Much like love, writing can be an obsessive, all-consuming form of joy and torment. Still, there are those of us who feel that a life without writing is one with little meaning.
Currently, Frieze Academy is holding a series of talks, workshops and symposiums exploring multiple aspects of the various worlds of art and culture, given by key speakers and experts in their fields. On Saturday, April 30th, I went to the workshop How to write about art with Jennifer Higgie (writer, co-editor of Frieze and editor of Frieze Masters Magazine). It ignited questions I had laxly forgotten to ask myself: how should I write about art? How should I approach editors and publishing houses? What questions should I ask myself as an art writer?
Like many artists and freelance writers trying to keep a roof over their head in London, I also work in a pub. After returning home from work at about 2am, I looked through the handouts given to me at Frieze Academy and read a piece written by Higgie titled, Please Me, Why do so many galleries and museums describe art in language that sucks the life out of it?
Then I decided to look over my past reviews and coiled in embarrassment. I had used the words Higgie suggested were insipid and used far too frequently in press releases, which make “pompous and hollow boasts” about art. Words such as: poetic, merging boundaries, subjectivity, subverting (three times), and provoking. I had sought to aggrandise the artworks I described but instead merely reduced them to the most bastard form of speech.
I feared I had killed my career as an art writer. The words I had written were irrevocable, branded on the Internet. This is where, as Higgie also suggested in the talk, “writers must have a thick skin.” Her generosity of knowledge reminded me not be complacent, to strive to be the best and learn from my failings and my humiliation. After all, we are all fallible beings.
So, below are a few things I learnt on the process of publishing and art writing from Jennifer Higgie and her guest speaker, writer Charlie Fox. You can accept or reject these rules as you see fit and can certainly play with them.
Have difficult conversations with yourself
Are you a good writer? This is not the easiest question to ask, especially for many of us who suffer from self-doubt, but the only thing you can do is to be honest with yourself. Why do you want to do this? What can you offer the world of art writing that nobody else can? As Jennifer Higgie stated, “There’s not one art world; it’s not a monolithic industry.” There are various imaginative ways you can write about art and different forms you’re writing can take now, so, what kind of art writer do you want to be?
Pleasure is not a sin
Writing should be a pursuit of pleasure. You should have fun writing, take pleasure in it. If you’re bored of what you’re writing or what you’re writing about, your audience will be bored too.
Obscurity isn’t sexy
Don’t alienate people from the conversation with jargon or theoretical language. Less is more, and an intelligent writer will be able to take a complex idea and simplify it with clarity.
Use your imagination
Be creative; writing can be idiosyncratic. Don’t be afraid to use humour. Experiment with the tone, form and style of each piece. Try to avoid clichés at all costs and resist platitudes. Try placing things that don’t belong together and see what happens.
Proof like a professor
Proofread every word and sentence, over and over, and over again. Grammar is important. Make sure you always do a spellcheck. Check your metaphors; make sure someone hasn’t used them before. Read your work out loud to yourself to hear the rhythms; you will be able to see what is working and what sounds awkward or jarring.
Be a bookworm
Be excited by things, by life. All great art writers and critics are good readers. Read, watch, listen to as many things that feed your interest and develop your knowledge. Be up to date with the main debates surrounding what’s going on in the art world. Know your field.
Do not expect anyone to hand you the world. Create it yourself.
Don’t wait for a job to be advertised. Otherwise, you’ll be up against 500 people or more applying for the same position. Independently research different publications and decide which one you would like to write for. Send the editor an email directly. It’s better to write one or two focused emails than sending 200 generic emails.
Keep it pithy and precise. Don’t write a 1,000-word long email, an editor won’t have the time to read it. Be polite but not too familiar. Tell them why you’re interested in writing for them and why you like the publication. Write a few sentences about yourself, your experience, your interests, and your specialisms – tell them your strengths. It may seem a simple thing to forget but make sure you say what part of the world you are based in. An editor may be really interested in having a writer based in Brazil, for instance, if that part of the art world is not being covered. Attach a piece of your writing.
Most magazines don’t commission unsolicited articles so don’t send out cold pieces of writing to be published. When you’re pitching an idea to an editor look through the publications archives, find out what they haven’t covered, as much as what they are covering. Find out what is coming up over the next months that’s really interesting, a centenary of a show for example. The hook is the most important thing.
Make your own website. This is a great way to make it easy for an editor to access your writing quickly. Make sure it’s got a clean layout in terms of style and content.
Attention to detail
Always fact check, title and date the work, source interesting images and sort out licensing and copyright when possible.
Know your audience and your publications
Who’s your audience? Is it a specialist audience or a general audience? Each publication will have its own voice. Get to know their tone, form and style. You should know the difference between publications. Find out who the editors, regular artists and contributing writers are for the publication. Choose one that reflects your own interests and writing style. With the evolution of the Internet, remember that your writing should communicate to a global audience.
Writing is a job
You should be paid and paid well for your writing. Your reputation is important so write good pieces about interesting artists and topics. Don’t just write worthless pieces for the sake of making money.
Getting down to basics
Describe the work you’re talking about, explain why you find it interesting and connect it to a broader context. Understand what has existed before and after an artwork. If you’re writing a press release or about an exhibition, give the reader specific information: how many artists are in the show? What type of art is being exhibited? Always put a brief description of what the piece is about below the title.
Ask the art questions:
Is it a reflection of its time?
Is it new and innovative?
What is it doing?
Why and what makes it compelling?
The Beginning & The End
You’re competing against every other writer in the publication, so your first and last sentence is really important. It is how you seduce the reader and entice them to read the whole piece. Does the first and last sentence of your piece leave you wanting more?
Kill your darlings
If it’s possible to cut it, cut it. Don’t keep that one great line because you love it. Detach yourself from your writing. Is it really adding anything to the piece? Does it work? Is the writing itself as interesting as the idea?
What’s your position?
Art isn’t static; it constantly reinvents itself. As Jennifer Higgie said, “No art is ever made in a vacuum… It’s about great art writers creating great discourse around the art being made.” There are globalised conversations going on in the art world now. Don’t shy away from discussions of gender, race, class and sexuality—these are things you should be commenting on.
It’s okay not to know
Not understanding a piece of art or feeling a sense of confusion can be a point of interest in writing about it. The failure to understand something can be a useful tool and made into a positive. Remember your writing doesn’t have to be conclusive or offer a definitive answer.
Warning: Rules are there to be broken. Forgive me for using a cliché.
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