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, and selfish.
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 on YouTube channel videos.
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.
In Is Engineering an Art or Science?, I wrote about the importance of critique in engineering design, and the oversight in typical engineering classroom that fail to teach it. That is, engineering is both and art and a science, but we teach it as if it were exclusively a science.
To help correct for this oversight, I ask my students to analyze movie clips and identify the elements of critique vs criticism, and open-minded curiosity vs defensiveness. For example, 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:
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:
- Tell me more.
- Help me understand what you’re saying.
- 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.
Many of us without experience in the creative or culinary arts are new to the practice of providing critique. To help structure critique, experiment with a reliable outline, such as this:
I. Summarize the author’s work from the authors point of view. In the Summary, it is essential to empathize with the author to understand the purpose of their work as they might understand it themselves. Only after the author is certain that the critic understands will they cease the struggle to be understood by explaining, rebutting, or seeking to debate the critic.
II. Critique the work.
- Place the work in context. What makes it original in comparison to related works?
- Diagram (or “map) the logic. Where there are conclusions or arguments, are they supported by the evidence presented?
- Evaluate the importance of the work. Are the principal points of the argument important? To whom?
- Assess the quality of presentation. Is the writing clear, concise and comprehensible?
III. Make actionable recommendations, which could mean suggesting revisions, additional sources or related works, or reframing the work (i.e., looking at it from a different perspective).
Although engineering relies on peer review to avoid costly errors and improve design, few engineers are instructed in how to do it well. It is typically the programs in art, industrial design, or architecture that offer explicit instruction on giving and receiving feedback. There’s a myriad of advice on Medium offering tips and sharing experiences. These are some of the better articles.