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You hear the phrase “constructive criticism” a lot, don’t you? Sometimes people use it in the way that F-22 jets deploy flares against heat-seeking missiles—to draw attention away from them and off to something else. “Don’t be so sensitive; I was just offering constructive criticism.”

I’ve thought about doing a post on criticism and feedback for a while now, so this has been a long time coming. In this next few hundred words, we’ll go over (briefly) the difference between critique and feedback, and which one is more helpful in different situation.  I’ll close by talking about how I give constructive criticism, why that criticism is constructive, and some easy ways to make your own critiques more constructive as well. I don’t know much about critiquing sculpture, but I do know how to critique writing, and that’s what I’ll be drawing on throughout this post.

First of all, like any good philosopher, I’m going to get us clear on our terms before anything fun happens. This is where all the important moves occur in a philosophical text—at the very beginning, when you decide what words mean. When we define the meaning of our terms, we choose what we want to emphasize about them, and what we want to downplay. Define your terms adroitly enough, and you can change the entire interpretation of your text.

(So the next time you have to read something that doesn’t seem quite right, look at the way they introduce their terms, and the way they are defining their words. Chances are, they’re doing some work “off the page”—by changing the definitions of their words in mid-page, or by using a different definition than you are.)

So what, exactly, is criticism? Isn’t it the same thing as feedback?

Well, yes. The way most of us talk about criticism and feedback, you can fairly safely use the two words as meaning the same thing. But the point I want to make in this blog post requires me to separate the two of them, to drill down through the “general” meaning and make a big deal about the subtle difference between the two.

Feedback is a response. It’s also an A/V term (that stands for audiovisual, for those of you who aren’t tech-savvy), more specifically, an audio term. In a recording- tech sense, feedback is what happens when there is an overlap between an input and an output, e.g. (for example) a microphone within range of a speaker. I mention this to help make a point in a few sentences, but I’m going to use a semi-psychological definition for feedback, though, because using that definition helps me to explain why I am right.

The way I always think about feedback is as a response. Audio feedback is a response to something occurring in the environment. In behavioral psychology, feedback is the response the brain gets following an action. So if you are a rat in an experiment, you push a button and get feedback. That feedback can be positive (you get a delicious raisin) or negative (you get a terrifying and painful electric shock).  The feedback then affects your behavior: if you receive positive feedback for pushing the button, you are going to push the button more often. If you get negative feedback for pushing the button, you are going to want to stop pushing the button as quickly as possible.  So when would you give feedback in this sense? Well, when you want to encourage or discourage activity. For example, when you show up late to a party and someone saved you a slice of cake, you thank them, giving them positive feedback which makes them want to perform similar actions in the future. If someone steps on your toe, you give them negative feedback by saying “OUCH THAT HURT YOU SON OF A”, to make them want to think twice before stepping on your toe again.

Criticism is slightly different in this view. If feedback is a response, then in the context of art, feedback is your response to a piece. Responses differ from one person to the next. Some people love Thoreau. Others can’t stand poetry at all. Some people like Tim Burton’s films, while others dislike the dark, gothic atmosphere his works project. Some people like Taylor Swift’s music. Others are wrong.

The point is; feedback is what you think about a piece. If you say “I loved that movie!” then you’re giving feedback. If you say “ugh I hate this song,” you’re giving feedback. That feedback then communicates to whoever is listening, either encouraging them to do something (watch the movie again, or talk about the movie more, or, if you’re lucky enough to be talking to a filmmaker, to inspire them to develop more films like the one you loved) or discouraging them from doing something (such as never playing that song again around you—or entirely avoiding songs in that genre). Feedback is a response to stimulus, which can encourage or discourage the repetition of that stimulus. This is how feedback can make or break a young artist’s interest in creating—if they happen to get only negative feedback—by sheer random change—then they will be sufficiently discouraged to avoid that activity in the future. Conversely, if an artist gets enough positive feedback, they will have the encouragement and reinforcement they need to go on creating.

Criticism is not just whether or not you like the subject matter, or the writing style, or the performance. “True” criticism is a careful analysis, with a totally different purpose. We’ll talk directly about writing now for the sake of simplicity:

Feedback is about whether or not you ever want to read the piece again, regardless of how good it is. Criticism aims to provide the writer with a way to make that piece—or the next one—better.  It is a deliberate evaluation of the successes and failures of the subject, which provides recommendations both on what to change, and what to keep the same.  When you offer criticism, you recognize the subject’s merits and faults equally, measure them against one another, and suggest ways for moving forward.

Now that we’re all on the same page, it’s time to talk about constructive criticism. What does this term mean? Well, remember, we generally talk about criticism and feedback like they were the same thing. We also talk about criticism as if it were negative feedback, which makes things even more confusing. When someone criticizes you, we interpret that as meaning they are discouraging you from doing something—which is, as we know, the definition of negative feedback.  In my opinion, constructive criticism is a way that we try to reclaim the difference between feedback and criticism—to emphasize that what is being provided is intended to make the subject better.

I think most people don’t understand how to give constructive criticism. Often, when people offer “constructive criticism,” they are simply giving negative feedback, discouragement that is badly disguised. Other times, when people provide constructive criticism, they focus solely on the bad things, and not on the good.

I’ve always found that constructive criticism works best—which is to say, it provides the most improvement in the subject of critique—when it incorporates both critique—an analysis of the subject’s faults and virtues, suggestions on how to improve—and positive feedback—encouragement to continue. I’ve written a separate little blurb about how to provide constructive criticism to writers. 

So when you go about your life, listen closely to how people talk about feedback and critique. When they say they’re giving constructive criticism, are they really trying to help you improve? Or are they just giving you negative feedback—discouragement? People use the terms interchangeably, so they might not even notice the difference unless you point it out—although you should also note for yourself, why would you point it out? To help improve the way they interact with others? Or to discourage them from giving feedback?

Being clear on these ideas of feedback and criticism can improve not only your ability to edit other peoples’ work, but also to edit your own—and change the way you interact with people in your life. Knowing whether or not you want to offer criticism or feedback can be empowering—because sometimes, you just want somebody to stop making racist jokes. Sometimes, people do things—and really enjoy things—that they absolutely suck at. Knowing the difference lets you ask yourself; “which one should I use? What do I intend to accomplish?”—which can make you more mindful, more helpful, and more encouraging to the people around you. And who doesn’t want that?

That’s all for today. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned!

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