The Power of Critique in Academic and Workplace Writing

Learn about the psychology and types of critique so you can adjust your critiques to help others' develop their writing and ideas. Critique may be formative (focused on recommended revisions and edits) or summative (focused on grading and ranking). Critique can help writers, speakers, knowledge workers improve or it can undermine and silence them. Learn about different feedback styles so you can discern how best to give (and receive) critical feedback. And, perhaps even more importantly, learn to moderate your emotions when receiving difficult feedback.    

Photo: "File:2009-3-14 ManUtd vs LFC Red Card Vidic.JPG" by Sdo216 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

What is Critique?

Critique, in the context of writing, is a systematic and detailed assessment of a piece of text, with a special emphasis on its potential impact on its intended audience. Critique involves a thorough examination and critical evaluation of content, structure, and style, with the purpose of (1) providing formative feedback that improves the work’s ability to engage and communicate effectively with its audience or (2) summative feedback — i.e., feedback that justifies a grade in a school setting.

Related Concepts: Contract Grading; Empathetic Information Literacy; Leadership; Openness

Why Does Critique Matter?

Writers (and knowledge workers in general) benefit substantially from critique throughout the entire writing process.

Critique During the Early Stages

During the preliminary stages, writers focus heavily on analyzing the rhetorical situation. This involves not only understanding the context and purpose of the writing but also thoroughly examining the audience’s expectations.

Writers must carefully determine the most appropriate rhetorical stance by considering their position in relation to the topic, the audience, and the context. This involves deciding on the tone, voice, persona, style, and perspective that will most effectively convey their message. Feedback at this stage helps writers refine this stance, ensuring it resonates with the intended audience.

Early in the writing process, critics are wise to set concerns about style and grammar aside, as the focus then should be broader–more about what content needs to be developed and the expectations of the audience/intended discourse community.

Critique During the Middle Stages

In the middle stages of the writing process, having completed their strategic research and thorough rhetorical analysis, writers transition to revising and structuring the narrative of their work. This phase is characterized by a multifaceted approach that considers flow, organizational patterns, inclusivity, scannability, design elements, and the importance of embracing multiple outside critiques.

The flow of the narrative is paramount in maintaining reader engagement. It ensures a logical and smooth progression of ideas from one point to the next. Organizational patterns shape the structure of the piece, using formats like chronological, problem-solution, or comparison-contrast as best suited to the content and audience.

Inclusivity ensures the writer respects and acknowledges diverse perspectives, using inclusive language and avoiding biases. Scannability, particularly for online content, involves creating a layout and employing formatting techniques that make the text easy to skim and digest. Elements like headings, bullet points, short paragraphs, and the use of emphasis all enhance scannability.

Beyond the textual content, design elements come into play to create rhetorical velocity. Formatting techniques such as strategic use of headings, bullet points, and bold or italicized text, along with visual ranguageinformation visualizations, Icons, ideograms, pictographs—can greatly enhance the readability and impact of the piece. Effective design also considers color schemes, layout, and the balance between text and visual elements, all contributing to the reader’s perception and comprehension of the piece.

During these middle stages, writers are wise to embrace multiple outside critiques. Different perspectives can provide valuable insights into the effectiveness of the piece’s flow, organization, inclusivity, scannability, and design. Each critique can shed light on different aspects of the work, highlighting areas for improvement and offering suggestions to enhance the overall quality and impact of the writing.

Critique During the Latter Stages

As writers transition from revision to editing in the final stages of the writing process, they also zero in on sentence-level details such as sentence errors, structure, mechanics, modifiers, and parallelism. All these factors contribute to the work’s readability, fluency, and overall quality.

Critique serves as a powerful tool during this transition. Outside perspectives can provide invaluable insights on sentence-level nuances and stylistic elements. They assist in spotting sentence errors, awkward structures, and mechanical issues, providing opportunities for refinement.

Critique helps ensure appropriate use and placement of modifiers and effective application of parallelism, enhancing readability and coherence. Moreover, it provides guidance on stylistic elements like brevity, clarity, flow, inclusivity, simplicity, and unity, refining the language for greater appeal and comprehension.

Therefore, the final stages of writing are as much about embracing and incorporating feedback as they are about focusing on sentence-level details and stylistic finesse. The critique process enables writers to refine their work to its highest potential, ensuring a compelling, clear, and engaging piece that resonates effectively with its audience.

Types of Critique

Critique comes in a variety of forms: it can be formative or summative, helpful or harmful, global or local, rhetorical or syntactical. Critique may be substantive or shallow; focused on local, stylistic matters or global, rhetorical matters. Critique may be directed at ourselves (self-critique) or others. Critique may happen individually or in teams. That said, the two dominant aims of critique are (1) formative feedback, to coach writers to foster deeper learner and better writing and (2) summative feedback, to grade, sort, and rank order something, such as an essay.

Formative Feedback

Formative Feedback is feedback given during a process that is intended to improve the final result. For example, a writing instructor might provide feedback on multiple drafts of a student’s project without grading. An extended example of formative feedback would be a portfolio of work. In some schools, students’ efforts on individual projects are not graded. Only the final portfolio is graded and that typically includes a reflection by the student about the portfolio.

Summative Feedback

Summative Feedback is provided to grade, sort, and rank order something, such as an essay. In school settings a grade is an example of summative feedback. In business settings an example would be a funded grant proposal, a client’s acceptance of work for hire, or publication of an article. Summative critiques show up as grades in schools, stars on Uber rides, and thumbs up on website.

Rhetorical Feedback

Feedback is deeply rhetorical.

When used wisely, critique is sensitive to the rhetorical situation. For instance, critiques might consider how knowledgeable the writer, speaker, knowledge worker . . . is regarding the topic, whether the rhetor is in regards to developing the project (just beginning? midway? near completion).

Guide to Managing Critique

Receiving critique is not always an easy process. However, it’s crucial to recognize that critique often illuminates aspects of our writing that we may not see ourselves. For instance, when we’re well-versed with a topic, we may create what Linda Flower terms as “writer-based prose”—writing that seems clear to us but might confuse the reader. We may unknowingly omit crucial information, assuming the reader has the same level of understanding. This can disrupt the narrative flow and hinder the clarity of our message.

Emotional involvement with a topic can also lead to writer-based prose. It may cause us to overlook shortcomings in our reasoning, information design, research, or style, which are clear to the reader but hidden to us due to our emotional investment.

Furthermore, failing to thoroughly account for our audience’s values, histories, education, and knowledge can lead to disconnects in understanding and resonance.

Critique plays a pivotal role in such scenarios. An astute critique can help writers transition from writer-based prose to reader-based prose, which is more engaging and comprehensible for the reader. It can highlight gaps or inconsistencies in the writer-based prose and guide the writer in addressing them, making the final piece more reader-oriented.

Before offering a critique, however, it’s vital to ensure that the recipient is open to feedback. An initial conversation can set the right tone and clarify the critique’s intention.

Critique in the Workplace

Radical Transparency

Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates, champions radical transparency in the workplace, a concept that emphasizes open communication, honest feedback, and sharing of information for informed decision-making.

Radical transparency fosters an environment of trust and collaboration. By encouraging the free flow of information, employees are better informed and involved in the company’s objectives and strategies. This leads to greater engagement and commitment from the team.

Critique plays an essential role in this transparent culture. Constructive critique provides an opportunity for continuous learning and improvement, making the organization more adaptable and innovative. It helps identify gaps, improve strategies, and accelerate growth.

However, Dalio critiques the traditional education system for not adequately preparing learners for this culture of radical transparency. He asserts that learners need to be equipped with the ability to give and receive effective critique, a skill that is often underemphasized in education but is crucial in the professional world.

By integrating radical transparency and effective critique in the workplace, Dalio believes companies can create a more dynamic, inclusive, and high-performing environment. His advocacy underlines the necessity of these concepts not just in the world of business but also in the broader context of personal and professional growth.

Benefits of Reciprocal Critiques

As a writer, you can be especially confident in the authenticity of criticism and feedback when the same criticism comes from multiple reviewers. This is why it is common in workplace and academic contexts to provide critiques from multiple people.

Dangers of Critique

Some critiques should be ignored especially the critiques from gargoylesie people who are perpetually negative and closed to information literacy practices and perspectives PhotoMoxley

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.

Genres of Critique

Some kinds of feedback are so routine that they can be described as a genre: “a method communities use (even if unconsciously) to sustain values, inculcate users, and communicate” (see Genre)

  • Global Critique addresses substantive matters, the big picture. For instance, global critique could fault a composition for not being focused on the needs of an audience. (See Rhetoric for more on this.)
  • Local Critique addresses style or editing style, or editing. This kind of feedback is often given as a side note (see below).
  • The Side Note. Critics may write on a page or use a response tool to provide a comment to something said on a text. Typically, the side-note addresses a sentence, work, paragraph rather than the whole text. That said, teachers can provide side notes on a single topic throughout a text. This occurs, for instance, when an instructor wants a student to see a repeated error.
  • Rubric-based feedback. instructors can click scores for Evidence, Organization, Format, and Style on a rubric.
  • Endnotes. Critics may write a summative statement that An endnote that summarizes strengths and weaknesses or deviations from a rubric and genre expectations
  • Line-by-Line Editing
    Critics can rewrite your prose to illustrate recommended revisions and edits.


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.

Works Cited

Elbow, P., & Belanoff, P. (1989). Sharing and responding. McGraw-Hill.