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Episodes: The first rule of criticism


Emily VanDerWerff

Sep 17 2015

5 min read



(This was by far my favorite picture when I Google image searched "writing.")

People often ask me for writing advice.

Actually, that's not specifically true. Usually, when people ask me for writing advice, they're asking for career advice. They want to know how to go from where they are to the part where they're writing consistently and getting paid for it, and they usually don't want to hear the answer to how you make that happen, which mostly involves lots of work and a tiny smidgen of luck, as most things in life do.

People generally don't want writing advice, because they assume they already know how to write. Writing is an unusual skill, because you don't really have to do anything to acquire it. You learn how to write somewhere in the first or second grade, and from then on, you have it as a skill. The vast majority of people who want to be writers have been told, somewhere along the line, that they're pretty good. And it's not hard, right? You just sit down and do it!

I say all of the above, because I was the person who believed all of that when I got out of college and moved to LA, figuring somebody would eventually give me money to be A WRITER. When it didn't happen, I quickly grew disillusioned and bitter, never figuring that all of the problems were with me and none were with the world at large. Fortunately for me, all I knew HOW to do was write, so I just kept doing it, until I had the clips necessary to move up in the world. But that took years.

So here's the thing: To get a career as a writer, you have to be better. I say this not just to you, but also to me. The only way to keep moving in the direction I want to go in is to keep improving, a little bit, every day. (One of the reasons I went to Vox was because I wasn't precisely sure how to write there, whereas I had a bag of tricks I had more than exhausted at AV Club. Vox scared me a little, which meant it was probably the right move.) The question, of course, is how to get better.

I run an annual event that I wish I could expand (even though I know doing so is impossible). In it, I commission writing from young amateur critics around the world. I read their pieces and offer notes. It's fun, and I've found some terrific writers in the process of doing so. But I've also read enough pieces that weren't quite there to have a few general guidelines.

The first of them is this: When writing criticism, you need to remember that nobody cares what you think.

That sounds harsh, and it sounds paradoxical. After all, criticism is literally just your opinion, defended. Wouldn't that, on some level, be all about what you think? But the key word in all of this is "defended." In and of itself, your opinion is unremarkable.

On some level, every critical opinion boils down to "I liked it!" or "I didn't like it!" There will be degrees, of course, but all of our opinions land on that binary. And, ultimately, that's not a very interesting thing to say! Anybody can go to a movie and say whether they liked it or not. They're coming to you to tell them why they did, and that's much tougher.

So the reason you remember that nobody cares what you think is because it helps you understand that your job is to make them care what you think. Maybe that means conveying superior technical knowledge. Maybe it means that your writing is so crystalline that the reader wants to simply enjoy it for what it is. Maybe it means you find a way to evoke an emotional response. Maybe it's none of the above. Maybe it's all of the above.

I find a lot of young critics think that having an opinion, expressed in a bunch of different ways, is enough. It's enough to say, "I liked this" or "I didn't like this" several times over, so long as your level of hyperbole steadily grows from one sentence to the next. (This is particularly dangerous in negative reviews, where the temptation for an endless stream of snark is always present.) But remember: all you're doing is giving your reader a chance to tune you out, especially if they sit on the opposite side of the binary from you.

So don't do that. State your opinion, yes, but then find a way to stake your claim. You'll be surprised how much better your writing will get once that's done.


Episodes is published daily, Monday through Friday, unless I don't feel like it. It is mostly about television, except when it's not. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox Dot Com.

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