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.