What is Critique?
Critique is the systematic evaluation and assessment of a creative or intellectual work—often a text—to analyze its effectiveness in content, structure, and style, among other factors like originality, relevance, and impact. The goal is usually either to improve the work through formative feedback or to provide a final evaluation via summative feedback.
Formative feedback aims to offer specific ways to improve a text’s ability to engage and inform its audience. For example, in an academic setting, a teacher might provide in-depth comments on a student’s essay draft, suggesting more effective ways to structure arguments or clarify points.
Summative feedback, in contrast, provides an overall assessment and often serves to justify a grade; for instance, the final letter grade on a term paper evaluates your comprehensive understanding and execution of the assignment.
Critique occurs in a variety of settings, including teacher grading, peer review, self-critique, or professional editing, each with unique conventions and objectives.
The ability to offer and receive critique is not merely an academic requirement but a transferable skill that holds value in professional and workplace settings, where textual communication often determines the success of projects and collaborations. Furthermore, effective critique fosters a culture of continuous improvement and intellectual rigor, enabling not only the refinement of individual texts but also the development of critical thinking skills vital to both academic and professional success.
The 6 Flavors of Critique: Your Guide in School and the Workplace 🍦
Critique is your secret sauce whether you’re in academia or the workforce. Here’s the scoop.
1️⃣ Formative Feedback: The Coach 🏋️
Think of this as real-time guidance from your professors, managers, or clients. They’re helping you tweak ongoing projects to reach their full potential. 🌟
2️⃣ Summative Feedback: The Scoreboard ⚖️
This is your final grade or performance review—your ultimate evaluation in academic or professional settings. 🏆
3️⃣ Rhetorical Feedback: The Strategy Guru 🎯
This is Sherlock Holmes meets strategic planning. It’s about understanding the “who, what, where, when, and why” behind your work. Whether it’s Audience Awareness 🎯, Medium 📝, Timing (Kairos) ⏰, Purpose 🎭, Subject 📚, Text Composition 📜, or your role as a writer, speaker, or knowledge worker 👩💻👨💻—all these elements are on the radar. 🕵️
4️⃣ Global vs. Local Critique: Big Picture to Details 🌍🔍
Global critiques focus on overarching themes, while local critiques zoom in on the finer points like sentence structure and word choice. 🖋️
5️⃣ Specialized Critiques: The Toolkit 🛠️
- Side Notes: Quick hits for details. 📝
- Rubric-based: Scoring key elements like organization. 📊
- Endnotes: A recap of what rocked and what didn’t. 🎸
- Line-by-Line Editing: A meticulous walkthrough to polish each sentence. 🧼
6️⃣ Radical Transparency: The Truth Bomb 💣
Coined by Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, Radical Transparency emphasizes a culture of open communication, honest feedback, and shared information for informed decision-making. It’s more than just being blunt—it’s about fostering trust and collaboration throughout the team. 🤝
Constructive critique is essential in this transparent culture. It offers continuous learning and improvement opportunities, making your organization—whether it’s a classroom, a startup, or a Fortune 500 company—more agile and innovative. 🌱
However, Dalio critiques traditional education for not preparing us for this level of openness. He argues that to fit into a radically transparent culture, we need the skill to both give and receive effective critique—a skill often underemphasized but crucial in both academic and professional settings. 🎓🏢
By championing Radical Transparency and effective critique, Dalio aims to create a dynamic, inclusive, and high-performing environment. His advocacy underscores the importance of these concepts not just in the business realm but in our broader journey of personal and professional growth. 🌟
Tips for Giving Critiques to Others
Before diving into the critique, it’s essential to gauge what type or genre of feedback would be most beneficial for the situation at hand. Whether it’s formative, summative, global, local, or even rooted in radical transparency, your approach should align with both the project’s stage and the specific needs of your peer or colleague.
Establish Openness for Feedback
- Begin with an initial conversation to ensure the other party is open to critique. This sets the stage for a more constructive and receptive dialogue.
Clarify Your Intentions
- Be explicit about your aim in offering feedback. Is it to improve the project? To offer a different perspective? Setting the tone upfront minimizes misunderstandings.
Identify Blind Spots 🎯
- When well-versed in a subject, people can inadvertently omit crucial information. Help them see what they might be missing.
Address Emotional Biases 😌
- Emotional investment in a topic can cloud judgment. Point out where this may be affecting the work, but do so tactfully.
Consider the Audience 👥
- If the project seems to neglect the intended audience’s background or needs, highlight this. The goal is a message that resonates with its recipients.
Spotlight Gaps and Inconsistencies 🕵️♀️
- Are there logical flaws or gaps in reasoning? Identifying these can help transform the work from “writer-based prose” to “reader-based prose.”
Summarize and Suggest 📝
- End with a summary of the major points you’ve discussed, along with concrete suggestions for improvement.
By sticking to these tips and tailoring your feedback style to the situation, you can ensure that your critique is not only insightful but also encourages a culture of growth and improvement.
Tips for Receiving Critiques from Others
Receiving critique is an art as much as giving it. There are times to seek feedback and times when it might be premature. Recognizing when you’re ready for a critique—be it formative, summative, or another genre—will help you make the most of the process. Here’s how to gracefully and productively handle critiques.
Assess the Timing 🕒
- Critique can be more or less useful depending on where you are in the writing process. If your project or idea is still in a nascent stage, external input may derail rather than guide you.
Be Open to Receiving Feedback 🎧
- Whenever you do seek critique, prepare yourself mentally to be open. The objective is your growth, even if that involves some growing pains.
Manage Your Emotions 😌
- Critique can hit close to home, but remember to separate your work from your self-worth. Breathe, listen, and manage your emotions so they don’t manage you.
Understand the Intentions 👀
- Different critiques serve different purposes. Know whether the critique aims to guide you (formative) or evaluate your end product (summative).
Avoid Being Defensive 🛡️
- Even if the critique stings, resist the impulse to immediately defend your choices. Instead, listen actively and ask clarifying questions.
Reflect and Consider 🤔
- Take the time to really think about the feedback. Not all critiques will apply; you’re allowed to reject feedback after thoughtful consideration.
Understand Audience Concerns 🎯
- If the critique suggests you’re not meeting your audience’s needs or expectations, that’s important feedback to consider in your revisions.
Apply or Adapt 🔄
- Thoughtfully integrate the feedback that resonates with you into your work. Use each critique as a stepping stone for improvement.
Say Thanks 🙏
- Always thank your critique-giver. Whether or not you agree with their perspective, they’ve offered you a new lens through which to view your work.
By understanding when to seek critique and being prepared to manage your reactions to it, you can maximize the benefits of feedback and minimize its potential pitfalls. Keep in mind that receiving critique is not just about immediate improvements, but also about fostering a mindset conducive to long-term growth and development.
Is all feedback useful?
Critique is a complex human phenomenon. At times critique can be messy, chaotic, and counterproductive. It can leave writers mute, feeling futile.
Feedback can be destructive, a way of controlling and silencing others. Feedback can be contaminated by jealousy and Machiavellian power moves.
Sometimes feedback is only partially correct. Truth comes in shades of gray. Not all feedback is equal. Part of professionalism in the context of composing is not to be overly emotional about tough critiques. To progress as a writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . you need to learn to sort through critiques, reject some suggestions, and seriously consider other suggestions.
Some critiques are false or misleading. There are instances when you really do know better, when you should ignore someone’s feedback. It’s not unusual for an audience (bosses, teachers, peers) to fail to understand you because they were rushed or preoccupied. And it could be true that the draft you shared was a bit too underdeveloped for your audience to see its potential or provide helpful critiques.
What are the dangers of critique?
Critique can have a destructive influence on writers–particularly young people who are first learning how to write. Perhaps this is even more true for younger students who haven’t yet mastered the basics of composing, rhetoric, invention, revision, style, or editing
On occasion, people can be cruel and insensitive. Perhaps the writer struggled mightily and wrote countless drafts yet came at the document without a strong linguistic or literary background. Perhaps the writer had far less knowledge of the topic than the reader critic. Or perhaps the writer was learning a new genre and new research methods.
Aware of the emotionally charged nature of critique, writing teachers, instructors, and professors in higher-education institutions are sometimes timorous about providing real critique. Grade inflation and student evaluations have moved the grading curve in the humanities from a B to A range, especially for adjunct faculty, assistant professors, and non-tenured faculty. The result, as Garrison Keillor so aptly satirizes in the fictional community of Lake Wobegon, where “all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”
Yet the role of critique is even more complicated than all that. Why? Because sometimes the words on the page are more than the words on the page. Sometimes they reflect the lifeforce of the rhetor. Sometimes for the writer, the words on the page are more than the words on a page. This phenomenon has been described by Compositionists as writer-based prose.
The idea behind writer-based prose is that the reviewer may not really know what the writer intended because of the ambiguities of their text. Sometimes, the writer-based prose has amazing innovative potential that the would-be critic is simply not sophisticated enough to discern. Appropriating the student’s text–that is rewriting it as the reviewer would prefer it to be written–could be a destructive act. To help the writer’s original intention be realized, the reviewer may be better off just sharing to the rhetor how confusing they find the text to be.
Elbow, P., & Belanoff, P. (1989). Sharing and responding. McGraw-Hill.