How to be a reviewer

Chortle's style guide for writers

As the Edinburgh Fringe begins, a raft of comedy fans will be picking up their pens to become critics, many with little previous experience. So what better reason to share the guidelines we give to anyone writing for Chortle for the first time? They outline our preferred writing and reviewing style, and are neither hard-and-fast rules nor universally relevant to other publications or writers. But it might be useful to put them into the public domain.

Chortle reviewer’s style guide

These are all general guidelines and rules are meant to be broken – but do it for a reason!

Reviews should aim to be at least 350 words long. Don’t worry if it’s a bit short, but try not to be consistently under. There’s no upper limit, though – if you want to wax lyrical, do, but don’t be verbose.

Be honest. Don’t feel you have to go out-and-out to slate a disappointing show, but don't deliberately seek out redeeming features either to be overly kind. Likewise don’t gush about a simply above-average show; but don’t try to pick fault for the sake of it.

Avoid quoting gags. You may need to do so occasionally to make a point or or to criticise a particular line, but generally you shouldn’t do this at all. Mentioning verbatim things the comic may say that explains the show or the point of view or their personality is fine. But not, as a rule, the punch lines.

Try to keep yourself out of the review, as much as possible. You tend not to need to say things like ‘I thought…’ etc. Again, sometimes it’s inevitable when you’re expressing something that’s obviously personal. But the whole piece is an opinion, and you can generally just state X was rubbish/great and why, you don’t need to explain that it’s what you think.

But also explain as clearly as you can why something his funny or not, don’t just state it. That’s not always easy as comedy is such an instinctual thing, but at least try.

Finding synonyms for funny isn’t easy, either, but try to avoid over-stating the case. ‘Hilarious’, particularly, is a top-drawer adjective and should only be used when it genuinely evokes hilarity, not as a substitute for ‘amusing’. I know people use it in conversation to describe the most mildly smile-inducing incident – but think if you would be happy if this word – or any phrase you use come to mention it – was plastered over the comic’s next poster in 120pt as a one-word summary of the whole show.

On the flip side, avoid gratuitous abuse of the ‘I would rather stick Aids-infected needles into my eyeballs than endure another minute of this…’ kind. Everyone enjoys a really withering put-down, and I wouldn’t discourage that, but a precise analysis of why something failed is better than thoughtless insults.

If you’re clearly in a minority in your opinion of the show, you have to find a way of mentioning it. If you think it’s rubbish, but the room is in hysterics you have to concede that; likewise if you think they’re a star and no one else is getting it, you have to admit they’re not doing the fundamental thing of making the room laugh. But the review you give is ultimately based on your reaction, not that of strangers. Generally write in the present tense – ‘this is a great show’ – but if you’re referring to something that happened specific to the one performance, you’ll have to change it. ‘Tonight, he was thrown by a persistent heckler…’

Prefer short words over long words, the active voice over the passive one. Don’t be a pompous arse; it’s comedy.

Avoid too many lily-livered qualifying words like ‘a tad’, ‘somewhat’, ‘to a degree’ – it suggests you can’t make up your mind.

Try to avoid saying ‘the show’ too often, partly to avoid repetition, but a lot of the time it’s a signal that the sentence can be better expressed. Frequently you can remove the offending clause altogether, which ends up making the piece tighter; or sometimes re-examining the sentence means you can approach it from a different direction. It’s worth reading back over to try to exorcise as many ‘shows’ as possible.

Generally, don’t urge people to go and see the show (or stay away!) as this is overused. From your description of the show and your comments, it should be obvious to the reader whether they will like it or not, there should be no need to spell it out.

For stars, 5 is exemplary, a must-see show of the festival. 4 is an active recommendation, not just ‘better than average’. If you’re wavering between two star ratings, tend towards three. ie 4.5 goes to 4, 3.5 goes to 3 – but 2.5 goes to 3 and 1.5 goes to 2. It’s a bell curve so threes will outnumber the others by far; that’s fine. Even if the comics might not necessarily want a 3*, the truth is most will fall somewhere around that.

Mention the comic’s name in full first time around, then just the surname.

Please sign off with Show Name is on at Venue at Time. Or as close to that as makes sense. You only need to mention days on or off if it’s particularly odd.

This is the least hard and fast rule of the lot, but it’s often a good idea to get your conclusion in the first paragraph, then expand on it. It might help get you started if you can’t see an angle, if nothing else.

Check any facts, especially names, you’re unsure of.

For titles of books, shows, films etc, cap every first letter (even of short words like of), but no need to put in quotes, eg The Phantom Of The Opera,

Broadly, for house style about words with alternative spellings etc, use the Guardian style guide’s advice. It’s online at http://www.guardian.co.uk/styleguide/" - though it might be overruled.

Published: 31 Jul 2013

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