the arts. You can write, paint, compose music, edit films, design homes, all on your laptop if you choose. Basically, there is no excuse anymore for anyone who claims to be interested in the arts to not be very productive. It’s just too easy.

    So we as a society should demand that anyone who wants to call themselves a professional critic, should make available on a website for all the world to see, an example of their efforts in the very field they intend to be an authority on. The real dividend for the culture will be the conversion of critics into artists. We always need more of the one, and seldom have a hunger for the other.

  5. I really like the illustration of the scissors for criticism versus critique! I will pay attention to how I deliver a message of this type, Laurie. I am often asked for my advice because I am direct–but I would hope it’s not a message with the scissors pointed at another person. Being direct has a downside. I really appreciate the chance to reconsider my personal communication patters!

  6. I grew up in a home of heavy criticism. I have to work very, very hard to not shoot off my mouth – and yet my children all think I am still too critical. From my counseling training and my critiquing my students papers, I got tons and tons of practice in this different art form.
    It is still very hard to control when high emotions are involved.

    It takes me even longer to separate myself from the criticisms being directed at me – I am hyper sensitive to it. I often need time outs to figure it out and let it go. Redirect.

  7. Laurie, as you well know, I am faced with this dilemma every day at my own blogsite, where a critique and actual criticism overlap, often causing some touchy interchanges. To critique something is to pass assessment, but always with the respect and civility you summarize at the end of the post. But to initiate or engage in discussion where actual criticism is asserted (in the case of an arts oriented site like WitD) there is bound to be some disagreement and at times some contentious discussion. This is why I always stand by your final coda, as it is just as important to emote with warmth and friendliness as the actual crux of the criticism. It’s a fine line for sure, but it’s the only way to meaningful and fruitful discussion the way I see it.

    • Sam – It’s has to be hard work to dance on the very fine line over at your fantastic blog — Wonders in the Dark. As a subscriber, I have, indeed, read some of the more “touchy” and “sensitive” conversations, with you as the moderator (referee). My hat is off to you!

  8. Hi Laurie

    Great post.
    It is usually my intent to be respectful, honest, useful, clear, and specific, and sometimes I do not put sufficient attention into how my words are likely to be received, so they don’t always land that way. Sometimes where I am coming from is just too far away, and the terminology infused with too many levels, for clarity to survive the journey – and without clarity, respect is often the second casualty.

    And I am really working at being as clear and explicit as possible.

    • Ted – I always stand in jaw-dropping awe of what you have to say. I’ve known you for a number of years now, and in my experience, you’re by far the off-the-charts smartest person I’ve ever encountered! That said, I can clearly see the distance (“just too far away”) bump-in-the-road there might be in someone understanding. I’ve been in that very spot myself on many occasions 🙂

  9. Fabulous, Laurie. And I really needed this today. Sometimes, especially in the writing world, I think people are genuinely trying to provide helpful critique, but their tactics come off as scissors-blades-toward-the-individual. And you’re right: it’s hard NOT to have a knee-jerk reaction to that kind of criticism.

  10. Laurie, another good lesson learned. You are absolutely correct, if it isn’t constructive, you might as well have saved your time and breath, you done no good at all.

  11. I usually look stern, throw my hands up in the air and with a full exhaling breath exclaim – WHAT WERE YOU THINKING!? Just teasing 🙂 One of the hardest things we do is offer another an opportunity for improvement. It is easy to share what we like and love about something. It is much harder to thoughtful and respectfully share where we believe something can grow and stretch for a person or their work. I like the scissor analogy a lot.

    • Terrill – The beginning of your comment made me laugh 🙂

      You’re right; it’s much more difficult to deliver a message that might potentially bruise someone’s feeling; BUT that might also make a positive difference in their work.

  12. I found your dramatization of the different types of feedback–by using scissors–very effective. I like to premise the feedback. I have an opportunity to share words of encouragement and guidance on the last Friday of the month, during writing group. I begin by saying, “I hope my feedback is helpful. If it is please use it. If it isn’t please ignore it. You are the writer; these are your words.”

  13. How interesting! I’ve just finished a section on my course covering criticism, how to respond to it, how to offer constructive criticism and how to deal with inappropriate criticism etc 🙂 Good timing!

  14. I love the demonstration – it’s a good image to keep in mind before offering advice! I’ve been trying to improve my critiques and abstain from criticism. It can be difficult, however, especially when you think you are giving a critique but someone says “Why are you criticizing me?” Oops!

  15. I would be the worst person to critique anything, I can’t bare the thought of hurting someone’s feelings even if I’m helping them in the long run. I think hiring a professional is a good idea!

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  17. Great scissor metaphor, Laurie. Love the idea of putting the handles toward the writer–as that really is what critique is all about–putting power back in the hands of the writer.

    Hope you’re having a wonderful weekend!


  18. Pingback: Yankee Doodle Dandy, 20 Feet From Stardom, Ozu Festival and Danny’s Graduation on Monday Morning Diary (July 1) | Wonders in the Dark

    • Elysesalpeter – My goal is to paint concise word pictures, add a dash of supporting photography, and hope that it leads each reader to their indwelling spring of unlimited potential and possibility—a spring that’s just waiting to be tapped 🙂

    • Main Street Musings Blog – Clearly, the person who did that to you (and perhaps others), had no business — at all — being part of a writer’s workshop.

      In my experience, a person who “cuts down another” usually does it in an attempt to lift themself up. Karmically speaking, I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.

  19. Some call it constructive criticism but that always seems to go south for me. The constructive part doesn’t usually come out that way. Critiques are cool. I don’t typically need a pacifier after a critique.

  20. I like the scissors position to illustrate your point. Critiquing, not criticizing is what we try to do at my East End Writers’ Group and I try to do when I evaluate a client’s manuscript. Writers can be sensitive or thick-skinned but an honest critique of strengths and weaknesses can motivate a writer to make changes in the story. And it is the story that might need some fixing – it is not a slight against the writer – something writers (myself included when I was a newbie) don’t get.

    Thanks for reading my onlychildwrites blog. I also have a fiction-writing blog at


    Sharon A.

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