Criticism vs critique

What the difference is & how to take it

Once, a long time ago, I gave a script to someone in the film industry to read. When I saw them at a function some time later, I asked them what they thought.

“Great title,” they said, flippantly. I was crushed. I took that to mean the script sucked. I don’t think I worked on it again.

In hindsight, I made a number of mistakes, including asking for feedback at a social function, and assuming they’d even read it. Mostly, at the time I was really bad at hearing feedback of any sort. I took any sort of critique as criticism, and what’s more, I took it as a judgement of me as a person.

So, what’s the difference between criticism and critique?

Criticism is a negative judgement. As Theodore Roosevelt famously said, it’s not the critic who counts: its the opinion of ‘the man in the arena’ – the other people fighting similar battles to you, that counts. Even if the person judging your work negatively is an expert, their judgement need not influence you. Even best-selling writers like Stephen King have their detractors: you will never please everyone. As a writer or artist, its good practice to ignore both criticism and praise: both require little effort on the part of the person passing judgement.

The two old guys from The Muppets with text reading 'its not the critic that counts
Don’t listen to people shouting from the sidelines

Critique requires effort, a certain amount of knowledge, and analytical thinking. A good critique will include what the person liked about the piece, as well as the things they had difficulty with, or found confusing. For the receiver, this is GOLD. It gives you insight into whether what was in your head made it onto the page. There’s a curious trick of cognition that prevents us from reading what we actually wrote: our brains read what they think they wrote. Feedback on how it comes across to other readers helps you get over that problem.

I work in marketing communications, and in that capacity I am very comfortable that I can’t spot my own mistakes, and I drum that into team members, insisting they have someone else review their work before publishing. For my personal writing, I found it hard to adopt the same principle. It seemed too personal: any negative feedback, however constructive, seemed like a rejection of me as a person.Practising giving constructive feedback has helped me let go of that fear.

Critique is essential to your growth as a writer, and giving critique is just as, if not more, instructive than receiving it. By receiving critiques from the writers in my critiquing group, I learned that I have a tendency to rush the start of stories, and that I have a tendency to ‘head-hop’: switch point of view. By doing critiques of their writing, I learned why head-hopping is distracting for readers, and gained an appreciation that familiarity with a genre affects how readers enjoy a story. I also learned not to take any judgement to heart. Something one reader found annoying might be loved by another reader. Some stories resonate with some people, some don’t.

You don’t have to take on board anything that is said, but by having multiple critiques of a single piece you will see common issues emerge. By allowing critiques of multiple pieces over time, you will learn your strengths and weaknesses, and that will give you the opportunity to improve. By shedding your defences and making yourself vulnerable to critique, you give yourself room to grow, as a writer, and as a person.  

script text quote from Brene Brown: Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity innovation and change.

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