If I thought this critiquing lark was just a lot of hacks pretending they liked the sound of their own voice (on paper at least) then one of our mentors, Andrew Haydon, decided to dispel my preconceived notions.
It would transpire that there are rules to writing a review. Rules which I seem to have broken. Rules that I actually want to break, I hasten to add. Andrew came across these during something he attended in the 1990s, which was conducted by some notorious reviewer from the Times or some other broadsheet who take these things far too seriously. Robert something or other. Details are admittedly hazy, mainly because whilst I should have been paying attention I was reeling back from perusing the rules that were handed to me in leaflet form.
[Note. You may have noticed I used the word ‘peruse’ because I actually like the sound of it. I don’t actually use it in spoken form that often. Although when I realised that one of the rules singled out the use of the word ‘peruse’ and that people didn’t use it in ‘real life’, it made me want to use it all the time.]
Here are the rules that should never ever be broken when it comes to writing a professional review
- Egotism – Do not show off. You are there to serve the audience. Avoid using the word ‘I’ in your reviews. First, we know it is you. Secondly it is a waste of space. Enjoy the discipline of word length. For the love of God DON’T contextualize your entire process of going to the theatre. The professional review is a lean authoritative beast!
- Jokes. Do not use them. They never work and they run the risk of turning an unfavourable review into a vindictive one. If you need a stronger disincentive, it’s worth noting that in today’s papers it’s only the right wing critics who try to use jokes.
- Weasel words. A weasel word reveals your insecurity and indecision. For instance: perhaps, at times, slightly, a little, occasionally, arguably, often, fairly, pretty, rather. As a matter of writing practice, do not use ADJECTIVES OR ADVERBS. ESPECIALLY ADVERBS.
- Repeated words, exhausted words, words not used in real life. Never use the same word twice in the same sentence, or in the same pair of sentences. Exhausted words are words that you seem only to see in a theatre review: Amazing, stunning, dazzling, fantastic, incredible, seamless, jaw, dropping. By words not used in real life, we mean terms like “to peruse”!
- Bad Words. Quite simply, swearing, or the use of words that become empty with use, like “crap script”, “bloody good”.
- Mixed Metaphors. A metaphor is a useful form of expression that helps us to imagine one thing in terms of another. But you have to be sure that the image you conjure up has its own internal logic. For instance a “mixed metaphor can creep up behind you and hit you over the back of the head” is vivid and internally logical, but a “mixed metaphor can creep up behind you and define the rules of drama criticism” isn’t.
- Raves. The two easiest kinds of review to write is the rave review, and it’s opposite, the absolute condemnation. Simply to say a show is great – or terrible – isn’t enough. You have to say WHY!
And just for good measure, to drum home these rules, Andrew used the oft quoted essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’ by George Orwell to outline the following points
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
So there you have it. A set of rules to which to govern your reviews.