How to Write Great Reviews

Everybody’s a critic. If you’ve ever tried to get a group of friends to agree to see the same movie, you know I’m right. “I don’t like that actor.” “That story sounds stupid.” “That theater doesn’t even have cupholders.” Everyone’s got an opinion. Few of us keep them to ourselves. But how do you go from giving some your informal thoughts about some product to getting a written review published by a paper or e-zine or magazine? I have worked as a review writer and editor for an entertainment e-zine for six years. In that time, I’ve come to believe there are a few things would-be reviewers should consider before they write even their first critical word. Once you’ve got the basics, the world is yours to give a thumbs up or down.

First, know what a review is. Maybe more to the point, know what a review isn’t. A review is not a recap of the aTV show episode or the whole plot of a book. It’s not just listing the different features of a PC game or what songs are on a new CD. Those things might be included in part in a review, but they’re not the main event. Instead, a review is a critical evaluation of a product or service or event. Critical means you have to tell people, explain to people, what’s good and what’s bad about your subject matter. By doing so effectively, you inform, sometimes entertain, and often influence decisions. “That guy said that movie was bad. I’ll wait til it comes out on video.” A review then, besides being this critical evaluation, is also a good tool for mind control. How ’bout that. The single best way to learn what a professional review is really like? Read some! Check out a major paper or magazine for a start.

Second, have an over all opinion. Your critical evaluation cannot just be a list of pros and cons. Instead, you have to have a main idea from which these good and bad points flow. A reviewer must have an overarching opinion, usually stated at the end of your first paragraph (like a thesis statement in a term paper). This point sums up what the rest of the review is going to prove: “The sequel has some good points but falls short of the original.” “The diner looked nice, but the soup made me regret stopping in.” Everything else you write supports this overall position. If you don’t start with this central position, your review, like an essay without a thesis, will end up disjointed. Your reader will be unsure of what you’re really trying to say. And that’s the last thing a reviewer wants!

Know your subject. Take time to learn about the subject you’re going to critique. You can’t give an opinion like a regular average consumer. Reviews don’t always require, or even usually require, hours of research, but they do require more attention than just a browse through or skim. Spend time with your subject matter. You have to know it well. Know the context: is this the second or third version of this software? How is it different from the first? Is this director a rookie or has she made films before? What was the fan reaction to this group’s last CD? Know the details: the who, what, where, when, and why involved (as applicable). Be able to give an informed not a knee-jerk reaction. Your audience and your editors will expect you to know your stuff.

Be specific. Once you know the background and the details of your subject, don’t hold back when you write your review. A good critique doesn’t offer just broad stroke opinions. It offers a main point supported by specifics. Once you say a product is good, bad, or in between, use specific examples to defend your position. Which features of the video game worked best? Which needed help? If the third song on the CD is the best, say why: is it the lyrics, the beat? Give examples, use quotations, utilize precise language, even technical language if it fits your audience. Support your opinion. Don’t be afraid to nit-pick.

Be honest. You may hate to admit your favorite new artist’s new exhibition is just a carbon copy of her last one or that your most-hated airhead actress actually pulled off her first dramatic role. But as a reviewer, you have to call it like you see it. Otherwise, you’re just slamming gratuitously or advertising. Yes, all critique comes down to opinion, but most critique also requires evaluation of objective fact. Go into your review with your own standards of what it takes to make a good movie, book, game, or whatever it might be, and then give an honest appraisal of whether or not your subject matter hits the mark – even if it kills you. Your publication and your work deserve honesty. And, really, so does whatever you’re reviewing. Wouldn’t you want an honest evaluation of your work, too?

Sometimes creative people look at review writing as better left to people who don’t have their own endeavors to work on. “Those who can’t, review.” Don’t think of it that way. In fact, consider that many great writers are also great critics. Instead, think of review writing as just another genre worth exploring as a writer. And think of writing reviews as an exercise in carefully examining the pieces of the world around you and articulating what you see. That’s all writers want to do, ultimately, anyhow, isn’t it?

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