Assessing Writing Feedback: Criticism, Commentary, and Critique

Assessing Writing Feedback: Criticism, Commentary, and Critique

Assessing Writing Feedback: Criticism, Commentary, and Critique

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Imagine living in a world without mirrors. Even if you consider yourself the least vain and lowest-maintenance of people, how would you check that weird mole you felt on your back, or whether that sudden cold sensitivity in your mouth means you’re getting a cavity, or realize you almost left the house with your fly down? Sometimes it’s essential to have a reflection so that we can make accurate assessments.

We like to think of writing as an isolated effort, a one-person show, an auteur art form—and in many ways it is. Part of the challenge of this pursuit is that the main engine is ourselves. We are largely the ones who have to get motivated, come up with an idea, actually get it on the page, do the work of revision and polishing, get it out there, and get people to read it.

But art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Because it’s a medium that fully comes to life as a collaboration between artist and audience, it’s crucial that creators take that “end user” into account.

Which is a fancy way of saying that we often need feedback on our writing to help us ascertain how our stories are coming across on the page, as opposed to how they live in our heads—a disconnect we can often be blind to because we are filling in the blanks with the benefit of our extensive knowledge of the story that our reader does not have unless we make sure we convey it.

And you know what that means, friends: feedback. That may take the form of editors, coaches, beta readers, critique partners. We rely on people to give us their impressions of our work, to hold up a mirror to what we have created so we can assess whether it’s coming across the way we intended, just as we check our status and condition in actual mirrors.

Readers may color feedback with opinion, instruction, and their own subjective perspectives, some of which may be useful to an author, and some of which can cloud the reflection or even distort it like a funhouse mirror.

The problem, of course, is that people aren’t as straightforwardly objective as mirrors, which cast back a simple reflected image of reality. Humans, on the other hand, may color it with opinion, instruction, and their own subjective perspectives, some of which may be useful to an author, and some of which can cloud the reflection or even distort it like a funhouse mirror.

It’s up to the author to discern which is which so that you can determine how best to use your readers’ impressions—and one helpful way to start sifting through feedback is to identify what category it falls into: criticism, commentary, or critique.

Criticism

Most of us know it when we hear it, because criticism generally yields a visceral recoil in the recipient. Rather than simply reflecting back to you what they see on the page, the critic is more likely to convey their judgment of it. “This character isn’t interesting.” “This doesn’t make any sense.” “That’s a terrible name for a hero.” “It’s boring.”

Criticism runs rampant in venues like online reviews, where readers may be only too happy to pass judgment on the worth of a story and point out all the ways they believe it to suck. Rather than being focused on the work itself, criticism is centered on the person giving it—not the effectiveness of the story itself, but their opinion of it.

All feedback is opinion–even from professionals.

To be clear, all feedback is opinion—even from professionals. But there’s a difference between filtering it through your personal preferences and biases as opposed to assessing the work on its merits through the lens of your own understanding. The latter is unavoidable for humans. The former is an unconsciously (or sometimes consciously) arrogant assumption that the giver of the criticism is the arbiter of acceptable standards.

However, if you can get past the almost universally negative reaction most of us have to criticism, this type of feedback can still be useful in helping you pinpoint areas of your story that may benefit from more polish or clarification.

The vague and annoying “This doesn’t make any sense,” for instance, is still an indicator of something that didn’t come across clearly to your reader. You can ask for more detail, or if you’re tired of hearing them talk, simply use their opinion as a beacon to guide you to an area of story that might need more clarification.

“It was boring” tells you that something wasn’t holding their interest. That could be a personal issue or preference, like it isn’t their genre or type of story, or they weren’t fully focused on it, or they suffer from ADHD. But again, if you’re willing to ask questions about what specifically didn’t engage their interest, it may help you pinpoint a potential reader concern.

But remember also that if you are receiving feedback in the form of criticism, it may simply have more to do with your critic needing to assert their perspective than it does the story itself. Learn to discern between the two to determine what is valid for your story and what you can safely disregard.

Commentary

Like criticism, commentary tends to be more about the person giving it than the work itself. Commentary occurs when the commentator wants to convey their feelings or thoughts or preferences or personal associations about something in your story.

It can take several forms, the most common being feedback where they tell you a better way to tell your story, or how they would do it. It may also be taking issue with something in your manuscript because the commentator had a similar experience and that wasn’t at all how they reacted or felt or what actually happened and they want to tell you their real-life version and explain to you the more accurate way you could present it.

Sometimes it takes the form of commentators who want to educate you on writing. I was in a critique group once with a member who would show up for each meeting with a tall stack of printed notes on the areas of writing craft he felt that week’s author had insufficiently developed and Franzensplain how they could do it “right.”

There’s still information to be gleaned from this type of feedback, though you may have to sift away more chaff to get to it. If you’re kind and have lots of time, hear the person out; people who give this type of feedback often feel unheard or unimportant and want to assert themselves, and you can give them the gift of your attention.

Or you can gently head off their exposition or instruction with a statement like, “I would love to hear more about that over coffee sometime, but right now I’d like to ask you a few specific questions about your impressions.” And then once again guide them toward the kind of feedback that’s useful and actionable based on what they’ve said.

For instance, if they had a similar experience and take issue with the way you presented it, focus on your story and ask what about the event they’re referring to didn’t ring true, specifically. Listen carefully to their answer for whether it brings up a valid plausibility concern, or they’re simply filtering it through the narrow lens of their own personal experience.

If they want to school you on writing craft, offer a similar redirect back to the work itself and ask where exactly they felt the work didn’t succeed for them and what specifically about it felt ineffective. This generally refocuses them on their actual impressions rather than their advice. (With hardcore blowhards you may need to redirect several times—some folks love to hold court and “educate” you. If they persist, you may not be able to get the actionable feedback you need from them, and you can find a polite way to cut the conversation short and cut your losses.)

Critique

This is the gold standard of feedback—what you can expect from skilled editors and coaches and the most effective critique partners. Critique focuses not on the merit of the work or the personal opinions of the critiquer, but as objective an analysis as is possible in the subjective world of humans based on how effectively the story the author wants to tell is coming across on the page.

Critique focuses not on the merit of the work or the personal opinions of the critiquer, but as objective an analysis as is possible in the subjective world of humans based on how effectively the story the author wants to tell is coming across on the page.

Critique points out specific places in the manuscript where the critiquer felt distant from the characters or story, or confused, or uninvested. Skilled critiquers will also clarify why they felt this way: “I didn’t understand what the character had to gain or lose in this scene,” for instance, or “The character didn’t seem to care enough about what was at stake, so I found it difficult to as well.” Both those statements tell you there’s a problem with stakes and character—they aren’t clear, developed, or important enough—and that’s actionable feedback you can use to address the issue.

Critique may include suggestions, but unlike commentary, it’s not prescriptive but rather illustrative. In the above example, for instance, the critiquer might offer some specific thoughts to help illustrate their point, like, “It might help if readers were reminded that the bank is foreclosing on the farm tomorrow if the protagonist doesn’t come up with the past-due payment,” or “I would have liked to understand more clearly why the farm is so important to him and his family or what it means to them if they lose it.”

This kind of feedback leaves the creative decisions to the author, but shines a flashlight on the area so the author can clearly see the possible paths forward and choose one that resonates for their story.


Receiving any kind of feedback on our stories—short of “This is perfect; don’t change a thing!”—always stings. But learning to distinguish between what’s about your story and what is a foible of the person giving feedback can be helpful—as well as what’s actionable and useful and what is simply opinion. (And you know what body part those are likened to….)

If you want to learn more about handling critique, using it effectively, and giving useful critique to others, I wrote a blog series on it:

And for ways to guide critiquers to the kind of feedback that’s actionable and useful, you can offer them a version of this template I created for a beta reader questionnaire.

Authors, did I leave out any of the forms of critique you’ve received? What do you struggle with most when receiving crits—the content, how to process it, knowing what to heed and what to disregard? Share your tips!

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Garry LaFollette
    January 19, 2024 1:16 am

    Fantastic and incredibly useful post. Thank you. Your Beta Reader Questionnaire is worth its weight in gold. I’m glad you included that.

    A question, arising from something you touched on a couple of times. ” . . . we are filling in the blanks with the benefit of our extensive knowledge of the story that our reader does not have unless we make sure we convey it.” Do you thank it may be counter productive to talk about WIP to someone who will in time be a beta reader? I’ve tended to do that with a couple of my BRs. To where if twenty five percent of what I know about a character makes its way onto the page, they may meet the person knowing fifty percent of what I know. Until now I hadn’t considered that those readers may be filling in blanks based on that added awareness and not in position to say “I would have liked to understand more clearly why . . .”

    Reply
    • Glad it was helpful, Garry!

      As for talking to beta readers about the story…my preference was always to let them read it fairly “blind”–the way most readers will. That way I got their most objective reactions and feedback. It could be useful to offer a brief summary or description to orient them–my guideline was always to give them no more than a reader might see on the back cover copy. In fact, that’s sometimes also useful info–for instance, when key info isn’t revealed right away but IRL readers would know it from the descriptive verbiage, I wanted betas to know that ahead of time too so they came into it as similarly to lay readers as possible.

      It’s all personal choice, of course, but if you’re looking for as objective a reaction as you can get from betas, you might consider not bringing them in on the inner workings ahead of time. Crit partners are a different animal–often they’re part of a writer’s process and will know more, but they’re also usually more skilled at offering feedback.

      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  • Oof. Clear distinctions (on easily confused things) and useful guidance on how to handle each. You’re a national treasure for writers, Martin.

    Reply
  • Wonderful post! (And Happy New Year!)
    The fundamental question that guides the critique I offer is, “How can I help this person?” which means I have to understand, first, what they are trying to do. I check that with them- “So it seems to me that what you’re trying to do here is…” Then, if I understand, I try to offer what I think might help them accomplish that.
    Another important thing your post makes clear is that being the receiver of feedback should not be a passive position. Defensiveness isn’t helpful, but as the receiver of feedback, there are things I want to know. You allude to some of them: Where did it drag? What wasn’t clear? Was it a satisfying reading experience? Where did it disappoint? Why? How? If I understand those things-what you experienced , maybe I can make it better.
    As always, thanks for sharing what you’ve learned, and stimulating me to think about what I think I know.

    Reply
    • Happy New Year to you, Bob! I love your “How do I help question,” and your ascertaining their intentions. I do something similar, either by asking about their vision for the story ahead of time, or by sending a pre-edit questionnaire I’ve developed, both for that purpose, and to help me offer the type of edit most useful to an author (e.g., how much feedback they like, in what form, etc.). You’re right–it very much helps as a guide for offering useful, relevant feedback. And yes, as the receiver it’s really helpful to empower yourself to guide crit partners and editors, etc., toward what’s most helpful for you, especially when the reader may not be an experienced critiquer.

      Good to see you here, as always, and thanks for the kind words. I’m glad the post is useful!

      Reply
  • One of the many things I’ve come to appreciate in your posts, along with the revealing of your extensive knowledge of writing, is the occasional introduction of a word I’m not familiar with. After googling I usually discover that it’s an adjective, adverb or noun I can use. However, this time congratulations are in order. You have ‘stumped the band’. A definition for the word “Frankelsplain” has defied my and the Google team’s efforts. As I’m always saying, “It’s hard to hide talent”.

    Reply
    • Well, now I must thank you for pointing out a second error in this post I needed to correct! (The first being the misuse of “vein” where I meant “vain,” courtesy of occasionally dictating my posts rather than writing them out…)

      I confess I often make up words for amusement value (usually my own), and this one was my attempt to make a play on “mansplaining” by using the name of an author who often engages in it. But in my (clearly inadequate) revision of the post I neglected to see that I had the name wrong. I’ve since corrected it, and it may now make more sense to you. 😉

      Thanks, Mac–for the assist and for the kind words!

      Reply
  • Nice information about this article. Thank you

    Reply

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