Tag Archives: Media

Adventures in Editing Or How Editing Taught Me to Be A Better Journalist

13 Sep
Editor Image by dave pike, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Image by dave pike, shared under a Creative Commons Licence

Recently, I marked the end of an era. Earlier this month I stepped down from my role as The Public Reviews’ Scotland Editor, and passed the responsibility onto my successor, the more-than-qualified and very talented, Lauren Humphreys of Glasgow Theatre Blog.

I began my role at The Public Reviews straight after my three-year tenure as The Journal‘s Theatre Editor, and after four years of commissioning, editing, publishing and generally looking after other people, I decided that it was time to look after me.

So, in May this year, I told my boss, Editor John, that this Fringe would be my last as Scotland editor. There are many reasons for this, but the main reason was that I longed to have more time to write. I’ll miss the perks of getting editor’s choice on shows that I really, really want to review and I’ll miss ranting about the innumerable bad PRs that littered my inbox like discarded shopping trolleys on wasteland but, I need to write, and I want to be a better writer.

However, my time as an editor hasn’t been for nothing. I’ve learned so much, not just about my own writing, but  also managing people, and dealing with truly terrible PR pitches. Working as an editor for the last four years has taught me so much about journalism, communication and other issues.

So, here are my top 5 lessons that I believe that everyone who aspires to be in the media should learn.

Read Your Emails

I proofread and sense check my emails to ensure that what I’ve said is clear and easy to understand. However, there are those that don’t do this, and their emails usually consist of unclear demands, spelling and grammatical errors and bizarre sentences.

After they hit send I have to try to translate the bloody mess they deposited in my inbox, which I don’t enjoy, and I usually email them back and enquire about what it is that they want. Use punctuation, have a clear message and tell me what you want, I don’t have the time to second guess anything.

I don’t know if there was something in the water in Edinburgh in August, but I encountered a few writers who weren’t reading my emails properly. At the beginning of the Fringe I sent out a link to a spreadsheet for writers to fill in with their ticket requests, which was designed to stop any double bookings and make the whole process as open and transparent as possible to everyone involved.

One writer started trying to book tickets for shows that we’d already reviewed. When I emailed them and asked them to look at the spreadsheet more carefully, they emailed back asking, “What spreadsheet?”

Another writer got confused with the spreadsheet, and thought I was allocating shows to specific people and that they’d missed out. If they’d read my email properly, they would have known that this wasn’t the case. Another writer double booked a show because they didn’t pay attention to the spreadsheet, which clearly stated another writer had booked a ticket to that performance.

If you want to get on the good side of your editor, it’s a good idea to read every single email you get from them at least once. If you’re not sure about what they’re asking, email them back and ask them to clarify.

Respect Boundaries

From weddings, to illness, to engagements and the old trope, computer problems, there are many things that conspire to stop a writer filing their copy on time.

I’ve heard nearly every excuse in the book, and while I understand that writers have lives and they might get engaged/married/be too busy planning their wedding to file copy by deadline, I have the venue breathing down my neck, so all I care about is the review.

I know that sounds heartless, but editors have a job to do, and a publication’s reputation to uphold, so their investment is in the article. I’m friendly with my writers and count some of them as friends, but I’ve found that it’s odd how easily people will open up to you when you’re in a position of authority. It’s good that they feel they can be honest with you, but sometimes, when you’ve only had a handful of emails from someone, and suddenly they’re telling you about how they split with their partner/lost their job/their dog died and that’s why they’ve not been answering emails, it’s just a little too much.

Just say you’ve had some personal problems, your editor doesn’t need to know any more unless it’s something that they can help with or if it’s something that will affect your ability to write for the publication in the long term.

Enthusiasm Means Very Little

Enthusiasm is great, enthusiasm and drive is what got me to where I am today. However, in my experience, when I have encountered a writer who has been overly enthusiastic about writing reviews for me, alarm bells have gone off in my head immediately. Because that kind of energy never lasts, and it usually hides something else.

The first enthused writer turned out to be a prolific, or to use the nickname given to the late Sir David Frost, a “bubonic plagiarist” who couldn’t write an original piece of work if her life depended on it. She was also studying journalism, because wonders never cease.

The second super-anxious writer had my back up from the very beginning; he sent me a link to his portfolio, but had not made it accessible online, so he then animatedly cornered me at a press night, telling me how much he wanted to review for me. However, without my knowledge or consent, he was also submitting the reviews he sent to me to another site, which meant that we couldn’t publish them without permission from that publication, or we would be accused of plagiarism.

When this was explained to the writer, he said: “Well, I knew it was a grey area…” It’s not a grey area, it’s very clear, so never assume that you know something: if you’re unsure, ask the editor.

Another seemingly passionate writer was so excited to be reviewing during the Fringe that she claimed that she nearly fainted with excitement when she passed one of the Fringe venues before the festival started. Her emails told me how delighted she was to be working at the Fringe, until suddenly, after reviewing 5 shows, she emailed to say that she couldn’t review as something had come up.

A few weeks later a theatre company contacted us to say that this writer had booked to see their show (not to review it, but as a paying member of the public) and had asked for a refund. Unfortunately, during this email conversation, they mentioned that they were a reviewer, which made the company defensive, as it sounded as if the writer was trying to use their reviewing status to get their money back.

I don’t think they were trying to do this, and it could be that because of their lack of experience in the industry that they naively thought this it would ok, but they reacted very defensively to my emails asking them about it. They refused to explain anything and they told me I’d handled the situation very badly and demanded to be taken off our reviewing team.

After this, I kept the enthusiastic ones at arm’s length. It’s usually the safest thing to do for me. Be keen, just not overly keen, because it doesn’t last.

Assume Nothing

I know that I’m repeating a point I made earlier in the post, but if I could give new writers one piece of advice, then it would be this: never assume, always ask for clarification.

If you’re booking your tickets, and you’ve not heard back from the venue, don’t assume that the tickets are there, phone the venue press office and ask. This will save you time and energy later on.

If you’re not sure about something an editor has asked you to do, email them back and ask again. I would say that most of the problems that I have had to deal with as an editor have stemmed from people not being clear and doing what they think is right, not what is right. Remember, your editor was new at this once too, email, call, text, tweet, just get in touch with them and ask.

If you have not heard from your editor, email them again and reconnect. Inboxes fill up quickly, so you need to keep pushing yourself to the top of the pile. Don’t assume that an editor has asked you to do something, or wants you to do something. Email and ask.

The Editor Is Not Always Right

Despite appearances, editors are only human, they aren’t infallible, and they make mistakes. However, unlike writers, editors have a lot more responsibility on their shoulders, and have to consider a number of issues.

The editor’s word is final, so arguing with them is not always a good idea, but if you feel that they’ve made an error, you have the right to reply. I was once a little heavy-handed when editing a review, and the writer sent me a very strong email, arguing that they refused to be “censored” and other words informing me that they were really very cross about what I’d done.

We eventually came to an agreement, and they were happy, but I stand by my initial thoughts that a synopsis should never be two paragraphs long, ever.

However, and I cannot stress this enough, don’t argue with the editor when you’re applying for work, because the editor knows the publication they work for better than you, and gets emails from people like you everyday. Persistence is a great trait to have, but don’t take it too far, and remember to be thankful for any feedback that you get, because in this industry, you won’t get very much.

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Seven Tips for the First-Time EdFringe Critic

25 Jul
EdFringe 2010

EdFringe Photo by DaveMcKFlit, used under a Creative Commons Licence

The Edinburgh Fringe Festival is nearly upon us! Posters are already appearing all over the city, venues are creaking into life, and performers from far and wide are descending on Auld Reekie at an almost unnerving speed.

I often read guides to the Fringe that were written for and by performers, audience members and marketing types. However, I feel that it would be remiss not to not give first-time EdFringe Critics, and critics who aren’t familiar with the city, a bit of guidance for their Festival debut, since it can be a very busy, very strange, but very fun time.

So, without any further introduction, here is my guide on how to survive the Fringe as a new critic.

1. Paper and Pen Are Your Friend

Yes, before we had computers, we had pen and paper, and things were a lot simpler if you ask me.

Anyway, always take a notebook and pen with you wherever you go – if your iPad/laptop/smartphone freezes or runs out of battery, they will be useful. A notebook will allow you to make inconspicuous notes in the auditorium – have you ever seen someone making notes on a phone or an iPad during a performance? I have, and not only is it extremely rude, it’s also pretty idiotic. Don’t be that person.

2. D.K.Y = Don’t Kill Yourself

I’m not saying the Fringe will drive you to suicide, all I’m saying is, don’t book too many shows on one day. Remember, the downside to seeing several shows in one day is that you will have to write a review for each of them. When it gets to 5am, and you still have reviews to write, but you can’t for the life of you remember what that piece you saw at 2pm was about, then you’re in trouble.

Know your limits, don’t burnout.

3. Be Nice

During the Fringe you will meet lots of different people; but it’s a very busy period, and so these people will be stressed, just like you. As a journalist, you are viewed as a representative of your publication, so, it’s a good idea to be nice.

Be nice to other journalists. Be nice to bar staff. Be nice to venue staff. Be nice to press staff. If you’re rude to people, you will get a bad reputation and people will not want to work with you. I worked for years in retail, and as anyone who has worked in retail will tell you, it’s really not very nice to be shouted at.

So, if something goes wrong, if a ticket isn’t where it should be, or phone calls are not being answered, be polite, but firm. People are more likely to help a critic that says “I really need to see this show, is there any way that you can fit me into this performance?” rather than the “What do you mean my ticket isn’t there? DON’T YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”

You are a critic, you are not a god.

4. The Royal Mile

Unless you want to move at a pace that would make the average snail blush, and get weighed down by an insane amount of flyers, avoid The Royal Mile.

It’s a lovely street, and if you must visit it, go early in the morning, for after around 10am, it fills with performers, more performers, flyerers and by passers who have no sense of space, time or an idea of what walking in a straight line entails.

5. Princes Street

Ok, so this isn’t probably the most important piece of information I can give you about the Fringe, but there is a big street in Edinburgh City Centre, it’s full of shops, it’s very famous, and it’s called Princes Street.

I’ll say it again, Princes Street. It’s masculine, there is no extra ‘s’. However, far too many people call it “Princess Street”, this is incorrect. If you ask for directions to “Princess Street” I am not going to give you any, because no such street exists in the city. Please, call it Princes Street.

6. Give Yourself Extra Travelling Time

During any other Month in Edinburgh, getting from somewhere like the Grassmarket to North Bridge takes around 5-10 minutes, depending on your route.

However, during August, this will take double that, because of the sheer amount of people trying to do the same thing. In fact, I once missed getting to a show at the Underbelly in the Grassmarket – by a minute, no exaggeration – because it had taken me so long to get from The Spaces @ Surgeons’ Hall to the Underbelly (a trip that takes literally no time at all) because of all the people in my way.

The staff were really very apologetic; they’d just closed the doors, and they led onto the stage, so I really would be interrupting the performance, and so, with a heavy heart, I had to phone my editor, and let them know that I couldn’t see the show. They were surprisingly ok about it, but it was embarrassing for me, it was unprofessional, and as the show went on to get great reviews, I missed out on a really strong show.

7. Sit Near the Door

I’ve been reviewing the Fringe since 2009 and if you can take away one piece of advice from me, please, sit near the door when you’re at a Fringe show.

Why? This means you can slip out of the show quicker – be that when it finishes, or earlier. There is no shame in leaving a bad Fringe show early, just do it quietly and without drawing any attention to yourself.

There have been more than a few occasions when, during a particularly bad show, I have lamented my choice of seat, as leaving the venue would involve having to cross the stage, and do some kind of walk of shame out the door. I don’t have the balls to do that yet. I have sat through a lot of bad theatre.

I have only ever walked out of one Fringe show, and that was because it was running over by half an hour and showed no signs of stopping. It was also the worst show I’d ever seen in 5 years of reviewing, so that had something to do with it.

Have I missed anything out? Is there anything else you would like to know? Get in touch and let me know!

Critics and the Theatre Industry

2 Mar
Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

Photo by Horia Varlan, shared under a Creative Commons licence

The thing about being a theatre critic, or a critic of any art form, is that you can often feel like you’re standing in front of a locked door,  trying to find a way to get in. For example, you may give a show a very positive review only to have your work ignored by the PR team, who choose reviews from a bigger publication over yours. When you write for a smaller, or less established publication, you are the smallest fish in the biggest pond, a pond that only becomes more vast when thoughtless PRs make comments like: “Oh, glad you’re all here, but just to let you know we were really hoping for FAMOUS SUCCESSFUL CRITIC to come along.” And yes, this did happen to a friend of mine as they stood in the foyer of a theatre, with other local critics waiting to review a show.

Sometimes you’re popular; the phone never stops ringing, the emails never stop dropping into your inbox, and these emails are quickly joined by follow-up emails, checking that you received the first email. Sometimes your website crashes because of the sheer number of people trying to get on it to read reviews and get your email address to tell you about another show that you have to review. Other times, friends you haven’t seen or heard from for a while will leap out of the ether, inviting you to review their new show, saying, ” We must catch up, it’s been too long!” only for your enthusiastic response to go unnoticed; calls are missed, texts are forgotten, and back into the ether they go. You have no idea how much we critics suffer, I mean, really.

I’m being dramatic here, but the truth is, that being a critic can be a lonely existence sometimes; spending long nights in front of the computer, trying to write your seventh review of the day, is necessary, it’s what we signed up for when we took the first step on the broken cobbled road that leads to becoming a critic. But that doesn’t mean that these nights are easy, or enjoyable, and sometimes they can be pretty isolating – have you ever stayed up so late that nobody else seems to be on Twitter? It’s very odd.

While I can’t speak for other critics, I put everything I have at that moment into my reviews, but even then, I have off days. I’ve had days where summing up a simple synopsis takes too long, and days when my writing is so poor, and so utterly unreadable that I’m begging my editor for a late pass so I can attempt to completely rewrite the piece. I’ve had weeks when the prospect of writing another review fills me with dread, when writer’s block has had me staring at a blank word document wondering what the Hell I am doing and why on earth I keep doing this to myself.

I’ve had days when comments on my work have made me glad I chose this path, and days when a simple error on a review, or an omitted piece of information has The Reader completely doubting me, my work and my reasons for reviewing. As a reviewer you get used to the angry commenter’s cry of, “Oh, what do you know, you’re just a failed and bitter director/actor/producer/playwright.” Although, from experience, I’ve found the commenters that are the most vicious and the most personal in their insults of a critic are usually connected to the show that I’ve reviewed – whether they are directly involved with the show in some way, or they are related to someone in the production.

That is not to say critics are infallible, because no one is. It’s impossible to never make mistakes. Errors can range from spelling and grammatical errors, to factual howlers and even, wait for it, a lack of writing talent. Every critic has a different style; you get the A.A. Gills of the world who seem to delight taking cruel swipes at those in the spotlight (remember what he said about Professor Mary Beard?) There are others who specialise in schmoozing; the ‘Star Fuckers’, who slither up to actors and directors to tell them facetiously how wonderful they are, and how much they enjoyed their work, before desperately attempting to become part of their entourage. One of my biggest pet peeves is the critic who just wants to see shows for free, because for these critics, their writing is just an afterthought – these are the critics that give the rest of us a bad name. The ones that don’t fact check, make sweeping statements, offend the director and the actors with their poor words, the ones that arrive late to shows, the ones that are rude to press officers, PRs and FOH staff. I have no time for these people, and frankly, neither should anyone in the industry, this is not the way to move criticism forward.

So, this morning, I read, with interest, Jethro Compton’s Angry Young Man blog post, in which he argued passionately that the relationship between the media and the theatre industry must change, and I whole-heartedly agree. Although I believe that when Mr Compton refers to ‘Edinburgh’ in the post he means the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and not just the city itself, and that being an unprofessional writer doesn’t automatically mean that you are a bad writer. I could be defined as not being professional, simply because I don’t get a regular income from my writing, something which my bank account likes to remind me. Yet, I would say that my writing style is more professional than amateur.

The theatre industry critics need each other in order to survive, and as a new generation of theatre makers and arts journalists are swelling the ranks on either side, we must come to a mutual understanding of our intertwined industries. Criticism, for me, comes out of my respect and love of the arts; I don’t want to see anyone fail, I simply want to see them creating pieces that they, and by extension, I, can be proud of.

I am an Angry Young Woman, and critics and theatre practitioners both work in industries where our errors, failures and other issues are played out in public, so let’s break down the barriers and smash open the locked doors that sit between us and let’s get the theatre industry and the press working together, so that we can all start yelling, and yelling together about the ongoing issues that affect the media and the arts.

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