Why ‘bad’ reviews are equally valuable and how to do them well

Giving a negative review can be nerve wracking, especially for early career writers who don’t want a bad rep. But when done well, they can have immense value.

The changing nature of arts criticism has been a long topic of discussion, even concern.

With the variety of shows on offer today and the sheer amount of writers, what good is a ’bad’ review going to do? Wouldn’t it be easier to just move on from disappointment and instead write on something that you actually liked, rather than risk the backlash of being ’judging’ or ‘cruel’?

But bad reviews play a bigger role than expressing one person’s opinion. In the UK it’s often embraced as a launchpad for critical discussion while on the other hand a critic’s ’kindness’ can be more damaging – especially as the world tries to run through its backlog of shows – than good.

A ’bad’ review shouldn’t be poorly written or lack coherence – indeed, they should be referred to simply as negative reviews, those which are critical, informed, and analyses the work in light of reasonable expectations and contextual relevance.

ArtsHub spoke with our very own editors on the value of negatives reviews and how to express your opinion with professionalism.

Negative reviews encourage learning and improvement

National Performing Arts Editor Richard Watts said: ’Given the plethora of responses to works that exist online – including dashed-off tweets by disgruntled audience members as well as a wide range of responses on blogs, Facebook and a diverse range of media outlets – I’d argue that there’s actually a greater need for informed, incisive and accurate criticism than ever before.

Indeed, ’stellar reviews and negative reviews are equally about professional practice,’ said Gina Fairley, ArtsHub’s National Visual Arts Editor.

She continued: ‘While a good review might drive ticket sales or turn into promo tags for the producer or organiser, a negative review can play a more valuable role for an artist to address their professional practice, and help grow it forward.’

For Reviews Editor Thuy On, it’s about ’keeping the producers accountable to a standard that’s acceptable.’

‘Although no critic enjoys writing a ”bad” review, if taken in good faith, the theatre company or book publisher or any other art form under public scrutiny may even learn something about what to do next time to lessen the chances of receiving another bad review,’ said On.

Read: What makes a perfect book review?

Features Writer Suzannah Conway, and also a regular reviewer on ArtsHub, holds a similar view.

Conway said: ’[Negative reviews] are definitely worthwhile. A company/artist can only improve their work if they can understand or learn from the works that didn’t impress or failed to reach accepted standards.’

And also it’s important to keep in mind the time and effort that writers actually put towards constructed criticism in the hopes of prompting reflection and evaluation.

Conway continued: ‘It’s much harder to write a bad review than a good one, of course. It’s easier to wax lyrical than to have to carefully craft a sensible, logical response that will be helpful to the person/company reviewed and hopefully make them improve. That is a key value in being critical – an ability to offer meaningful and valid criticism, never to be offensive, personal or rude.’

Tips for writing a negative review

If you recently saw something that didn’t quite live up to the hype, ’be brave enough to believe in the strength of your convictions,’ said On.

She continued: ’If you genuinely believed the arts product you are reviewing is underwhelming, then say so unequivocally.’

The editors and writers shared their top three tips for writing an effective negative review.

Be professional, not personal

Fairley said: ’You’re a professional, so be professional. Try to remove the “personal” and make sure you filter your comments through that professional lens.

‘If you are making a criticism, reason why and give solid context for that argument. A good review always places what you are reviewing in a broader context that extends the reader.

In addition, ’avoid charged language,’ said Fairley. ‘Would you say this to their face? Think of a negative review as leaving breadcrumbs to continue the journey forward – for the reviewee to walk away from reading and say “I get what they are saying.”

Conway also emphasised the need to keep it professional. ‘Know what you are talking about – there’s no point being critical if you don’t know your stuff.’ 

Further, ‘there is no excuse for behaving badly and being rude. Just because you didn’t like it, doesn’t mean everyone feels the same way,’ said Conway.

Being ’logical and concise in your criticism’ is the way to go, where ’professional and unemotional is so much better than saying something subject like ”I really hated this!”

Read: How to handle criticism and naysayers

Back your argument with specific examples

Just as it’s better to be specific with the qualities of a show or person that you admire, specificity can be incredibly useful in criticism.

On said: ‘Ensure that you bring up specific examples on what the production performed below par to support your argument. For instance, was the narrative muddy and incomprehensible due to a surfeit of narrators jumping around over four generations? Was the pacing, costumes and lighting in the theatre space counterproductive to the themes of the play? Was the exhibition venue inappropriate for the scale of the visual displays?’

In the exercise of pinpointing specific examples, Watts said it’s important to ’engage with the work you saw, not the work you hoped to see.’

In his experience, bad reviews – ones are poorly written – often falls into this trap. ’God knows I wrote a few bad reviews early in my career when I was more concerned with my reaction to a work (my belief that something was good or bad) as opposed to recognising that I needed to engage with the work and consider what it had to say and how successfully it said it.’

Give praise where it’s due

Many of the advice highlighted that being critical doesn’t equate to being cruel.

Watts said: ’Try not to be cruel, tempting as it might be if the production seems truly dire. Remember that every work of art in every medium is a labour of love for the person or people who have made it, and temper your venom with praise where it’s due. Did you consider the script banal and the performances flat and lacking in chemistry? Then make sure you highlight what is deserving of praise, such as the sound design and lighting. 

Conway shared a similar view: ‘Be respectful – the artist/company have probably done their best to get this on and deserve respect for their attempt at the very least.’

In most cases, it’s not helpful to compare the reviewed to anyone else or another work. Rather, focus on the production or exhibition at hand, and what they did or didn’t achieve.  

Conway also gave tips on the use of language to soften the blow of a bad review. Suggestive phrases such as ’it seemed as if’ or ’it would appear that’ could help people see your argument more clearly.

A final word of advice: remember why you set out to write a negative review in the first case, and use these pointers to see if it’s been well thought out.

Watts concluded: ‘A negative review serves several purposes: on one level it’s feedback for the artist (hopefully not too scathing) which might help them reconsider that particular work in the future, once they’re no longer so close to it that they can’t recognise its flaws.

‘Negative reviews also serve to help document an artistic career, tracing one’s development and mastery of a medium; like all reviews, they serve as documentation – an especially important consideration where ephemeral artforms like live performance are concerned.

‘And finally, a negative review also serves to advise potential audience members as to whether a particular production is worth spending their time and money on – an important consideration when one takes into account the ticket price of many mainstage productions around the country,’ said Watts.

On also added: ‘Remember you are writing for a potential audience, visitor or reader. It behooves you as a critic to let them know what is in store: good and bad.’

Originally published: 5 September 2022.

Celina Lei is an arts writer and editor at ArtsHub. She acquired her M.A in Art, Law and Business in New York with a B.A. in Art History and Philosophy from the University of Melbourne. She has previously worked across global art hubs in Beijing, Hong Kong and New York in both the commercial art sector and art criticism. Most recently she took part in drafting NAVA’s revised Code of Practice - Art Fairs. Celina is based in Naarm/Melbourne.