Now that freelance writer Lucy Mason has got used to spending whole chunks of time without children demanding her attention, she’s finally started searching for work. This week she debates how to write an honest review of South African bars without leaving her London home.
I think I’ve coined a new phrase this week: vicarious review. I was asked by a web content editor to submit a sample piece on ‘Best places to drink by the water in Cape Town’. I’ve never been to Cape Town but I know people who have, so why not ask them? I put it out to my Facebook friends and waited to see what came back.
When I was a journalism student in Brighton, the local paper used to offer us tickets to local gigs if we’d write a review for them. In theory this was a brilliant opportunity to see some bands for free, while honing our reporting skills at the same time. The reality was that the best tickets went very quickly, and left us with the likes of Wet Wet Wet (Noughties reunion tour) and Status Quo.
Still, a freebie is a freebie so we’d go along and watch these bands perform in front of an adoring and slightly crazy-looking crowd. It was hard to write a balanced review in the face of such adoration, so one friend in particular seemed to write quite scathingly about the bands and their fans to even things out (sorry Marti Pellow).
When I heard Julian Cope was playing I really wanted to review him. I’d heard most of his albums and had seen him live before, playing at the end of Worthing pier with glittery moon boots and a red double-neck guitar. At last, here was an original artist I could write something interesting about. The fact I (inevitably) couldn’t get tickets didn’t daunt me, and instead I asked a friend who had managed to get tickets what the gig was like, and wrote my review from that.
This was a huge mistake. I’m not sure if I thought I was writing for Rolling Stone magazine – or if I was thinking at all. But without any actual experience of the night, I just pulled out flamboyantly meaningless phrases, and the review was so badly written (I even used the word ‘panther’), that I still cringe when I think about it.
So when this content editor asked me to review somewhere I’ve never been, I knew to tread very carefully. I do think that social media is a great tool, and if you research widely and carefully then writing an accurate and fair review can be possible. An old school friend who lives in Cape Town got back to me with a list of her five favourite places, so I wrote the review from that. I researched background information from internet reviews, kept a lid on the panther-style comparisons and sent it in.
I told the editor that I hadn’t been to Cape Town but argued the case for vicarious reviews, including that the popularity of places changes so quickly that even if I had been there six months ago, things could well have changed now. I hope he is so impressed with the sample piece, and my argument, that he offers me the job. Of course he may not, but if I don’t try then I’ll never know.