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Writing for Us

CurtainUp Writing Guidelines

by Elyse Sommer


Basic qualification. Want to write for CurtainUp? The first and most important qualification is a no brainer. You must love the theater, know enough about dramas and musicals to offer intelligent appraisals, and like writing. The second must is reliability. When you commit yourself to being available on a regular basis and to be at the theater on time (that doesn't mean arriving at 8pm for an 8pm show, but at least fifteen minutes before) and being available on a regular basis. Coverage we're currently interested in: Off and Off-Off-Broadway shows- in New York - especially writers interested in off-beat, new cutting edge work; also Chicago and San Francisco. If you're interested, please read the writing guidelines below and send an e-mail telling us about yourself, availability and include h some writing samples to Elyse Sommer.

Length. Unlike in print publications CurtainUp allows you space to express yourself -- with a big cast play or musical, a review can go to 1500 words. In fact, we consider any review under 500 words a bit skimpy. The average length of our reviews is between 500 and 900 words.

Format. As every publication has its own format so do we. Whenever possible, we like to put a pertinent quotation (with attribution as to who said it) at the top of the review. Such quotes must make sense out of context (what's funny while you're watching, can fizzle and become meaningless when isolated).

Each review ends with complete production notes -- the play title; playwright; cast credits (usually the actor with the role played after a / or in parentheses); designer credits; the running time and whether it includes an intermission; the address, phone # and/or web site for buying tickets, the length of the run and opening date, the date when the performance was seen. A template for this is available.

Titles of plays are italicized, song titles are in quotes. While a knowledge of html language is nice, it's is not a must though regular contributors make themselves little macros for certain frequently used codes.

Punctuation. Unlike some people, we do not consider the semicolon dead. However, don't confuse it with another still useful mark, the colon. Those two little dots on top of each other are useful for pointing a reader to a examples or descriptive words, and in doing so avoid run-on sentences. Here are two examples.
1. The play's main flaw: too many subplots, conflicting details.
2. Most viewers will agree on one point: The play's characters engage us emotionally.

Semicolons are handy for combining disparate but related, thoughts and keeping a list from being too long. Two examples follow.
1. As I left the theater I found myself thinking about the main character; She stirred memories of my own childhood. 2. The cast is outstanding; actor A, is endearing in the leading role; actor B, is a fine comic foil; x, y and z handle a variety of subsidiary roles.

As for the writing itself, check your writing against what I call The 5 C's of Good Critical Writing below.

The 5 C's of Good Critical Writing
1. Be Clear.
—Use short, crisp sentences, as your building blocks.
— Organize your sentences so that the ideas flow naturally.
—Use active rather than passive verbs.
—Avoid adjective overkill by substituting one or two for a string of bland, vague adjectives.
—A casual, chatty style is fine, but don't overdo on breaking established rules such as sentences starting with "but." and don't get casual about correct punctuation (for example, abbreviations like e.g. should be treated as abbreviations which means including the periods).
— Get into the electronic thesaurus habit. The dictionary/thesaurus at Reference.com is my favorite and can be put on your Internet Explorer Links bar for ready access. (type the URL into the address bar, then 1. click on "Favorites" 2. Click "Add to Favorites" 3. When "Create In" comes up highlight " Links")
— When a sentence begins to look like a paragraph, use Microsoft Word's word counter and consider breaking up any sentence over 40 words into two shorter, and clearer ones.
—Be specific (and fair) about why you like or don't like a play or a performance and make sure that your viewpoint is consistent throughout the review

2. Be Correct.
—Make sure that quotes are accurate and attributed to the right speaker.
—Use only reliable sources for background information. A fact garnered from a student or amateur-run home page should be double checked in an encyclopedia or a trusted internet site like the Internet Broadway Data Base or the Lucille Lortel Off-Broadway archives.
— Does the play you call a "classic" really warrant that tag or are you swallowing a press agent's hype?
—Don't rely on a spell checker to catch misspelled names, but check character and actor names against the program listings. —Read and re-read your review. A printout invariably reveals some glitches. A reading by someone else provides additional correctness and clarity insurance.

3. Be Concise.
—Put your writing on a Low Fat Diet.
—Start by re-reading the Be Clear section.
—Track down sentences that essentially repeat something already said. Pick the sentence that says it best and put it where it will make the most sense. — When criticizing some aspect of a production, make your point briefly but don't belabor it, or you'll risk sounding like a scold. Guard against linguistic fat traps like of, due to the fact, the majority of, despite the fact, to be Here are a few over-larded examples followed by a de-larded alternative:
the leading actor of the play
the play's leading actor
Due to the fact that the leading actor was ill, XYZ played the part of John Doe.
Because the leading actor was ill, XYZ played John Doe.
The majority of the actors had not yet learned their lines.
Most of the actors had not yet learned their lines.
The standout performance of the play.
The play's standout performance
Despite the fact that this is a long play, the time flew.
Although this is a long play, the time flew.
Harold Pinter has been widely acknowledged to be the master of the potent pause
Harold Pinter is the acknowledged master of the potent pause
4. Be Comprehensive.
—Conciseness is a linguistic virtue but it should never come at the cost of imprecision. A word left out of a sentence can often distract or confuse. Consider this sentence: "The character named Laura obviously mistrusts her supervisor's friendliness. This may be well founded , but her own hostility does nothing to ease the situation." The second sentence would be more precise if the "this" beginning were expanded into "This suspicion may be well founded."

—A comprehensive theater review should cover all aspects of a production: Writing, performances, direction, stagecraft. While readers want to know what a play is about, this does not mean you have to go into every plot detail, and it's best not to spoil any surprises. Reviewing a musical calls for attention to score, lyrics and choreography.

—Don't lock yourself into a set order of appraising a play's elements. —Take advantage of our archive of reviews Master Index of Reviews & Master Feature Index) as a reference source and to provide readers with links to pertinent information.

—Use another rule of 5 -- the 5 Ws of journalism --as an additional yardstick for comprehensiveness: WHO (wrote, directed and was featured), WHAT it's about, . WHERE it takes place, WHEN and WHY readers should or shouldn't see it.

5. Be Compelling.
—A compelling review grabs your attention and makes you want to read on even if you won't be able to see the play being evaluated, or the play doesn't seem to be worth seeing.
—A snappy opening instead of a nuts-and-bolts or lazy lead like "XYZ play has just opened at the Blank Theater is not going to be interchangeable with a half a dozen other reviews.
—As the grabber captures the reader, a compelling closer will leave them with a snap, crackle and pop windup.
— For the filling between the compelling opener and closer, regularly police yourself for trite and overused phrases to which it's easy to become attached. Even a phrase that once had life and color, tends to fray and weaken with overuse. That's not to say that these popular terms must never ever be used, but that it's a good idea to guard against relying on them too much. A periodic inventory of words and phrases you find yourself reaching for repeatedly is likely to include: luminous. . .evocative. . . career making performance. . .first and foremost . . .in the final analysis . . . all in all. . .as a matter of fact. . .  . . . needless to say. . . it is interesting to note or an interesting note is. . . darkly or wickedly funny. . .  edgy or cutting edge. . . epic. . . heady mix of. . .  high-octane. . . laughoutloud or laugh-out-loud funny. . . quibbles -- both major and minor. . . tour de force. . .  unforgettable or conversely, forgettable. . . coup de theater. . . it's a home run. . . a must-see. . . worth the price of admission to praise a performance or other show element seems to have hit a new high of popularity. . .very (does very really make a funny play funnier or a sad one sadder?). . .by the same token. . .


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©Copyright 2006, Elyse Sommer.
Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from esommer@curtainup.com