Feedback vs. Criticism: How They Are Different and Why Writers Should Care

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As writers, getting feedback for our work is a normal part of the development process. Without feedback, we would never know how readers will respond to our story. Without feedback, we won’t understand how we can improve our work. Without feedback, we will never know how to become better writers.

Notice I did not say the word “criticism,” which opens a Pandora’s box of problems. It does nothing more than stop a writer’s progress in its tracks.

Why do we tend to cringe at criticism, but not feedback? Even the sound of both words brings different images to mind and produces kneejerk reactions. Feedback sounds softer, gentler, and kinder. Feedback might remind us of a beloved grade school teacher who provided helpful instructions to complete an assignment. Even when feedback is negative, its intent is to help you improve your effort.

By comparison, criticism sounds harsh, starting with the first hard C in the word. It immediately calls to mind negative experiences, like the day your first love dumped you with a scathing, hateful speech. Criticism seeks to tear you down. There is no intent to be helpful, instructive or kind.

Now look up both words in the dictionary. At first glance, they may seem to be similar, but in fact, they are different. For example, according to Google’s online dictionary:

Feedback is “information about the reactions to a product or a person’s performance of a task, which is used as a basis for improvement.”

Criticism is “the analysis and judgment of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work; the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.”

Take a closer look at the two definitions. What words jumps out at you? For feedback, the prominent words are: information, performance and improvement. For criticism, the words that jump out appear to be more severe: judgment, faults, disapproval, and mistakes.

It’s no wonder that writers (and all of humankind for that matter) cringe at the word criticism. All criticism does is judge others, find mistakes and seek reasons to disapprove something or someone. There’s no apparent room for improvement.

But feedback does encourage improvement. Is it any wonder that we all may be more open to receiving feedback than criticism?

Amber Johnson at the Center for Values-Driven Leadership at Benedictine University succinctly describes the five differences between feedback and criticism in this Forbes article.

Criticism is focused on what we don’t want; feedback is focused on what we do want.
Criticism is focused on the past; feedback is focused on the future.
Criticism is focused on weakness; feedback helps to build up strengths.
Criticism deflates; feedback inspires.
Criticism says, “You are the problem.” Feedback says, “You can make this better.”

How do you spot a critic? Professional ghostwriter Laura Sherman at the Friendly Ghostwriter blog says that critics are usually frustrated artists themselves. “The harsh critics of today are the failed artists of yesterday,” she writes. Pay attention to how you feel after you’ve read their comments. If you feel worthless, develop a terrible case of writer’s block, or are tempted to quit writing, then you’ve been attacked by a nasty critic. Sherman advises writers to disregard their “advice” which is meaningless and harmful.

As you move forward with your writing practice, think about the role of feedback in your writing development. When you seek guidance from others, whether they are your beta readers, your writer’s group or your family and friends, be clear with them. Ask for feedback to help you improve your craft. Anything else might crush your creative spirit.

Also think about how you give feedback to others. Avoid being overly critical and nit-picky. Always look for something positive that they’ve done before presenting negative comments. Then suggest ideas for how to improve it. When someone asks you for feedback, be kind, be helpful and be instructive.

While feedback and criticism might be related, like distant second cousins, they serve different purposes and live on different sides of the tracks. Let feedback be your guide to a better, stronger writing life.


Writing Critiques: Who Are The Best People to Review Your Writing?

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It’s one thing to show off your latest work to your family and closest friends. After all they are the ones who know you best. They know how ambitious and creative you are and how hard you work at your craft. But can they be truly objective about your work? Can they provide more helpful comments other than “it’s a great story.” If you want more than a pat on the back, then you have to look elsewhere to get your writing critiqued.

There are writing groups, of course. Many new writers swear by them, claiming they have gained valuable feedback from fellow group members. But most members are as new as you are to writing, so they may not have the best perspective of your skill or a solid grasp of your story. Members will likely tell you that the work is good as is, simply because they either don’t want to offend you or because they want to be seen as a valued contributor to the group or because they may not understand the difference between good writing and great writing. Personally, I’m skeptical of writers groups for critiques.

So who are the best people to critique your writing? Depending on where you are in your writing process, any one of the following people can provide meaningful and practical feedback.

1. Close friend or spouse
In his book On Writing, Stephen King suggests completing a first draft before having your work reviewed, and then showing it to only one or two people who are closest to you and who you trust, usually a spouse, partner or best friend. King’s wife reviews his first drafts, and she provides valuable input that helps him during the revision phase.

Your significant other knows you best, understands your love of writing, and supports your need to spend countless hours pouring your heart and soul onto a blank page (or computer screen). They may be in the best position to tell you if there’s a better way to phrase something or if a character seems one-dimensional or if a plot twist seems contrived. They may be close to you personally, but they are not close to your work, so they can give you an objective review of your work without killing your enthusiasm for it.

2. Writing instructor or coach
If you’ve ever taken a writing class, you know how valuable the instructor’s knowledge can be. Not only do they become familiar with you as a writer over time, they can help you become aware of your own creative thought process. In that way, you refine your self-editing skills. As they become more knowledgeable of your writing, they can identify weak spots you need to improve on as well as strengths you can maximize to the fullest.

A coach not only provides technical guidance but will also help you be accountable for your writing and help you stay on track to meet your goals. They may be published authors themselves, so they can give you insights about the path to publishing. Many instructors also serve as coaches, offering instruction on a one-on-one basis. Instructors and coaches help you learn to help yourself, but their services may come at a price — the price of a writing class or a coaching session. But the cost may be worth it.

3. Beta readers or reading groups
Other helpful sources of feedback are beta readers and reading groups. Beta readers are individuals in your personal network who are avid readers, while reading groups are groups of avid fans. They may be fans of certain genres, such as mystery or science fiction. If you’re writing a science fiction novel for young adults, reach out to the avid readers in your network and ask for their input. Because they are familiar with the genre and have likely read tons of stories in that genre, beta readers can tell you how your story compares with others they’ve read. Is it on par with them, or does it need improvement? Beta readers and reading groups understand what works and what doesn’t, what will appeal to readers and what won’t.

Mind you, reading groups have a different focus than writing groups. While writers groups focus on writing technique and performance, readers’ groups focus on the storytelling aspect. They understand what makes readers read certain books and not others. And that information can help you craft your story better.

4. An editor
After you’ve revised your story enough times to make it believable and readable, it’s time to submit it to an editor for review. That thought might make you weak in the knees, but don’t fret. Remember, editors are your friends. They’re there to help you hone your story further. They’ve reviewed and edited hundreds of other stories, so they know that many of them are decent enough stories, but aren’t publishable. The editor can tell you how to make your story more publish-worthy.

There are two types of editors. One works for a publication and routinely reviews submitted stories. They know what writing style they’re looking for and the types of stories they want to publish. If your work does not meet the publication’s criteria, it will be rejected.

The second type of editor may work on their own, offering their services to aspiring writers before they formally submit it to an agent or publisher. They will likely charge you for their expertise, but it may be worth it to have someone review your work with a fresh pair of eyes. If you’ve worked on it a long time, you may be too close to your work to see it objectively.

To find a freelance editor, ask fellow writers for referrals. Or check out organizations such as Editorial Freelancers Association or the National Association of Independent Writers and Editors, which post directories of editors.

5. An already published writer
If you’re fortunate enough to count a published writer among your acquaintances, take advantage of their expertise. Ask if they are willing to review a few pages or a chapter or two. If they don’t have time to review it, ask if they’re willing to discuss your project. You might get enough meaningful advice just through the discussion alone. Since they’ve been through the publishing process already, they can tell you what worked for them and what they would do differently.

6. An agent
If you aspire to be published, at some point, you will want to show your completed work to a literary agent. Agents tend to work in specific genres, so do your homework and find an agent that works in the same genre as your story. A good place to start is Writer’s Market, which is updated and published every year, and Writer’s Digest magazine, which profiles a literary agent in each issue. Each agent is different, so be sure you review their submission criteria.

Agents will review your work with an eye on its marketability. Will it sell? Is it publishable? Agents have relationships with multiple publishers and can determine if your story is a good fit at one of them. Most important, they’ll review your work to determine if you are worthy of being represented by them.

Depending on where you are in your writing journey, you will no doubt have a connection to one or several of these individuals at some point. No matter which of these people you choose to review your work, their insights can help you become the best writer you can be.