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Four Ways to Refine Your Critic’s Voice by Melinda Bargreen

Posted Wed, 6/20/2018 - 11:01am by  |  Category: , ,

Who’s criticizing the critics’ tidiness? Photo of the New York Review of Books office (via Twitter).

As the saying goes: “Everyone’s a critic.” But bringing out your inner reviewer is a complex process. Writing a review is much more than just “criticizing.”

In my upcoming class, Critical Thinking: Writing a Review, you’ll have the opportunity to spend an afternoon refining your critic’s voice, sharing ideas with classmates, and reading reviews that really work (and some that don’t!).

So what makes a good review of an event, a musical performance, a book, an art exhibition, a play, a product?

First, you must define the subject of the review for your reader.

If it’s an event, is it a student performance, a community performance by an auditioned group, a semi-professional or fully professional production? What do you as an audience member have a right to expect of the review subject? Your standards for a student’s graduate recital will be quite different from those for a Seattle Symphony Distinguished Artists recital. Your review of a product that is almost free or bargain-priced may be more forgiving than your review of an expensive evening, for which your high expectations should have been justified.

After defining comes describing.

What went on, if you’re reviewing a performance? Book reviews require a description that does that little dance between telling what happens, and revealing too much (particularly if there’s an element of suspense involved in the plot, as there so often is). It requires a lot of skill and practice to discover how much to tell the reader without ruining the surprise that the book presents.

How did your actual experience compare with what you had a right to expect? Here is where your experience as a “consumer” (a concertgoer, theatergoer, reader, moviegoer, art-museum aficionado, restaurant patron) comes into play. The more experienced you are, the clearer you will be about your standards for the subject of your review. You will rate the soprano of a student opera production in a different way from your assessment of a professional singer in a major opera company. A restaurant whose menu features inexpensive “down home” simple cookery will be judged in a different way from a restaurant representing its menu as costly haute cuisine.

Your tone as a writer is extremely important.

Some reviewers enjoy savaging performers and posting hilarious but cruel online reviews of products and experiences. Sometimes you’ll see “revenge reviews” by disgruntled writers who have an axe to grind: they weren’t treated with the right degree of deferential attention at the restaurant, or the theater staff didn’t give them the exact seats they wanted because the seats had already been sold. Don’t be that reviewer.

And while we’re on the subject of ethics: Objectivity is another crucial element in reviewing.

Make sure you don’t have even the appearance of a conflict of interest. If you’re friends (or enemies!) with one of the performers or presenters or producers; if you’re a rival restaurateur or an embittered violinist who never quite “made it”; if you have a bias or even the appearance of a bias, you have no business writing a review. You know this already – and others who read your review may know it too, especially if your affiliation or preference is a matter of record or public knowledge. And even if it isn’t widely known: you know in your heart if you are capable of being fair, or whether your prejudices and friendships and connections will keep you from being absolutely objective.

It’s a fine line. The more you know about a subject, the more likely you are to know the people involved in producing it, whether they’re conductors or actors or painters or authors or other creatives. Only you can tell whether you can be truly objective about writing a review, but remember: the appearance of a conflict of interest can be as damaging as an actual conflict of interest. If you want to be a credible critic, you must avoid even the appearance of partiality.

You can see there’s a lot to discuss! If you sign up for my class – and I hope you will, so that we have a nice good-sized opinionated bunch of voices – then please contribute a review of your own beforehand for discussion. Unsigned, of course! It could be a review of anything: a performance, a product, a book, a movie, or anything else you’d like to review. Any length; concise is always better than rambling, but let it be in your own voice.

I’ll be gathering everyone’s reviews beforehand by email, and I promise to leave off your byline when we start our discussion! It’s going to be a lively afternoon, and one that I hope is enjoyable for all.

For more information and to sign up, visit the class page >


Melinda Bargreen was the classical music critic of The Seattle Times from 1977 to 2008 and has written freelance reviews and articles for many national and international publications. Voted “Seattle’s Best Critic” in an earlier survey by The Seattle Weekly, she also is a former contributor to NPR’s “Performance Today” series. In addition to her freelance work for The Seattle Times, she has written articles about opera for the OMNI Hotel and Montage Hotel Magazines. She is the author of Classical Seattle (University of Washington Press, 2015) and 50 Years of Seattle Opera (Marquand Press, 2014). Melinda holds BA and MA degrees from the University of Washington, and a doctorate in English and Comparative Literature from the University of California, Irvine.