Critique

  • Learn to provide useful critiques
  • Work strategically with critical feedback. from peers, your intended audience, as well as mentors, instructors, and bosses. Evaluate feedback and prioritize revision and editing based on critiques

Critique refers to analysis and reflection. People routinely critique ideas, feelings, events or artifacts. Frequently the impulse to critique is driven by a desire to figure out how to do something better. Critique can also be used to sort and rank experiences, thoughts and artifacts. Critique can be directed at ourselves (self-critique) or others. Critique can happen individually or in teams.


Critique is a complex human phenomenon. At times critique can be messy, chaotic, and counterproductive. Critique 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. At other times, feedback can be invaluable. Insightful and transformative. Almost always, critical feedback can be perceived emotionally.

Thus, whether, how, and when someone gives critique can matter a lot–as explored below. Below is a summary of the aims of critique, genres of critique, and pros and cons of critique.

Aims of Critique

Feedback is deeply rhetorical. When used wisely, critique is sensitive to the rhetorical situation. For instance, critiques might consider how knowledgeable the rhetor is regarding the topic, whether the rhetor is in regards to developing the project (just beginning? midway? near completion). And the critique could certainly want to consider how open the rhetor is to critique. There’s no reason to give a critique hours of your time if it’s going to be ignored.

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 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 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.

Benefits of Critique

Recently, Ray Dalio, a billionaire and Founder of Bridgewater Associates, one of the largest and most profitable hedge funds in the world, has written passionately about the importance of critique in workplace contexts. Dalio believes our dislike for conflict and the negative emotions we feel when we are critiqued cause us to avoid honesty self-appraisals and assessments of others. He believes businesses flounder when it has a culture where true assessments are kept secret and not used to inform decision making. In Principles: Life and Work Dalio argues business need to embrace meritocracies, where people are radical honesty and transparent about their assessments.

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

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 and revision, or style and 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 his or her text. Sometimes the writer-based prose has amazing innovative potential that the would-be critic is simply not sophisticated enough to discern–they are yet just too damned nascent. 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 he or she finds 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 and 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. narrative can follow criteria.
  • 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.

Contribute

Please share with us your insights regarding ways to improve formative and summative feedback. Please see Contribute for details.

Works Cited

Elbow, P., & Belanoff, P. (1989). Sharing and responding. New York: McGraw-Hill. Chicago

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