Good criticism is good writing. There are no two ways around it. Criticism lives or dies by its clarity, and at a time when it can feel like you need to scream just to be heard, lucid writing can serve as a megaphone of its own. A great line can become as a perfect calling card. A well-written pitch can pique the interest of a prospective editor. A well-argued essay can expose you to a whole new readership.
But nurturing the critic-as-writer can be a difficult endeavor, mainly because it’s an ongoing one. There will never be a moment when you’re completely in love with your draft, or maybe even with the final printed piece. Published reviews, I like to tell myself, are never completed and never perfect. They’re merely turned in. In the best of cases, I know that what I submit will be carefully combed over by a generous editor (and, depending on the publication, an attentive copy editor). I trust they will catch stuff I’ve missed and make requisite changes when appropriate. But that doesn’t stop me from wanting my copy to be as crisp and clear as I can get it.
As a freelancer, given that you’re sometimes not made privy to those editing stages (or you find those are privileges that small, understaffed outlets can’t afford), the expectation to present ready-to-publish copy can feel particularly burdensome. Suddenly, you’re not just a critic. You’re called to be your own editor, too. And your own copy editor. And your own fact-checker. You’re asked to know a publication’s style guide and its attendant tone. You’re expected to adhere to its sensibility without losing your own voice in the process.
If that feels overwhelming, a better way of thinking about all this is to understand that your job as a critic has to exist within this ever-changing media industry. The better equipped you are to make sure your writing can make an impression on editors and readers alike, the more likely you are to make this a sustainable career. Which is all to say: In addition to learning how to pitch editors and how to navigate film festivals, a budding critic has a responsibility to tend to their own writing and all that it entails — including understanding journalistic best practices.
So whether you went to journalism school and need a refresher or you’re navigating this by yourself and are in need of a crash course in the lingo your editor keeps using in their emails, Rotten Tomatoes has you covered. We’ve compiled a handy guide we’re calling “Journalism 101.” Think of it as an introduction to the basics of writing criticism in the 21st century.
Read on to get the lowdown on everything from SEO (Search Engine Optimization) practices and fact-checking to tips and tricks from some seasoned pros who have been at this a while.
Manuel Betancourt is a film critic and culture writer. His reviews can be found at Variety, Vulture/New York Magazine, and That Shelf, among others. Find Manuel on Twitter: @bmanuel.
For quick takeaways from this RT Lab installment, check out our Journalism 101 study guide at the bottom of the article. Check out the Critic Resources page for additional tips, tricks, and advice for critics.
As a critic, you’re a member of the press, and the press’s primary role is to provide accurate information to their audience. A journalist synthesizes and verifies information from multiple sources – a critic provides an argument on that information. Fact-checking is an essential part of your job. It makes you a credible, trustworthy source.
You should be able to point to another source for any factual information included in your work. Always double-check spelling, talent filmographies, release dates, and anything that’s not your original take. If you’re not sure if it’s a fact, try and confirm it elsewhere.
Part of your job is to inform your audience when and where they can watch the titles you’re reviewing or otherwise covering – especially for smaller, hard-to-find indie and festival releases. Whenever possible, always include the theatrical release date and/or platform where the movie or series can be found, and always triple-check that information, too.
If you’re writing online, you can hyperlink to anyone else’s original work as a means of citing your source (for example, when quoting something a director said in an interview with someone else, or paraphrasing a report from another outlet– “Coel told Vulture”).
DAVID FEAR, SENIOR EDITOR OF FILM/TV AT ROLLING STONE (@davidlfear): “I really do think it is just using a voice that comes natural to you, reading other critics – and I don’t just mean film critics, but reading a lot of other critics – and kind of figuring out what voices you respond to and what voices you don’t respond to. And by the time you’ve sort of crafted a voice, that’s either going to help you gain credibility or not gain credibility with audiences.”
ROSA PARRA, FOUNDER AND CO-HOST OF LATINX LENS (@rosasreviews): “I just try to be myself… [Find] a way for people to relate to me. I tend to gravitate towards writers and podcasters that do that.”
MANUEL BETANCOURT, FILM CRITIC AND CULTURE WRITER (@bmanuel): “Part of it is honesty, and that comes from finding your voice and being true to your voice… Trusting the voice in myself is something that is going to allow me to connect with people, to readers, to editors, to filmmakers.”
SASHA ANAWALT, PROFESSOR OF PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE EMERITA OF JOURNALISM AT USC: “You’ve got to get the facts right. You have to be able to construct an argument in such a way that you’re backing yourself up… I expect a critic to know more than I do.”
ALISHA GRAUSO, SCREEN RANT FEATURES EDITOR AND EDITORIAL LEAD FOR ATOM TICKETS (@AlishaGrauso): “Just basic grammar, punctuation. When you read a piece that is grammatically poor or there are a lot of typos or sloppiness, it kind of gives the audience this sense of, ‘Well, why should I care about what you’re saying if you don’t even care about what you’re saying enough… to take the time to edit and to fix those mistakes?’”
SHARRONDA WILLIAMS, FOUNDER, HOST, AND PRODUCER OF PAY OR WAIT (@payorwait): “Sometimes I feel as though reviews read or sound more like a rant. I’m OK with you having your opinion about a film, but you have to be able to support why you feel that way. And if I just feel like you’re ranting and you haven’t given me any evidence to support how you feel, then I’m just like, ‘I can’t even take this review seriously anymore.’ ”
PARRA: “When they just summarize the film and don’t necessarily give me their thoughts on the movie. I’m like, ‘I could have just gone to IMDB and searched that up. What are your thoughts on the movie? What did you like? What did you dislike? If you’re just giving me the summary, what tells me you actually watched the movie?’”
ANAWALT: “If I read someone and they are being supercilious and superficial and not seeing the meaning of something, and they’re not playing with the material in a way that honors the material, I basically won’t read them again.”
BETANCOURT: “Hyperbole is the one thing that, as a reader, I bristle against and that really rubs me the wrong way.”
GRAUSO: “If you don’t have the two foundational blocks of just making sure it’s clean and grammatically correct and factually correct, then you’re never going to build that trust with your audience in the first place.”
Whether your review is 150 or 1500 words, it’s essential to use your word count wisely, to engage and convince the reader of your perspective on a film or TV series. How you accomplish that is a matter of style and research, both of which rely heavily on proofreading. When editing your own copy, keep in mind not just what facts need to be checked, but which words or phrases could be sharpened.
Weak words undermine your argument and, with diligent proofreading, can be easily avoided. Weak words are those that do not add any value or substance to your review and may even undermine your critical voice.
Similarly, overusing superlative adjectives can detract from a review. As a critic, it’s important – and exciting – to convey to your audience how passionately you feel about a new film or TV series, but it’s also crucial to back those descriptions up with evidence as to why the film/TV series is [fill in the superlative adjective here.]
For example, if you claim “Twin Peaks: The Return is the greatest series to hit the air waves,” tell us: Why is it the greatest series to air on television?
In addition, beware of using “awards speak” as filler in reviews. In certain cases, such as reviews published during peak awards season or at film festivals, it may make sense to allude to the strength of a film/performance as one to watch for potential awards recognition. However, do not let that stand in for your perspective and argument. In general, the reader is looking for your opinion on the film or TV series, not awards prognosticating.
While honing your voice, seek out critics, journalists, essayists, even fiction writers whose style you admire (and a few that you don’t!). Freelance critic Robert Daniels advises brainstorming five voices you like, five you don’t, and then practicing flexing or avoiding each of those styles in your own work.
AP Style is the most-used guide among press. It provides linguistic and grammatical guidelines for journalists, with the goal of making copy accessible and (at least somewhat) ubiquitous. But language and culture evolve, so the AP re-releases updated versions of its guide every year. You can access it online or in print, or, for a (free) summarized version, you can visit Purdue University’s Online Writing Lab. You don’t have to follow the guide to a T, but it’s useful to be familiar with, even just to decide when to break from it.
A lead/lede is the first sentence or paragraph that tells what a news article is about. It usually covers the “five Ws and an H”: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
A nut graf is the paragraph following the lede that adds important information and context to the lede.
Headline writing has evolved quite a bit over time, but a few things have remained the same: First, you want to start the headline with the most important subject of the story and use an action verb to add motion (this construction also helps with SEO).
An outlet’s masthead is its list of contributors to the publication or site. The masthead may include staff and freelancers and may list only editorial or also include (as in most professional publications) the owner and business managers, like the publisher, sales team, and marketing/PR staff. It may also include contact information for the publication, whether in the form of a physical address and phone number, an email address, or form fields that may be completed to contact staff. (The term can also refer to the logo featuring a newspaper’s name on the front page.)
A masthead is a chance to build trust and develop transparency with your audience, give visibility to your fellow contributors, and establish your brand. It’s where you tell your readers (or listeners, or viewers) who you are and who is co-producing your coverage (such as fellow editors and contributors).
Mastheads are important because they show that you are human with a name (not a web-crawling plagiarism operation), publishing in a particular geographical region or industry of coverage (not a nameless operative from some far-flung country attempting to influence, say, politics through local cultural media or under the guise of a respected industry professional). So be transparent on your masthead about where your blog headquarters are, even if you only include the state: “[Your name] writes from [state and/or country],” or simply “Published in [state and/or country].” Your “About” page can serve as the masthead if it includes staff names, location, and contact information.
GRAUSO: “If you don’t know that you know what you’re writing is true, then it’s always good to double-check and to source, and to make sure you’re using legitimate sources – not just a blog that thrives on rumors or speculation. It’s fine to use those, but always in the context of ‘this is a rumor; this is speculation.’”
WILLIAMS: “It’s a little harder when you do video because you have to say their names. I’ll research interviews to see how people introduce them, how they pronounce their names. … Even before interviews, I’ll ask, “Hey, can I have a name check? Can you tell me the proper way to pronounce their name?’ “
PARRA: “IMDB is my go-to. I use IMDB for everything, even when I’m 100% sure. I always have those windows open just in case I have a brain fart or something and I just don’t know – or just write it down.”
BETANCOURT: “Sometimes when I’m looking back at what I’m writing, I can very easily go back to the scene at hand and be like, ‘OK, is that exactly what happened?’ Sometimes you can’t do that, because you see something at film festival, you’re seeing something on the big screen, and then you’re just depending on your notes and press kits… If you aren’t sure, then you don’t say anything – you just find ways of sort of writing around it. And sometimes publicists are also great to double-check things that are not in the press notes and that are not very clear.”
ANAWALT: “I was a fact-checker at Glamour Magazine. They had this whole system where you look at your finished text and put a check mark in red over every fact. Then you go through the text again and check. Even if you think you shouldn’t check, you check again. Make sure.”
FEAR: “If you have not gone through a journalism school, if you didn’t have the benefit of having an editor bust some bad habits out of you… you have to do the training yourself. And a lot of that is being a good reader, which is one of the best ways to help you become a good writer. Get Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. This is a basic one that every writer, no matter how long you’ve been doing this, should have on their shelf. I’m looking at a copy on my desk right now, dog-eared to hell. I often find myself going back to grammar books or talking to friends who are copy editors. The best advice I can give: Befriend a copy editor.”
BETANCOURT: “Reading out loud helps me a lot – sort of taking a piece, and when it’s done, reading it sentence-by-sentence out loud, see where I’m tripping, see where I’m losing my breaths, see where certain words that are very cool and long maybe are hard to decipher or hard to understand… especially for me, because I love long sentences and I love long clauses and I love semicolons. When I read stuff out loud, I’m like, ‘OK, I need to break this into four different sentences and they need to be shorter, and what was the point of this entire sentence? Oh, right. I lost it because I’m halfway through a paragraph and I haven’t stopped,’ and that’s very easy to catch when you’re reading out loud.”
DAY: “Don’t use a $2 word when a 10-cent word will do. In short, your message will engage a broader audience if you keep it simple. Lastly, go easy on the alliteration – this isn’t poetry 101. Get too cute and you might lose credibility.”
ANAWALT: “I cannot stand ending sentences on a soft mushy word or a broken word. You should construct your sentences so that the last word of the sentence is the idea you’re trying to hit.”
FEAR: “I find that when you introduce a subject and then you throw a very long em-dash before you get to the verb that the subject is doing… I don’t have a problem using em-dashes or using longer-than-usual sentences if I feel like there’s flow to it and people don’t need a GPS to get out of it.”
Transitions establish the connections between the sentences, paragraphs, and sections of a review. They are key in guiding the reader through a critic’s thoughts and arguments about a film or TV series. When transitions are left out or ineffectively implemented, the audience may misinterpret the critic’s perspective or lose interest in the review.
Redundancy is the unnecessary repetition of words, phrases, and/or ideas in the same sentence that mean the same thing:
You want to get key words (a title, topic, or name) to appear quickly, and that starts with the headline.
Here’s a typical clickbait headline: “This Legendary Director Just Cooked and Ate His Shoe On Camera”
Enticing, I guess. But it’s missing the anchor that can keep it afloat in searches, so it’s better just to be upfront: “Werner Herzog Just Cooked and Ate His Shoe On Camera”
OK, we’re capturing some of the lucrative Herzog market. But what about people who don’t know who he is or what he does? Colons can help by allowing more descriptors, exciting verbs, and even tangential but related (and usually humorous) thoughts, while keeping the keyword at the front.
Here’s a new headline: “Werner Herzog Just Ate His Shoe: Watch the Legendary Director Lose a Bet On Camera”
Now we’re at the important opening paragraph. Consider what people are probably searching for regarding the topic. In the case of Werner Herzog, let’s assume terms like “best” or “where to start,” considering his career.
You can use phrases like: Think you’ve seen the best Werner Herzog movies? Not until you’ve seen him eat his shoe… OR Where to start with Werner Herzog’s movies? Why not with a quick 20-minute appetizer where the director…
Of course, anybody can try to jumpstart their SEO-ness with weaselly words and phrases. What you really want is to keep your reader engaged beyond the article, usually in the form of related links that guide them to more content. Have a review of Heart of Glass lying around? Link it! A list of other random things Herzog has showed up in, like The Mandalorian? Let the people know! The more time a search-led reader spends on your site, the more search engines trust that you are producing relevant content, which will increase your standing in search results.
People love lists. Even Umberto Eco wrote a book about them. Make lists frequently, as they can act as content pillars: You’ll get a lot of titles and names and search terms in one place, and you’ll have something to link to frequently with other articles. Lo and behold, the reveries of the connected world.
BETANCOURT: “Audience always sets tone and always sets content, so knowing what kind of person you want to be writing to and want to be in conversation with is sort of the main thing you need to know to help you figure out what it is that you want to write and to have that connection with a reader.”
GRAUSO: “Different sites have different audiences. There are sites that definitely write to more academic-minded people, other film critics, things like that. And there are sites that cater to a broader base. That’s also important, too, is just understanding who your audience is and who you’re writing for and what the point is.”
FEAR: “If you’d like to be a critic that reaches a slightly larger audience, then you kind of need to realize that you’re writing for some people who can recite Godard’s filmography off the top of their head and some people who might need a little bit of context – not necessarily having their hand held, but a little bit of context as to what you’re talking about and why you’re talking about it within the piece.”
GRAUSO: “Who are you writing for? Are you writing for somebody who isn’t as well informed? Are you writing for somebody who is? If you’re writing for an audience that you think will know this topic pretty well, you don’t need to fill it with recapping or an unnecessary detail that’s kind of well known already. You can skip that. But if you’re writing for an audience that may not be as familiar with the topic, you might have to put a little bit of extra detail in there.”
ANAWALT: “My audience a lot of times is the artists themselves. I want to have a conversation with the person who made what I’m looking at. You’re trying to interpret what they were doing and you’re translating it into words.”
WILLIAMS: “In the beginning, I relied heavily on my mentors, people who were already film critics. And I would ask them to watch my work. And I would ask them to tell me what I could be doing better. What could I do different? It’s very important to have people who you trust review your work, to give you criticism – constructive criticism – because we are continuously growing, or you should be continuously growing and trying to better yourself as a critic.”
DAY: “The Belowthefold.news blog has a helpful glossary of journalism terms that may be helpful to you, or Wikipedia’s glossary of journalism. If you were not trained as a journalist and want more professional guidance, consider participating in an EdX course, like ‘English for Journalists,’ which is conducted by a University of California, Berkeley professor and covers topics like “the job of the journalist,” ethics, vocabulary, idioms, and grammar.”
GRAUSO: “Reading a lot helps. I don’t just mean reading writers or critics whose ideas you like – all of that’s good. But reading writers and critics who are really good writers – that is really important, because then you start to see how they present things, how a piece flows, how a good argument is set up, how to analyze something.”
FEAR: “Try to be ambidextrous in the way you use the first-person and third-person voice in your writing. The better you can become at both, the more arrows you have in your quiver, and the more you’ll be able to kind of go between the two in a way that actually helps the piece work better. When you have an opinion, try and do your best to unpack why you have that opinion. If you have a reaction to something, try and question why you have that reaction. That’s sort of the nuts and bolts of criticism in a lot of ways – not necessarily just being critical of something, but really kind of dive into the who, what, where, why of your reaction to a piece of art, then how that reaction may resonate with a larger audience on a much broader cultural scale.”
PARRA: “Imposter syndrome is real, but don’t let it stop you from pursuing your goals. Do not compare yourself to other critics either who have been doing this either longer or who have different resources or accessibility to watching films, economically, and so forth. Don’t compare yourself to anybody, just to yourself from yesterday, and improve from there.”
Check out the Critic Resources page for additional tips, tricks, and advice for critics.