Everyone’s a critic: seven criticism tips from Michael Phillips

Michael Phillips, the lead film critic for The Chicago Tribune

By Tim Rosenberger

Michael Phillips, the lead film critic for The Chicago Tribune and formerly its theater critic, sat down last Friday at Tribune Tower to discuss criticism writing with a group of Medill students. For those who want a peek into the job of a critic, Medill Reports has collected the top seven tips Phillips offered in his talk.

1. Don’t write about just one thing. If I didn’t have film as a strong interest and some skill to go with the theater, I would’ve burned out [a] long time ago.

2. We [critics] do cover a lot of news. We do a lot of different kinds of writing. It’s not just criticism. Luckily, you meet a lot of wonderful people on this job, famous and not famous, and it helps you learn things. The dumbest critics I know are the most insular, who don’t treat it like continuing education or don’t take the opportunities to write different kinds of pieces and interviews and just figure out what’s in the world.

3. You have to ask these questions:

A. Would I read past this lede personally? You have to be your own, not adversary, but your own skeptic. You’re the critic, and you’re the skeptical editor. You have to be both of those people when you’re writing.

B. Am I trying to do too much in the lede? That’s a fatality for most of us. We get stuck struggling with how to start because we’re trying to sum too much up in the lede. We’re trying to overpack the luggage. Find a smaller piece of luggage. Find one thing that’s really on your mind about that thing. Just one, and it doesn’t have to be the most important thing. It just has to be one telling aspect of your reaction that you can start talking with.

4. You have to start thinking about the furniture that actually has to be in any review no matter what kind of critic you are. You know, just basics. Title, who directed it [and] a little bit about the plot. [But] everything in life is more interesting than a plot summary. A lot of what slows us down in reviewing is we get clogged up by, “Okay, how much of the plot do I have to go through?” Often we end up devoting a little too much space to a lot of narrative rehash that any monkey could do. [Write] just enough plot description to not frustrate the reader. You don’t want to get them to the point where they’re like, “Yes, but what is it about?” Just like you don’t want to frustrate them into asking the question, “Yes, but what did you think?”

5. Love is not enough. Hate is not enough. Boredom is not enough. You have to get to the why. “Why?” is the most important question you have to keep answering in the review. It’s not enough to say “I loved it. I hated it. I was bored.” You have to provide the evidence [and] the details.

6. As a critic, half of your year is spent writing about stuff that’s just okay. This is why you have to be very careful, asking yourself when you reread your review, “Is this what I really think?” Because often mixed reviews have a weird way of sliding up or down. It’s a little easier, and often quite a bit easier, to really love or really hate something than to just grapple in this horrible middle ground, which is realistically half your year.

7. Does this sound like me? Often when we write reviews, stuff ends up reading like somebody’s idea of what a review should sound like, and it sounds like nobody in particular wrote it. And I’m not saying you got to have tons of first-person in it, or any, necessarily, but it just has to sound like you. A good newspaper [or] any kind of good home for writing should have a pretty wide variety of voices in it or it’s not doing its job.

[This transcript has been edited by Medill Reports.]

Photo at top: Michael Phillips speaks to Medill graduate students about criticism writing. (Madison Hopkins/MEDILL)