We’ve all read reviews by critics and reviewers in the past, and wondered about the person behind the review. For performers and creatives the impact of reviews can be considerable, as for audiences a review can determine whether we see a show or not. But is is hard to write a review?

Writing a review can be hard, but if you understand the structure that most reviews take, and have a formula you believe in, then writing reviews can be a lot easier and fun. Make sure to study the work of your favourite reviewers closely, and read our tips below for further guidance.

The Pros and Cons of Writing a Review

Writing a review comes with a lot of pros and cons to consider. The pros include that you get to see shows for free, that you can be paid to review professionally, and that you can make a contribution to the field your reviewing. Cons include that it’s very easy to make enemies.

Make sure to read on where we go into greater depths regarding all elements of reviewing live performance.

What Makes a Live Performance Good?

What makes a live performance good is the question at the heart of reviewing. Personal taste is a very important element, but you should also display your industry knowledge to help you place this performance in a hierarchy with other performances of a similar type.

Call on your knowledge of all aspects of the form that you are reviewing. For instance, if reviewing theatre you must remember to not just focus on the action and directing. It is best practice to reflect on set design, lighting design, sound design, and costuming too! Amongst other things.

This article discusses techniques to help you write a better review of theatre, musical theatre, opera, concerts, ballet, and just about any type of performance. I’ve been reviewing shows professionally for three or four years now, and I hope the tips below are helpful.  

Why are Reviews Important?

Remember reviewing is an artform, and has the potential to become part of the fabric of the performance industry in your country. It’s an important job. A lot of prominent awards are also adjudicated by reviewers (partially because they’re some of the only people who see all the shows).

How do I Write a Review of a Live Performance?

First of all, there’s no single formula for writing a review of a live performance. The best approach is to look at some of your favourite reviews, and then break down exactly what the author or critic does in each paragraph. You might want to consider including an introductory paragraph that sets the scene and gives key information.

How do I Begin a Review of a Live Performance?

Begin a review of a live performance by covering the basic facts. What kind of show is this exactly? Who wrote it, and where is it playing? The first paragraph sets the tone of the piece i.e. ‘In this wonderful show …’ It’s often that first critical adjective that readers are scanning for. 

In the second paragraph you might like to consider diving more deeply into the history of the work. When was the ballet first performed for instance? Are there any remarkable facts about its first performance, or who it was commissioned by? Deepen the reader’s understanding of the context of the work.

What Makes a Live Performance Successful?

You should weigh up what kind of audience is likely to consider this live performance to be successful. You have now given all the factual information, perhaps the reader would like to know what the story is actually about to assess whether this is the kind of show they would like to see.

What Should a Review Include?

Your review should include a summary of the plot, without necessarily giving away the ending, or creating too many spoilers. Try to think, what would you like to know before seeing the show? Perhaps the names of the main characters, and the basic premise and underling conflict in the piece.

Whether this is a tragedy or a comedy. What is the tone? Can the audience expect to laugh or cry? 

How to Evaluate a Live Performance?

Now you’ve given lots of objective, factual information. One of the jobs of the reviewer is also to evaluate. To provide the reader with an assessment of the quality of the work. It’s a good idea to turn your attention to as many areas of the production as you feel comfortable assessing.

What Should a Reviewer Not Do?

It’s important not to forgot to mention people’s names. It’s industry standard to mention the name of relevant persons i.e. the director, or the set designer (as well as the performers of course). Let’s take a theatrical production for instance. What did you think of the set design?

Did it serve the piece well? Were there any risks taken? Do you feel the design was effective? Apply the same questions to costume, lighting design, props, sound design, composition, performance.

Finally, how do you feel the director has done overall? Have they brought all these elements together effectively to create a wonderful evening of entertainment? 

How Do I End a Review of a Live Performance?

At the end of your review you might like to give a recommendation as to whether you believe the reader should see this production, or whether it is worth the ticket price. As with a good essay, it might be worth considering what further conversations this piece may spark in the future. 

What Skills do you Need to be a Reviewer?

You may not need any skills to be a reviewer but here are some considerations: many reviewers get started by reviewing at university dramatic societies, in the university student paper. Another way is to offer to write for free for publications that do not pay reviewers (free tickets).

What Qualifies a Critic?

You don’t need any special qualifications to be a critic. You will succeed as a critic based on the strength of your reviews. However, to get started there are some degrees and types of training that will make you look professional. English degrees, and Journalism for example!

Should I Review a Live Performance for Free?

You should consider starting a reviewing career by writing for free. Here’s a tip: next time you attend a performance, write a review of it! Once you have three of these reviews, try sending them out to publications and asking if the publication would like to take you on as a reviewer.

It’s not a bad idea to send these reviews out widely to as many places as possible, because remember you only need one to say yes.

Can I Have a Career as a Critic?

Being a full time critic is very rare, but not impossible. It’s common for most critics to do some paid work in criticism, but also to have a secondary job in a related field. For instance a journalist might write book reviews. However there are some full time reviewing gigs out there – so keep an eye out!

Reviews tend to pay between $0 and $300 – so they are usually not enough to pay the bills unless you are doing a lot!

Why Do We Hate Critics?

Not everyone hates critics, but lots of people love to hate them. Reviewing is a tactful job and each reviewer will have to develop their own code of ethics. It is wise to remember that if you hated an element of a production, that many others may not feel the same way.

If you seek to make enemies as a critic you will likely achieve that objective very quickly. If you are tactful and respectful you are likely to make people less irate.

Do Critics Have a Responsibilities?

People who work in performance are often employed on short term contracts, and in that environment reputation is absolutely everything. If you damage someone’s professional reputation on a whim, you may experience feelings of regret.

Is it OK to Write a Bad Review?

If someone is truly awful you should feel free to say so, but don’t underestimate the impact of such an evisceration. Temper your praise and criticisms. Remember the people you are reviewing are likely not amateurs who are doing this for fun and love, but who are at work, to put food on the table. 

Are Critics Out of Touch?

Some people accuse critics of being out of touch. One way to avoid this in your own writing is to make sure to know the field you are writing about. Only offer theatre criticism if you know the theatrical world well. And make sure to speak to all kinds of people in a profession to stay in touch!

Tips on Being a Critic

Once you get your reviewing up and running it will add a new dimension to your life that can be deeply rewarding and really improve your quality of life. Remember that newspapers and certain websites also pay so keep approaching them for work as your skills as a reviewer develop and mature.

How to Improve as a Critic

To improve as a critic and write better criticism it’s a great idea to keep reading the highest quality professional reviews, and analysing them to see what works best. Consider studying a course that improves writing skills or cultural appreciation. Practice, practice, practice!


Oliver Adams

Letter Review was founded by Oliver Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Oliver Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. He has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.