How to become an arts writer or reviewer
Writing about the arts – broadly defined as any kind of creative endeavour or performance, such as theatre, film or dance – is a fascinating area of writing to break into. Liz Gregory offers a few tips to get you started.
As ever, the first step to writing success is to identify a number of target publications that may be willing to publish your work – then you can adapt your style to suit this market rather than knocking something up in the blind hope that somebody, somewhere might be interested. Most newspapers have a section dedicated to the arts, and although budgets have been cut across the board recently, even local papers tend to find room for reviews and previews of cultural events. The online market for this type of writing is thriving, and although payment is rare, any talented writer can begin to make a name for themselves by writing for an internet site such as The Public Reviews or by starting their own culturally-focussed blog.
1 Find your market
2 Write as an expert
It may be that you already have an area of expertise within the field – perhaps you know a great deal about a particular type of film, or are a drama teacher with years of experience in staging theatrical performances. It’s an old adage that you should write about what you know, and there are clear advantages in doing so – less research, for example, and the possibility of selling your work on the basis that you are an expert on this particular topic (ALWAYS be sure to mention any relevant specialisms in the brief biography you attach with submissions).
On the other hand, writing as an expert can be a tricky proposition. Most editors are looking for a versatile writer who can turn their hand to a number of subjects within any one field, rather than someone who can produce an article once a year or so. You also need to remember your audience and their existing level of knowledge on the subject. If you’re writing for a specialist publication then your expertise will be an asset, but most newspapers and magazines cater for ordinary readers who have a passing interest in the subject, meaning that you will need to be careful to make the topic accessible for all.
3 Or write as a passionate newcomer
At the other end of the scale, you might find yourself writing about something you know little or nothing about.
In such cases, more background research will obviously be necessary, but you will have the significant advantage of coming to the subject with fresh and unbiased eyes.
I recently reviewed a Gilbert and Sullivan production having never seen one before, but having no existing preconceptions certainly helps a writer to take a performance at face value, as your comments will simply reflect the show itself rather than your (perhaps unreasonable) expectations.
This is often good advice with any type of writing, but particularly so in the field of arts and culture, especially if you live in a fairly large town or city that has a lot going on. Even the smallest of communities will have plenty to write about – look for a local gallery with an interesting exhibition, or amateur theatrical productions who would be only too glad of some publicity.
4 Start locally
There’s no doubt that going to the theatre or other live event can be a very expensive business. Members of the press reviewing shows get complimentary tickets/entrance on press nights, but unless you are well established this will not be the case. Fortunately, there are all kinds of tempting deals available to ease the financial pressure for newcomers, bloggers etc.
5 Look out for last-minute tickets, preview evenings and other good-value offers
Many theatres, for example, will offer reduced-price tickets at the start of a production run, to ensure full houses and help spread the word about how good it is. Tickets are almost always cheaper during the week than at weekends, and sometimes standby or returned tickets are put on sale at the last minute at vastly reduced prices – Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre’s famous banquettes go on sale at 9am on the morning of a performance for between £9 and £10 and offer excellent value, even if they are extremely hard to get up from after a two hour show.
The joys of writing about arts and culture are two-fold; as well as building up a portfolio of interesting articles, hopefully of saleable quality, it’s also a great opportunity to learn new things and broaden your cultural horizons. Many theatres and galleries hold informative talks on current productions and exhibitions; these are often free, and can provide you with interesting material for your writing – look out for details on the company website or in the local press. To get the most from these sessions, make sure you read up on the event beforehand, and note down some questions to ask if you get the chance during the session.
6 Broaden your own knowledge
Unless your piece is a straightforward review in which you offer your opinion on an exhibition, film or production, add depth and interest to your arts features by speaking to some of the people involved. Obviously, in some cases this is easier said than done; if you’re previewing the new Spielberg film, for example, a quick word with the director is likely to be hard to come by. Other individuals, however, are often far more accessible and approachable if you go about it in the right way – you may be able to speak to people during one of the talks discussed in tip six, or via email or social networking as mentioned in tip ten. A few choice quotations about the main ideas behind the exhibition or production, or its key message, or simply a sense of what it was like to be involved with will all add life to your writing, as well as helping set it apart from other pieces on the same topic.
7 Interview the key personnel
There are some general, common-sense guidelines for writing a review of a cultural event which are discussed in the tip below, but on top of this you must be careful to write in an appropriate style for your target market. Much of this will depend on the target audience and the purpose of the piece (inform, entertain, advertise etc) as well as the personal preferences of the publication, so you should check websites for editorial guidelines and make sure you adhere to them. Otherwise your piece won’t be used, no matter how well you know your stuff – if in doubt, find out who is in charge of the particular section of the publication you want to write for, and give them a ring or drop them a polite email.
8 Follow the house style or your website or publication
Reviews can be tricky things to get right – you need to give the reader enough information to decide whether they want to see the play, film or whatever else you are discussing, but without ruining the plot. Even with a very well-known story like Macbeth it is risky to assume that everyone will know how it ends or be aware of the most famous lines from the play, so you have to find a delicate balance between not insulting your audience’s intelligence and not spoiling their night out. You should always include some factual information, such as the name of the producer or director and the key performers or exhibitors, and it is normal practice to single out for comment anyone who particularly excels or surprises. The key thing is to keep your opinions objective rather than subjective, so if you are speaking particularly positively – or negatively – about a particular aspect of the show then this must be justified and explained so that your audience can appreciate your viewpoint even if they don’t share it. Finally, most reviews are fairly short – look at some examples from your chosen publications to give you an idea of the length and structure you should aim for.
9 Structure your reviews carefully
10 Jump on the social network bandwagon
Many galleries, theatres and cinemas – and their associated personnel – now have their own accounts on a range of social networking sites such as Twitter, Google+ and Facebook, in addition to their main web pages. Following these accounts is a great way to keep up to date with current and forthcoming exhibitions and productions, and it is easy to contact useful individuals – often in the press department – for any information you may need. It’s also worth bearing in mind that from time to time an unmissable offer will pop up – for example, I’ve been the lucky recipient of £5 tickets to see a Shakespeare play when an enterprising theatre realised that sales were slow for one particular night and popped the offer on Twitter, so it certainly does pay to keep your eyes peeled.
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