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.


Why Writers Are Bigger Risk Takers Than Most Non-Writers

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How much of a risk taker are you? Not just in your life, but in your writing?

At first glance, it would seem that writers are not big risk takers. Writers are frequently perceived as thoughtful, introspective and cautious. That may not be true necessarily, but the cerebral nature of writing gives writers those qualities.

The reality is that writers are bigger risk takers than most average folks. Think about all the ways you’ve taken risks with your own writing.

* Writers risk putting their thoughts down on paper. The very act of doing that shows a certain level of commitment to the writing process. Putting words down on paper (or typed onto a computer screen) feels more permanent. It makes the stories, even in their most primitive forms, seem more real than if they were left alone in their brains.

* Writers risk exposing their emotional lives. Some feelings are so deeply hidden and so deeply felt that it is only by writing about them and with them that writers can truly embrace them. Writers take ownership of those emotions. Writing helps them process those feelings and give them life on the page that is both socially acceptable and healing.

* Writers risk looking ignorant or foolish. There may be times when writers express an unpopular opinion. The way around that is to do plenty of research to help support that opinion. Back up those opinions with factual data and studies or interviews with experts. There will always be people who disagree with you or who don’t like what you write. That is par for the course. That is the risk of being a writer. Writers will never please everyone, which is probably why they focus on pleasing themselves.

* Writers risk criticism of their work. Let’s face it – the world can be a sour, cruel place. Not everyone plays nicely in the sandbox of life. People won’t think twice about tearing down all your hard work, whether because of their own jealousy, fear or insecurity. Writers will need to develop thick skins to ward off those blows. But the satisfaction of doing work that they love is worth the brief moment of pain that harsh criticism can bring.

* Writers risk sharing too much of themselves. Especially in memoir writing, writers expose so much of their personal lives on the page that would make most non-writing people cringe. It takes courage to share stories of trauma, pain, anxiety and disappointment. It’s much easier to share stories of joy and triumph.  It takes courage to reveal the darkest sides of our souls. But it is a necessary evil if those revelations help heal others who experience a similar pain.

* Writers risk anonymity. They risk the possibility that no one will ever read their work. Writers can toil for weeks, months, or even years on one literary masterpiece only to see it never published. Or if it does get published, it gathers dust on the bookshelf. But like the risk of criticism, most writers probably won’t mind the risk of anonymity because it’s the writing process that gives them the most pleasure, not the outcome.

* Writers risk their pride. Many writers I know are not afraid to show their work to others when the story is still in its rawest form. It takes courage to ask others for assistance. Others, like myself, prefer to wait until the piece is nearly 100 percent finished before asking people to review it. Somehow it does not seem fair to ask people to review work that is still in progress. That’s like asking someone to view a partially finished jigsaw puzzle. You only see part of the picture, not the entire piece. Many writers are willing to set aside their pride to welcome suggestions for improvement along the way.

If you feel you don’t put enough risk into your writing, there may be ways around it. For starters, try something new and different that you would normally not consider doing, says Kellie McGann a contributor at The Write Practice blog. For example, if you’ve never been a big fan of poetry, sign up for a poetry class. Because the creative process for writing poetry is different than for other types of writing, you can learn a different approach to putting words and phrases together to tell a story.

It’s important to push yourself to try different things, McGann writes. “If you always write about what you know, you’ll never be a better writer,” McGann says. Which flies in the face of a long-held belief that we need to write what we know.

The next time you feel stuck in your writing or you just want to experiment with a different writing technique, do something different. Take a class or do something that is out of your comfort zone. Taking risks are necessary to open the flow of ideas. Or as McGann writes, “When we take risks, we step into the unknown. That’s where ideas begin to flow.”

Of course, not all risks go well. In fact, some fail miserably. There’s no worse feeling that taking a leap of faith and falling flat on your face.

So what can writers do when that happens? Grieve, suggests author Annie Neugebauer at Writer Unboxed. Give yourself a few days, or even a week to process the disappointment. Give yourself permission to mourn the loss, the failure. Set a time limit too so the grieving process does not go on indefinitely. Then when that week is up, roll up your sleeves and get back to work.

The writing process is filled with risk. Embrace the adventurous, risk-taking part of your soul. It may just help you become a better writer.