How To Think Like A Critic

A few Saturdays ago, I attended a creative writing class organized by the Nonfiction Writing Program at my school. The grad students hosted a bunch of free two-hour workshops, open to anyone and everyone, and I picked one called “Think Like A Critic,” although I would have happily attended all six workshops if I didn’t have so much homework to do! Here is the official description of the class:

Hated the latest Game of Thrones? Loved The Girl on the Train? Got questions for Kanye? Your opinions matter, but why should the world listen? Pitching critical reviews is one of the best ways to break into the world of professional writing – the problem is, everyone’s doing it. Here’s how to get heard.

I love writing (or trying to write) in this genre and have only grown more interested in it as time goes by. I have fairly serious plans to submit some of my writing to online publications such as Autostraddle, Book Riot, and The Mary Sue, and although not everything I would like to write for such publications is a critical review, a large chunk of my work would certainly consist of criticism. I discovered that I love this genre by experimenting and practicing with it on this blog and now I’m beginning to view it as just one of many types of writing I may do in my career.

I learned so much at this workshop, not just about how to become better at writing criticism but also how to pitch your ideas to publications, which is something I was clueless about before! I’ve decided to write a post based on my notes from the class because I thought some of you who read my blog might be interested in it.

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The best critics tend to also be excellent essayists in their own right. This is the first thing the instructors said in the workshop and it really stuck with me. Criticism is is an art form. It takes just as much skill, practice, and hard work to write good criticism as it does to craft whatever it is that you’re critiquing – be it a book, a movie, an episode of a TV show, a play, et cetera.

We also discussed how criticism merely means being analytical. Calling your work “a critical review” doesn’t necessarily mean that you think what you reviewed was bad! Criticism includes both positive and negative opinions and should aim to be as constructive as possible. A lot of people forget this! Some critics painstakingly look for anything bad in whatever it is that they’re critiquing, while others try to find as much good as possible. And plenty are in the middle.

The next thing we learned was that it’s important to write down your impressions as you go, not later. In other words, you should take notes as you read a book, watch a movie, listen to an album, or peruse an exhibit or gallery.

While this may sound obvious, it was really helpful advice for me because I know I sometimes forget to do this: It seems like too much work or just another thing to worry about! Sometimes I’d rather read a book straight through instead of stopping to write down my ideas about it every few minutes. The instructors reminded us that sometimes you forget or misremember your first impressions, so you need to record them early in order to be accurate.

We then brainstormed a list of different types of criticism based on contexts and points of view. These included:

  • Political (including criticism based on and around issues of social justice)
  • Social (religious, scientific, et cetera)
  • Genre (which can be broken down into the subcategory of author/creator)
  • Cynical/contrarian
  • Personal
  • Historical

With this in mind, it’s also important to look for your blind spots. Examine your writing and see where you wander off topic. One of the instructors phrased it this way: “Ask yourself, ‘Where am I reveling in my style of criticism and not actually saying anything?'” Where does your writing become bogged down by the context or point of view? How can you edit those parts to refocus your writing on the subject of your critique? Like, providing historical context in a piece about an art exhibit is GREAT, but if you devote only two sentences to your thoughts on the exhibit itself, your readers will get bored.

Take the time to figure out your readers’ frame of reference so that you know which contexts and points of view are most applicable! If you write a critical review that contextualizes your subject according to your own personal experiences – for example, maybe your review of a movie about a particular country tells how that movie spoke to you as someone who grew up in that country – and submit it to, say, a magazine that tends to publish pieces grounded in a more historical context, then you just wasted your time. And theirs.

On that note, we were told that the second stupidest thing you can do when submitting your work is to send in your criticism without first researching the publication you hope to write for. Again, this may sound obvious, but one of the instructors told us a story about his time as one of the editors at Vox.

At the time, that website was about one and a half years old, and yet he got a lot of pitches from people who claimed to have been fans of Vox “for years.” He said he immediately stopped reading those pitches because it was obvious that those people had no idea what they were talking about. If you don’t know basic background info about the publication you’re submitting to, you’re not qualified enough to write for it.

And the #1 stupidest thing? Sending your pitches and/or work to a standard submission email. It’ll get lost, or it will end up in the virtual slush pile of unread material.

Instead, it was recommended that we send our work directly to the editor. Ahhh, just typing that makes me so nervous because I’m always worried about bothering people and know I’ll feel super uncomfortable when it comes time to send that email.

Anyway, if you can’t find the editor’s email, look around the site until you find contact information for someone several rungs below on the magazine ladder, such as an intern. Since the email addresses of members of any organization tend to follow the same format, all you have to do is figure out what that format is. For example, maybe it’s the first initial, followed by a period, and then the last name. Use this knowledge to email the editor.

Like I said, just the thought of doing this makes me anxious! Buuuut… we were told that most editors will actually view this positively, not negatively: It shows them that you’re dedicated and know how to use the Internet for research.

In your pitch, you should clearly state what qualifies you to address whatever it is that you’ll be critiquing. Will your review have a unique spin? Use this time to show off what you know about the publication by mentioning why your take on this subject is relevant to the publication’s readers. 

The last few items I want to discuss didn’t really fit anywhere else in this post, so I’m going to turn them into a list:

  • Try to get advance copies, showings, screenings, tours, et cetera for big-name books, TV shows, movies, plays, art galleries, and more + send in your pitches at least a month before that media is available to the general public!
  • On the other hand, some publications traditionally publish critical reviews a few weeks after something is published or released because once the initial buzz has died down somewhat they aren’t competing with as many other voices.
  • Be you. Be different. Don’t feel that you have to write about what everyone else is writing about. In the words of one of the workshop teachers, “If you want to become a TV critic, pick something other than Game of Thrones.”
  • While you should certainly never write something just to appear edgy, know that a lot of good criticism does cause anger. (And remember, criticism can be either positive or negative!) And anger = more views.

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Because I usually fill my Saturdays with homework, I very nearly skipped this workshop – but I’m so glad that I didn’t! I hear so many people asking for and giving advice on how to query short stories and novel manuscripts in the online writing communities to which I belong, but I rarely see anything about how to pitch nonfiction pieces. I loved this class and I hope you find my notes helpful!

P.S. What is your dream reviewing job? I already mentioned some online publications I’d love to write for at the top of this post, so now it’s your turn to tell me where you’d love to submit stuff!

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About nevillegirl

Elizabeth, University of Iowa class of 2019. Double majoring in English & Creative Writing and Journalism. Twenty-year-old daydreamer, introvert, voracious reader, and aspiring writer. Passionate about feminism and lesbian positivity.
This entry was posted in Nevillegirl's Adventures!, Non-Neville Posts, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to How To Think Like A Critic

  1. Evi says:

    This is really nice! I honestly love writing critical lens essays, mostly because I can do stuff like Feminism or Gender Theory, but I don’t really know how to do it for something other than what would be considered a “literary classic” by school, lol.

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