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Different kinds of critics


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#1 Calliope

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Posted 07 August 2002 - 09:48 AM

With the ongoing crisis over at New York Magazine, in mind,
with critics, is there a difference to those that write for newspapers and those that write for magazines/periodicals?

I guess the obvious is the magazine doesn't write reviews on a daily basis, but with regards to criticism, is it a different approach, etc...?

#2 cargill

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Posted 07 August 2002 - 10:45 AM

I think there definitely is a different approach, partly based on space and time. Newspaper critics have to sum up things quickly, for a very general audience, which probably doesn't know technical terms or historical details. When writers have more time and space (not that Tobi had much space!) they can go into more detail and explain their thinking a bit more. Magazines usually have more niche audiences that newspapers, so when people like Mindy Aloff wrote for the New Republic (sigh!), even though she wasn't writing for a dance audience, she was generally writing for a well-read one. I think there is a need for both types of writing, the more the better!

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 07 August 2002 - 04:02 PM

Calliope -

It's fascinating what the differences are. I've so far written specifically for dance journals with more space and experienced readers. I'm working on my first more general-interest assignment on ballet and my word limit is 600 words. It is really interesting to see the change in tone (A lot more declarative, for energy) and the editing needed to get as much as you can in the word limit. In some ways, it's more work (per word, at least) than a lengthy article!

#4 Nanatchka

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Posted 07 August 2002 - 05:19 PM

More than you want to know: What changes most in writing from one publication to another is tone. You've got to adjust the tone to the reader, and of course to the subject. With general interest periodicals, and with newspapers(or with a publication where the editor thinks the reader is a dimwit), you have to identify everything. (Like this: Jasper Johns, the noted painter who long served as the company's artisitc director, said about the new work...) Length determines almost every aspect of an article, and I don't care at all what the length is;I just want to know it ahead of time. (I'd rather start over then radically adjust a piece once it is written.) Adapting to a word length is like adapting to a poetic form, loosely speaking: Writing a short piece is like packing a backpack for a trip to the moon. Longer pieces are an ocean voyage on the Queen Mary.(Very few pieces really need to be long.)Finally: All of a writers pieces are more alike than different, no matter where they are published, if the writer has a voice.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 08 August 2002 - 07:48 AM

I'd love to hear from readers what they EXPECT from a newspaper piece and a magazine piece.

Calliope, I think most critics write where they're given the opportunity to write. It's a buyer's market, as they say. Although some people might find that they're temperamentally, or otherwise, unsuited to daily reviewing, generally, you'll write where someone lets you.

My very first published piece of anything was a 250 word review in the Washington Post (which I later learned they didn't like because I was wishy-washy. I thought the piece was awful, but I was afraid to say it, so I fudged.) There are sub-worlds in daily reviewing, too. The opening night review in a major paper, even today, is quite long -- 20 inches (about 800 words, or a bit over three pages of double space typing) while subsequent performance reviews (when there are any) can be as short as 250 or 300 words. It is impossible to say anything substantive in such a space. Just naming the company, the director, the works, and a few dancers will take up half your space. My heart sinks when something is presented by the Washington Performing Arts Society -- that's a line and a half right there.

Newspaper writing has to be more black and white, more general, which is why it often reads like a compendium of cliches. "She was charming, he gave her deluxe support." With 300 words, one tries desperately to write in a shorthand that the audience may understand.



Writing for a magazine can have restrictions, too, though. Some have no restrictions. I wrote a piece for Ballet Review once that had 30,000 words. They laughed, but they ran it. I reviewed the Bournonville Celebration -- a week's worth of performances -- in 2000 words for Dance Magazine two years ago. I had to describe/evaluate the 6 productions PLUS explain who Bournonville was and why anyone should care PLUS give a capsule view of what had happened to the company in the preceding decade PLUS explain the plots of a half-dozen ballets many readers would never have heard of PLUS describe/identify more than two dozen dancers of whom readers had never heard. I think that was the hardest piece I ever wrote.

A final word, related to tone. I think everyone evolves his or her own ethic. Mine is that when writing in the Post, which is read by hundreds of thousands of people, I tend to be more lenient than when writing in a specialty publication. I don't think an audience cares about picky little details. They want the big picture. For about ten years, when the Post still did cast change reviews, I had the weekend wrap up beat, which meant writing about four or five performances in a very small amount of space. Since I couldn't cover everything, I wrote about the leads, and for supporting dancers, I just wrote about the dancers I thought had done well. (Another bifurcation in daily reviewing: the opening night review covers production, state of the company, dancers, sets, costumes, conductor. Subsquent reviews have to make sense to someone who only saw that performance, but there's no room to write about anything but the dancers. Part of my ethic also is not to contradict the opening night reviewer. I think The Post should speak about dance with one voice.)

Generally speaking, writing for a daily is 500 times harder than writing for a magazine (despite my one example to the contrary above). On new choreography, you feel like you're taking a pop quiz. How can you possibly take the measure of a new work, especially an experimental one, after one viewing? In the 1980s, I generally was given 12-15 inches (about 500 to 650 words then) and I wrote those reviews in 45 minutes -- I had no choice. The subway stops at midnight. I smoked then, and I'd smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in that 45 minutes. Which is to say it's a bit stressful.

You also get instant feedback the next time you go to the theater; people come up to you and tell you whether they agreed or disagreed. In the community dance world, you have to face the people you just panned. I was surprised at how personally people took reviews -- personally in the sense that the assumption is that what is written reflects what the reviewer thinks about the choreographer/performer as a PERSON not as an artist. "She hates me" if you write a negative review. Worse, if you write a positive one, the person may follow you around for life, assuming you will write features about them and adore everything they do because you are now "a friend."


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