Critique vs. Criticism

How to give good feedback and still benefit from bad.

Peer review in engineering depends upon an understanding of critique. As differentiated from criticism, critique is motivated by the intention to serve the author’s or designer’s goals (rather than the critic’s).

Criticism is personal, destructive, vague, inexpert, ignorant, selfish and individual.

Example: “Your presentation sucks because you don’t even do the math right, and I wanted to know the best option for the truck because I’m thinking about buying one. You also mumble too much and speak too quiet so I can’t hear what you said so I just skipped ahead in the video to the conclusion.”

Critique is impersonal, constructive, specific, expert, informed and selfless.

Example: “The presentation could be improved by including a comparison of net present values calculated for the truck’s lease and finance options with multiple discount rates to allow the audience to identify more closely with the analysis. There is an audio problem with the recording that made it difficult to hear, so I recommend re-recording the audio using an external microphone to ensure high sound quality.”

In general, criticism is judgmental and focused on finding fault, while critique is descriptive and balanced. Here are some more differences:

Both criticism and critique are forms of feedback, but it should be obvious that critique provides a better learning environment. Still, those who lack expertise may consider themselves underqualified to provide critique.

One place to find examples of critique and criticism is in the comments the videos on my YouTube channel.

Here’s a good example of criticism of New Car Buying vs Leasing, Part 1.

On the other hand, these are good critiques of New Car Buying vs. Leasing, Part 4.

Notice that these comments include constructive suggestions for improving the series. Although these comments are more positive, sometimes good critique comes with negative emotion. Watch this clip from the movie Crazy, Stupid Love and see if you can identify the lines that represent good critique, and those that are more characteristic of criticism:

In Crazy, Stupid, Love Ryan Gosling’s character is offering a mix of critique and criticism to Steve Carell’s character. Gosling comes from a position of expertise, is selflessly helping Carell, and is specific (“You can never wear New Balance sneakers, ever”). However, Gosling is also destructive (what NOT to do).

When Providing Critique:

  • Make it all about the artist’s or author’s goals, from their perspective.
  • Stay within your area of expertise. You might think you don’t have expertise, but remember that you are the expert on your experience as a reader. One way to provide constructive feedback to an author is to describe your experience of being a reader, including the thoughts you had while reading, the feelings you experienced, and whatever you did. Simply by describing your reactions, you can provide the author a better sense of their audience — i.e., the “experience of the reader” — in a way that allows them to improve their writing.
  • Understand that improvement is a process that requires iteration between design, experience, feedback, and adjustment. Your critique is helpful if it helps the author make progress (not seek perfection).

When Receiving Critique (Criticism)

  • Have an open mind
  • Avoid being defensive
  • Don’t play the blame game
  • Ask clarifying questions

Just as there is an art to giving criticism, there is an art to receiving it. In his blog, Dan Rockwell gives tips on how to receive feedback like a leader.

Receive feedback with openness, not defensiveness.

To benefit from feedback, he suggests asking:

  1. Tell me more.
  2. Help me understand what you’re saying.
  3. What makes you say that?

In the Crazy, Stupid Love clip above, Steve Carell’s character exhibits several responses that are good ways to make both critique and criticism useless, including defensive rationalization (“These offer a lot of support…”) and counter-attacking the critic (“Are you insane? You could’ve hit somebody!”) Maybe this is why Gosling slaps him — to break down Carell’s ego to the point where Carell will accept feedback.

In this clip from The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep’s character provides feedback that includes elements of both criticism and critique. Anne Hathaway’s character seems unable to accept Streep’s feedback… until she drops her defensive rationalizations and the sense of entitlement implied by recitation of her academic and professional accomplishments, and begins to receive Streep’s criticism in a constructive way that acknowledges how much she still has to learn.

One way to benefit from both criticism and critique is to keep a mindset of personal growth. Rather than becoming defensive or confuse feedback for something that defines who you are, accept the feedback as an opportunity for you to grow.