Which Is It? Criticism or Feedback?

As a writer, you hear the terms criticism and feedback a lot. The first carries a (sometimes undeserved) negative connotation, the other, a more positive and constructive one. The truth is, feedback and criticism are both necessary and helpful to a writer, as long as the writer understands the context in which each is given, and, more importantly, the context in which they should be given.

This’ll be reductive, but here’s how I look at the two terms. Feedback is given to an author while the work is still in process and unpublished. Criticism is the analysis of a work’s flaws or merits after it’s been published. Like I said, reductive, but let’s see if I can get a bit more nuanced.

Let’s talk about feedback first. Here are its three defining traits, in my opinion.

  1. For the author. Feedback is given directly to the author with an aim to improve the work. It is given by critique partners, beta-readers, agents, and editors–all folks who have a vested interest in improving the piece. In other words, the author can still do something about any flaws in the work.
  2. Constructive. Good feedback is not just an opinion. It’s an opinion paired with solutions or actionable advice. Not everyone agrees with that second part; I know. Still, I think a comment without actionable advice can still be constructive, but unlike criticism, an author needs to understand WHY with feedback. 
  3. Requested. The vast majority of the time when an author gets feedback on an unfinished or unpublished piece, they’ve asked someone to provide it. This is even true of magazine editors, agents, and book publishers where an author might send a story or novel in hopes of representation or publication. Feedback isn’t specifically asked for in that situation, but I think there’s a tacit understanding that it would be welcomed, and such feedback is given in the spirit of improving the work (or at least improving the author’s understanding of the publisher or agent’s preferences.) 

Now criticism., but before we get this, we need to get this out of the way. Criticism is NOT a bad thing. In fact, it is a necessary thing when given in the right context. We, as authors, might not like all the criticism we receive, but it’s the price of fame and glory. 😉 Okay, here are the four defining traits of criticism. 

  1. For the reader. When someone offers criticism of a work, it’s generally in the form of a review. That might be a reader review on Amazon or a full write-up in the New York Times. In both cases, the reviewer is not analyzing the work in an attempt to improve it. They are simply, and hopefully objectively, analyzing its merits and flaws. This is because that analysis is meant for potential readers of the work, steering them to or away from it based on the critic’s opinion. 
  2. Not necessarily constructive. I know that sounds bad, but remember, criticism is not really for the author, so any flaws a reviewer might point out aren’t about improving the piece. That’s largely pointless because the work is finished and published. So, criticism doesn’t often come with actionable solutions (and it doesn’t need to). That said, the critic might explain why something doesn’t work for them and why it may not work for other readers, and that can be helpful to an author.
  3. Biased. Feedback is a biased opinion, too, of course, but when we’re comparing bias in criticism and feedback, proximity to the author is the important difference. Someone giving feedback is likely (but not always) predisposed to the author’s genre, themes, style, and so on. If you’re writing a horror novel, your critique partners are probably familiar with the genre’s tropes. A critic can be all these things, but they might be none of them. This isn’t to say that a critic’s opinion isn’t informed, just that their biases might be at odds with the author’s work in a way someone providing feedback wouldn’t be, and that’s okay. 
  4. Optional for the author. For the author, criticism is optional because, remember, it is generally given in reviews, a place that isn’t for the author. The author is under no obligation to read reviews. Mind you, I’m not saying an author shouldn’t read reviews, but it should be on their own terms.

So that’s how I define criticism and feedback. Like all things, the quality of both can vary a lot, so let’s discuss what good/bad criticism and good/bad feedback look like

  • Good criticism is about the work, not the author (with exceptions, of course). This does not mean that the critic has to like the work, only that their opinions should be aimed at informing potential readers of the work’s strengths and weaknesses.
  • Bad criticism is generally colored by extreme bias. It could focus entirely on the author rather than the work, or be so uninformed as to be useless (the “I didn’t actually read the book” one star reviews, for -example). This is not to say that a critic cannot have biases (everyone does), but good critics might state them in the review if they know those biases are at odds with the work. For example, I don’t like ghost stories. No idea why. I just don’t. I’m a poor judge of what constitutes a good ghost story. If I were to review one, I’d let folks know that up front (or I just wouldn’t review it).
  • Good feedback is a partnership. It is solicited and given with the aim of improving the work and getting it ready for publication. It points out issues and provides possible solutions. It is a joint effort, even if the person providing the feedback is doing so on a one-time basis (a declining editor or agent, for example).
  • Bad feedback often attempts to change the work in ways that ignore the writer’s voice, style, and goals for the piece. Essentially, bad feedback is an attempt to rewrite the work as the feedback-giver would write it. Bad feedback is also feedback without actionable solutions or explanations. These are of little use to the author. 

So, what can we learn from criticism and feedback? Quite a bit, actually.

What we learn from feedback is obvious. It’s a workshop environment where ideas and solutions are traded to improve a story, novel, etc. With good feedback partners, an author can learn a lot about their work, their style, and, most importantly, where and how they need to improve. Feedback is vital to the development of any work. It is typically solicited and provided by people at least somewhat knowledgeable in the craft and genre, and who are committed to making the work the best it can be. 

An author can learn from criticism as well, but it takes a more careful eye. What I call “not my cup of tea” criticism is not as useful to the author (though still absolutely valid and useful to readers). A reviewer who doesn’t like horror, and states that, then gives a horror novel a mediocre review is not as worrisome as a critic who is in tune with the genre and points out things that didn’t work for them. That kind of review should be considered, especially if it’s not an isolated event. Again, criticism, even the actionable kind, isn’t useful to a completed, published work, but it can be helpful for an author’s future works.

So, there you have it: my rambling thoughts on criticism and feedback and why they’re both necessary in the right context. Understanding the differences, I think, can save a writer a lot of time (and pain).

Thoughts about my definitions? Tell me about it in the comments.

5 Comments on “Which Is It? Criticism or Feedback?

  1. I appreciated that you explicitly stated what should be the obvious – reviews aren’t about or for the author. So often, writers complaining about reviews effectively complain that they aren’t feedback, there’s nothing constructive, etc. – which totally misses the point that reviews are to help other *readers decide whether to read, not to help you improve your writing.

    Likewise, feedback circles often miss on both sides – givers don’t explain their ‘why’ (even if one isn’t sure how to fix it – clearly identifying what’s broken is often enough), and recipients sometimes don’t want to know too much. Skipping past the folks who want admiration rather than feedback – we need to be willing to hear how ‘things that work for us/in our own heads’ don’t work in someone else’s head, or we can’t make that leap from writing for ourselves to writing for others.

    You’ve hit all the high points (except, perhaps, fragile-writer-ego, which is a post or ten of its own) and given a really clear framework – even if someone disagrees with the dividing line you’ve created, it creates a really clear picture of how and why to separate the two.

    • Exactly. I think a lot of folks conflate the two because the words are often used interchangeably. Hell, even in this article I mentioned my “critique partners” when, as you pointed out, they are my “feedback partners.”

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