Making a name for yourself on the critic circuit is no simple task – and getting off the ground can be the hardest part of all – but Carl Woodward has some practical advice on how to do just that.
With shrinking arts coverage, critics are needed more than ever. Whether you’re writing a conversational blog or a think-piece to Exeunt magazine, criticism should illuminate your experiences in their own terms and validate your commentary.
Hustle (i.e. network)
Get to your local arts festival and explore work in smaller scale venues in your town or city. Be considerately tenacious as the first time you make a pitch it will quite likely be ignored or declined. Your radical idea will be at the bottom of the to-do list. Don’t give up; keep going. Use social media and meet with like-minded people; speak to others who understand what you do.When people talk about networking, the first things that come to mind are awkward encounters with elevator pitches and the pretentious looks over your shoulder to see if someone more important just walked in. You go places, you meet people and you take their card and follow it up even if you think it’s an empty promise. It’s vital to connect on social media, but it’s important to get out and meet people face-to-face. There is no substitute. Get yourself on Moo.com, print business cards and carry them with you. If someone is actively interested in what you do or how they can contact you, give them a card and take theirs. Networking might seem scary, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds: just be considerate, alert, and above all be you.
Don’t sit on the fence or you’ll get splinters
Don’t be afraid of saying something that people will disagree with. Quality criticism can and should offer a fair and balanced opinion, even if it is a negative one. Be confident in your response and offer constructive thoughts on the work you have seen. The casual reader will want to know what did or didn’t work and why, and this means getting down in the trenches to pick it apart. Reviews present a distinct sensibility, a unique dialogue between reader and culture where an investment in difference takes priority over consumption. Many critics carve out their own niche to discuss art forms they love which helps establish a credible voice. That said, it’s important to head to the seemingly wrong place at the right time and challenge your tastes. Review work that isn’t covered by the mainstream; take a leap of faith. The average audience member will want to know: Will I enjoy it? Is it good value for money? Be objective. Research the play, company and their mission statement before declaring it a flop simply because you didn’t like it.
Cast your net wide
Writing criticism is a great way for gifted writers to get noticed. In order to write about the arts you need to go out and see as much of it as you possibly can. Should your financial situation be an obstacle, perhaps contact your local venue’s marketing officer and explain your position and request to be put on the press list. Alternatively, there are great schemes around for 18 to 25 year olds offering discounted tickets. Once you’ve got your foot in the door, it’s important that you approach marketing departments and publications in a professional and respectful capacity. Get feedback on your work. Try not to be too precious – take advice that you find valuable and leave the rest. People are generally decent and considerate, but don’t be afraid to speak your mind if you have a point to make.
Don’t send journalists your PhD proposal but reach out to a few reviewers whose work you admire. Keep your pitches short and snappy, and remember, if you don’t ask you don’t get.