A few weeks ago I mentioned something from my writing class. When I presented work, I was given competing critiques by two of my fellow writers: one classmate said my characters sounded too old, while another said my characters sounded too young.
So: was this an example of criticism/critique or an example of opinion?
What’s the difference? Lucky for you I have been overthinking this topic for weeks, and I have come up with the following self definitions.
Criticism/critique can be substantiated by a specific thing. You can tell someone an actual reason why something isn’t working. For example, one of my classmates recently wrote a story in which the narrator called another character a “dick”. My critique was that I had a problem with that specific word choice to describe the character because up to that point (and the rest of the story) there was no specific example to make this word be an apt description. Further, the action the character did show clearly did not qualify him as being a “dick” in any way, shape or form.  Critique is when you can pinpoint a place where the story starts to lose momentum, or jump the shark.  It’s also something that the majority of readers will have an issue with.  I’m not saying to write to the masses- you need to forge your own path and be happy with what you put on a page- I’m just saying that if 4 out of 5 readers think the ending is crap, you really have to consider if the ending is indeed, crap.  Also, to be clear, I realize that critique can be a form of opinion, but it’s valid to really consider these points when rewriting.

Now opinion.  An opinion is something that may very well be unique to the specific reader.  An opinion is influenced by what a reader brings into the reading, what their background knowledge is.  In the case of my story, the reader that said the characters seemed too young was 25 years older than me, while the reader that said the characters seemed too old was 25 years younger than me.  They clearly had an age bias that was neither good nor bad, but may not have been valid.  At 25 one might not have any idea that a 58 year old may not have the energy to party all night, while an 80 year old may think that 58 year old characters talking about their sex lives seems juvenile.  Is either reader right?  Doesn’t matter.  If the characters consistently behave in the same manner and their words and actions are in a linear path, they’re probably written correctly for the story.  (this is not to say I have written a perfect story- just that my characters have a pattern that is logical throughout- I hope).

I realize that I am splitting hairs, because opinion can be criticism, and criticism can be opinion.  But when judging other people’s work, we must be careful to think about the why – why something makes us feel negative or positive.  When someone bestows upon you the honor of reading their work, you must go into it with a clear and open mind.  It’s like taking a standardized test:  read and respond to what is written in the text presented to you, and answer questions and form opinions solely on that.  Your life experience doesn’t matter:  what matters is the way the work was written.  Does what the author say make sense? The minute you think “Well, in my experience…” you are no longer giving criticism: you are giving opinion.  Your expectation is that the situation in the story will play out the same way the situation in your life did.

So I will ask you my friends:  what is criticism and what is opinion?  When reading something do you automatically bring in background knowledge?

I really want your criticism/opinion.

45 thoughts on “Criticism vs Opinion

  1. Also critiques are a a different in nature from ‘criticism’. Both are formed from opinion so…there’s that. You know what they say. But no, Ive never read a thing in my life and thought “well…in my experience”. Unless it’s something nonfiction….in some web corner…by random people who got to press publish for some Zine. Different. 😕

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    1. I’ve seen so many people in writing class say “this would never happen like that because when it happened to my friend…”. I’m like you…I treat things as fiction and am along for the ride as long as it’s well written. It’s bad writing that takes me out

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      1. Exactly, I’m fair minded about everything unless its all boring cliché or coming from someone who wants to ‘write’…but clearly never reads. Which is always noticeable….not for nothin’!

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      2. Though oddly, I notice sometimes that people who are really well read try to write like their “hero authors” and end up not finding their own unique style

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  2. Good question for which I don’t have an immediate answer, but I’ll try. Criticism is based on applying facts to a situation, then evaluating how well the situation stacks up. Opinion is based on personal biases + prejudices. Background knowledge is inevitable in anything that anyone with a functioning brain does. The question is how much weight does a person’s background knowledge carry when they are judging something in front of them now. 🤔

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  3. I like your explanation that critique (or criticism in some cases) is something that can be substantiated and a relevant example given. The concern will probably be shared by others. Justifications for opinions do tend to be more personal.

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  4. If you ask my Sunshine or Mr B, this question opens up a whole can of worms about stuff like
    Cindy doesn’t like chocolate because she formed that opinion; Cindy likes chocolate because Cindy’s biology likes chocolate.
    Which would bring on an entire drool-inducing lecture about how we’re all fighting our biology, because at birth we are wired with all of our opinions firmly entrenched and therefore not changeable.
    All of that to say this: yes, there are differences between critiques and opinions, yet the critique is based on ones own inherent biology (hard-wired bias) whether one knows and understands that biology or not.

    Ultimately, though, I do agree that critique points to specific reasons something doesn’t work. Like, I can stand distance myself from my opinion to some extent when looking at someone’s new home, or outfit, or work of art; acknowledging what works about it even when my biology thinks “ick”. So there’s definitely a difference between genuine critique and personal opinion. I just don’t know how to define it (one of those “I know it when I see it” type things)

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    1. You’re right….it’s hard to define because some people know it when they see it. The problem is, others don’t see it , so when they try to critique , it comes off wrong. Great thoughts!! And I’m going to think about the whole biological imperative. That’s pretty interesting

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    1. But, if you are taking a writing class as an adult then you are there to learn techniques. Therefore,critiques are required and aren’t necessarily critical, but a learning tool. You don’t improve without guidance. If a writing instructor tells you your dialogue is unclear and gives examples on how to improve it, then it isn’t criticism it’s instruction. Opinions about the likability of a character might be subjective, but valid. You have to look at the bigger picture and learn from it all. Writers and artists of any kind need a thick skin to succeed. Exposing one’s creations is scary for everyone. The environment of the classroom has to be open and welcoming because students are vulnerable.

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  5. Interesting question. Sometimes I have graded essays where I want to offer criticism based on my value system which differs from theirs but I try to be objective and not offer criticism not based on grammar and format following the MLA guidelines. It is very easy to fall into the trap of injecting my opinion into the grade but I refrain and try to be fair and objective. It does take an objective eye to offer criticism. I do think different generation will have different opinions. Just the other day, I was thinking I like less to carry and less material items the older I get. My husband and I were both commenting we could definitely live in less space. Our opinion. Our critique when we pass an enormous mansion in the Florida area: we wonder how and why they need it.

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    1. It’s a tricky line, and we have to figure out how to phrase it, and if it should be said. I think we all have to think before we speak and try to narrow out focus down

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  6. I have not delved into the subject of the difference between critisism and opinion, I merely (try to) check why people send a message. In that a compliment can be the biggest insult and the most direct and precise way of picking apart something or somebody can be a compliment in the time spent to analyse stuff and put into words why something is not working. But I might be a little different in this then other people.
    xx, Feeling

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  7. I like your conclusions. The real problem an artist comes up against is that his or her work will be evoking an emotional response in the reader/viewer. Often, that level of connection is not even reached because the author/creator has not gotten past basics like complementary elements, a pleasing composition, or glaring errors. Perhaps you may pat yourself on the back that you’ve reached the point where they are trying to connect with the story, hitting upon the realm of opinion in trying to feel what you write.

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  8. Constructive Criticism ALWAYS involves both fact and opinion. It can be based on data and still be clouded with opinion. And here is an example why. And PLEASE do not take offense to this. It is not meant as unkind criticism, but as a helpful example.

    I am personally turned off by incorrect grammar when I read a piece of work. So much so that if I download a book and there are too many consistent grammatical errors I will delete the book and not bother to read it. Grammar blunders bug me. Yes, they are factually wrong, but they personally drive me nuts. I have read and enjoyed your blog every time I see you post something, and think you have a great deal of personality,talent, and insight. But, I do pick up occasional grammatical errors and ignore them. Why? Because it is a blog and not a published novel.

    Today when you wrote “younger than me or older than me” I cringed because grammatically it should have read “younger than I or older than I”. To someone who taught English grammar seeing that mistake in writing is like hearing finger nails on a chalk board. Again, my comment here is NOT to be mean but to make a point. A hundred other people may read the same line and notice that it is grammatically incorrect, but it doesn’t bother them. However, to me it takes away from the points you are trying to make.
    AND so THAT is an example of where opinion blends with pinpointing factual criticism.

    To the 80 year old man, the validity of your characters appearing to be too young is perhaps factually correct to his age demographic, and also the same goes for the person who is 25 years your junior. Your characters may indeed seem too young to a group of young people. So their points may be valid ones. There is a reason fiction is categorized into genres. Some people will never read science fiction even though many of those novels are brilliant. Jane Austen and Shakespeare are about as good as it gets and yet that literature is not always adored by mainstream America. Classics are often considered too high brow. Opinion or fact? Or both?

    Don’t forget that Pointing out specifics is subjective to instructors as well. I think I once gave you the example of a prologue I wrote that was judged by a group of published authors. The one author who did not like it had an “opinion” critique because she said it was too detailed. She wrote legal crime stories while the other authors were historical or romance novelists who loved it. And each of those authors could establish exact reasons they felt it was excellent. So ALL readers come to the table with their opinions and likes and dislikes.

    Unless it is grammar, misspellings, essay format, everything else is pretty much up to the opinion of the reader or instructor. You can drive yourself crazy worrying about it. Follow your heart and write the way you write. Take in the comments with a grain of salt, and make sure your are spot on when it comes to grammar, sentence structure, format, and characterization. Then create the people you see in your head. There will always be those who like it and those who do not. Not everyone likes Picasso. That’s just how it is. Be yourself and write.

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      1. Just kidding with you. I’m in no position to critique anyone’s writing…have you read the description of my blog in the upper right hand corner?

        Also, when did it change from cigarettes to coffee after sex?

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  9. I believe I have ONLY opinions and am not qualfiied to ‘critique’ something. However, I was a stage manager for years and friends still send me scripts and plays to give feedback on.

    The most recent one involved two characters, a man and woman who have been somewhat interested in each other for years, and both seem like really kind and gentle folks as they chitchat and try to show niceness and yet not give away their Big Secret of liking each other. The characters are maybe 40-50 years old, and nice, and then at one point the man says something caustic about where he would ‘hide the bodies’ if he ‘killed hookers’. It just sounded so OFF and wrong and not what the character had been about, and it did not lead into anything useful like an uncovering of him actually killing people or even going to sexworkers, so it was jarring to no good point. I pointed out that to me as a reader it came across as jarring and that perhaps the author could review if it did to him too, and if perhaps a milder ‘joke’ would serve as well or better. I have not received a reply on that yet.

    In general, I think the audience has opinions. Perhaps taking opinions into account with a grain of salt is helpful.

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    1. I hav3 no problem with opinions, but when we’re editing or revising, we have to figure out which thoughts will actually enhance th3 work instead of detracting* from it. I did a revision where I listened to comments I received and I hated the revision because it lacked what I was going for and went against my style. It’s all a learning process

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      1. I agree that it really is a learning process. I may not have insight into, say, Latino 20-year-olds (much less that it’s now spelled Latinx), but if they may be part of the audience, there has to be something there they find of interest or value, while sitting next to someone three or four times their age from a different background who also wants a worthwhile experience. It can be hard or can be reduced to human commonalities. I recall that you wrote something that made sense to me since I was born in the 60s, but which did not resonate with some of the people. Good luck figuring what works for you!

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  10. I believe criticism is opinion. Some opinions expressed can be good and some opinions expressed can be bad. Whether or not it is constructive criticism depends on two things; the intent of the speaker and the acceptance of the receiver.

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    1. So would you consider one person telling me the characters appeared too old, while simultaneously another said they were too young be constructive? Which way would you go, or would neither be constructive?

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      1. It was constructive only if their intent was to provide the statement for development and not destruction. I think you used it constructively my recognizing maybe the problem wasn’t what was written in the book but actually the age of the reader. You learned something new about your potential target audience. That’s how I would view it.

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  11. This is such a great post and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I agree that proper criticism has to be substantiated. And yes, while it’s really important to listen, *especially* if more than one person says something and if they’re taking time to read your work, but I think it’s important to take it from whence it came when it comes as well- everyone has different tastes and life experiences and this can cloud some responses. I think you made a good point about the age thing because it clearly shows how the reader can be effected by their own perceptions when they read. I think that it’s sometimes tricky to figure out when people are giving an opinion because they forgo the “in my experience” element, even though you could easily insert it into their statement (I just find a lot of people state opinion as fact).

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    1. Thanks. I agree with what you commented here. When talking to someone about their work, or frankly any work, there has to be some sort of rhyme or reason for their statements. And yes….who’s making the comment counts.

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  12. Interesting discussion. I know there is a difference between criticism and opinion, but as a reader, they feel the same to me. If something rings untrue, is that a criticism of the writing (for instance, the author writes dialog that isn’t believable) or is it an opinion (the people I know don’t talk like that)? My mother-in-law has a favorite author whose books she keeps passing on to me. I really dislike the books because I think the dialog is terrible. Opinion, yes, but I can also substantiate my opinion by pointed out several specific (what I think are good) examples. But, since I don’t want to hurt my MIL’s feeling with either my opinion or critique, I just turn around and donate the books unread 🙂

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    1. Well….my opinion is you are very diplomatic.😀. Since taking writing classes, I’m really learning how to interpret what people say when critiquing work. I hear people give critique about things that don’t matter in a story, it’s more that they don’t like the way a story is told. If you’re in a class where work is supposed to be critiqued, the critique needs to be helpful and based on the actual writing process. I don’t like science fiction, so if I’m critiquing sci fi, I cant say that I don’t like the genre…I have to say something constructive to help the author make their story better.

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