A reviewer, regardless of the art form, has a responsibility to readers to be knowledgeable about the specific art form. Reviewers do not simply express opinions. There’s a huge difference between “I liked Killer Ants Devouring Lithuania,” and “Killer Ants Devouring Lithuania was a good movie.”
In the former, you’re only expressing a personal opinion based on your likes and dislikes. You have the right to that opinion, but as a reader, my reaction is, “who cares?” I want to know about the movie or book, not about you. In the latter, you have a set of criteria by which you can judge the work of art. Too many people fail to see or accept that distinction. If you fall into this category, you’ll write lousy reviews of no interest to the reader; you’ll merely be feeding your own ego by seeing your name in print.
But if you study the medium, its history and trends, if you can break a performance into its component parts to evaluate how they fit together, if you can put your review into the context of similar works, then you’re offering valuable insights that will help readers decide whether to experience the art, and you’re teaching them how to enhance their experience and appreciation.
Here’s where it gets messy. These criteria are not completely objective nor are they totally subjective. They lie somewhere in between. But if you deny the criteria and claim that all opinions are subjective, why bother to review anything at all? Your opinion carries no more weight than a three-year-old watching the same movie.
What follows are standards used by professional critics, and few people have the time to engross themselves this thoroughly in an art form. Don’t be overwhelmed by the complexity; rather, use this article as a starting point, adopting ideas and concepts that make sense and recognizing that, to become a good critic, you never stop studying the medium.
It’s also important to emphasize that while there’s not one right way to write a review, there are essential elements that make it either a good or bad one.
Elements of a Review: The Hook
Like all good writing, a review has to have a “hook,” an opening sentence or paragraph that draws in the reader. Rarely, if ever, should that hook include the word “I,” which tells the reader “it’s all about me.” Most will stop reading and move on to another article. Another trap to avoid is being obvious while attempting to be profound. For example, comments about short stories, poetry, or essays not getting the kind of attention they deserve insult your readers’ intelligence.
Here’s the opening sentence of a book review on BC: “Harvey Pekar writes autobiographical comic books for grown-ups, and he is rather prone to grumpiness.” (Except for the word “rather,” it’s a great set up. Remember adjectives and adverbs are weak words; nouns and verbs are strong words.) Regardless, look at the juxtaposition of autobiographical, comic books, and grumpiness. How could you not want to read on?
Here’s another from a BC review: “David Jones came from humble beginnings and worked his way up to CEO of a successful British retail company. And he did so without telling anyone that he had Parkinson’s Disease for most of his tenure.” Personally, I’d eliminate the period after “company” and substitute a comma. But the surprise of the Parkinson’s compels the reader to keep going.
One doesn’t have to be formal and rigid with a hook. Consider the opening of this BC book review: “Okay guys, listen up. Because it’s time to Man Up. And who better to teach the finer points — the ins and outs if you will — of being a ‘man’s man’ than veteran mob guy character actor Frank Vincent?” I don’t even know who Vincent is, but I read the review.
Compare the above to what follows. Another BC book review begins with three paragraphs about Socrates (the book has nothing to do with him), only introducing the book being reviewed at the end of the third graph. The fourth and fifth paragraphs are personal statements about the reviewer. Sorry — readers aren’t going to wait that long.
A CD review: “Sad to say, this CD leaves me cold. Yes, there is some tasty guitar work on it, some fine playing, but nothing really stands out and captures my attention. If [artist] is basing the appeal of this CD on the songwriting and the singing then I think it’s a miss.” Classic case of “all about me,” although the reviewer has some of the right elements in there: fine playing, tasty guitar work (nice adjective).
Finally, avoid being cute and keep yourself out of the hook unless there’s a really, really, really good reason. One TV reviewer on BC had used “I” five times in the first three graphs, twice with self-deferential comments that were out of place.
One of the best movie reviews I’ve read violated all these rules: Janet Maslin’s New York Times review of The Fugitive. Now Maslin was one of the best reviewers ever; she could take liberties where others would fear to tread. I don’t remember the exact words, but she made the review very personal. She basically said, “I was grabbed by the throat by this movie and wasn’t let go until the last moment.” She went on discussing how inescapably engaged she was by the non-stop tension. She pulled it off. Most can’t.
Hook ‘em. It’s just like fishing. You put a worm or a lure on the hook, not a picture of yourself or a treatise demonstrating your deep wisdom.
Elements of a Review: After the Hook
You’ve captured my interest with a solid hook. Now increase that interest by continuing to be provocative. Don’t wander off into parts unknown…yet. If you’re going to do that, you’ll have time.
1. “Matrix IX is a really interesting movie with great special effects. I was captivated from the first moment.”
2. In what seems to be a never-ending raising of the technological bar, Matrix IX once again demonstrated that there seems to be no limit to how mind-boggling special effects can get.
3. Matrix IX continues a series of mechanical performances by actors who could just as easily been replaced by some computer generated figures.
4. I could barely keep my eyes open during the most boring Matrix movie yet, Matrix IX.
See the difference? Numbers 1 & 4 are all about “me.” 2 & 4 are about the movie. It should be easy to see how to expand these topic sentences for a longer paragraph explaining what you mean.
Elements of a Review: The Rest
Earlier, I wrote that reviewers have a responsibility to be knowledgeable about the art form they’re reviewing. What does that mean? This list isn’t intended as a straightjacket; quite the opposite, this part of the review is where you can bring in not only comments about other works of art, you can carefully express your own opinions within each of the elements, below. Also, while everything in this list doesn’t need to be included or in this order, reviewers should be or become knowledgeable about:
- The art form and how what’s being reviewed fits or varies from that form.
- The history of that art form and others to be able to give the reader some context in which to judge what’s being reviewed. What in the past is similar to what you’re reviewing? What’s dissimilar?
- The genre in which whatever’s being reviewed fits. Is it just more of the same, or is the artist breaking new ground within the genre? What other works of art can you cite that will give the reader a better understanding of the work in question?
- The trends, i.e. the societal, political, religious, artistic, etc. movements, that this piece of art references.
- The criteria for judging a specific work of art. This part is perhaps the hardest because knowledgeable people can disagree, but a reviewer needs to be able to comment on issue such as tone (is it consistent throughout), message (is it clear or confused…perhaps intentionally confusing,) pacing and timing, and importance (does this work of art set new standards, raise new questions, demand that the viewer or reader challenge his or her preconceptions, etc.)
- (Most important) The specific artistic elements that make up the item being reviewed. For example, in a play or movie, the set, the lighting, the costumes, how well the director manages the artists’ performances and their movements (called blocking), the writing, the music, the actors’ interpretations, and the actors’ interactions, to name a few. In music, how well the sound is mixed, the quality of the lyrics or band, and the variation in the selection of music to create a complete experience.
This knowledge base is what allows a reviewer to form a judgment that something is aesthetically good or bad as opposed to offering a personal opinion. One doesn’t always have to cover all of these points — sometimes it’s not relevant, but you can’t ignore them all either.
Interspersed among the above are the reviewer’s judgments about the acting, singing, story line, whatever. It’s how you continue to engage readers by offering insight into what kind of experience they’re likely to have.
Elements of Review: The Close
Just as the hook grabs the readers’ attention, the close is where you create something memorable so that your review stays with them. Unfortunately, it’s just as difficult to write as a good hook.
By now, you should be done with the details, but you want to remind the reader why this art is a piece of gold or…clay. For example, if you’re reviewing a fantasy book, and you’re a Tolkien fanatic, here’s one suggestion: “Many years ago when I put down the final volume of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I knew I had found a gem the likes of which I’d probably never again uncover. Dragons Don’t Have Teeth may not be the Hope Diamond, but it comes as close to Tolkien as you’re likely to get.”
The use of “I” works because of the reference to one of the most beloved fantasies of all time. People will see the Tolkien reference and understand completely what you mean by getting close without being distracted by your opinion.
Here’s a close that could have been much better had the writer just left himself out of the picture:
I’m sure my friends from the party are talking about my musical tastes behind my back. At forty-six, I probably should be more immersed in jazz, classical, and pop then I am. But let the mf’ers talk — so much of what we call entertainment these days is flat and boring. At least NOFX and other bands approaching middle age still have the balls to produce some very funny stuff.
Start reading from “So much of what we call entertainment…” and you’ll see how powerful the ending could have been.
Here’s an almost perfect close that sums up quickly the essence of an album:
It’s a relative impossibility that Queensryche could ever surpass the brilliance it created the first time around. Too much time has passed: Whereas the original likely sprung from a magical, collective inspiration, the band’s musical ideas are now conceived and planned. Still, there is no denying that the band’s latest release is the best work it has done in more than a decade. An appropriate sequel to their best-ever work, Operation Mindcrime II delivers as most had hoped it would.
I can’t help but be an editor. The only problem is too many words. Here’s the same close tightened up:
It’s impossible that Queensryche could surpass its original brilliance — too much time has passed. Where the original sprung from a magical, collective inspiration, the musical ideas are now conceived and planned. Still, the band’s latest release is its best work in over a decade. An appropriate sequel to their best-ever work, Operation Mindcrime II delivers as most had hoped it would.
A few more good closes:
The band sounds good, and the power of Dio’s voice does come around eventually, but the bulk of the appealing CD here (disc 1) is plagued by the most raspy, unpowerful voice you’ll ever hear from Ronnie James Dio. Says it all, and leaves the reader with a clear picture.
Eh, but who cares about bad acting and moral lessons anyway? We’re here to see Karloff’s Monster lurch and grunt and beat people up, and that’s what we get. And as an added bonus, he cries. What more can you ask for from a monster? A memorable close and a great last line.
There’s a lot of power in the close to this move review, but, again, too many words: He is an artist who understands his medium, down to its core who isn’t afraid to take chances, who and knows his film history. Yet, he doesn’t feel the need to tell us that by throwing in with obvious homages or clips from a film with similar themes. Rather, he simply goes about telling his story in the best way he knows how, using his accumulated knowledge for maximum effect. It is a great debut, a gleefully subversive film that’s a wickedly funny and fearless gem. My only fear is that Reitman won’t be able to duplicate it.
Read it edited: He understands his medium, isn’t afraid to take chances, and knows film history. Yet, he doesn’t need the obvious homages or clips from a film with similar themes. Rather, he tells his story in the best way he knows how, using his knowledge for maximum effect. It is a great debut, a gleefully subversive film that’s a wickedly funny and fearless gem. The last line about can he duplicate it destroys the great lead up to “wickedly funny and fearless gem. Why include it?
And then there are the closes that probably leave the reader cold:
Rather than continue to babble on in a vain attempt to describe the book, let me just say that it is a darn good read and one I would recommend to anyone. Interesting characters, thought-provoking, easy to read, it has it all. If you like your fiction intelligent and suspenseful, Spies should be on your list. The last two lines are good. The first two inadvertently say, “Why should you listen to me. I’m just babbling and can’t really describe the book anyway.”
If the point hasn’t been driven home by now, let’s make it simple: Being a critic is hard work, it requires study and analysis, but if you’re just starting out, this article should be consider inspirational rather than a foundation you have to build before you can proceed.
Being a critic means sitting in a theater or music hall with a notepad on your lap, trying to capture everything going on around you without losing the essence of the experience. It also means divorcing yourself from what you’re experiencing so you can make the statement, “I didn’t like it but it’s a great work.”
For example, I hate, despise, and can’t bear “Romeo & Juliet,” but I can’t deny that it’s a great play. Slasher movies scare the shit out of me, so I’m totally incapable of making any aesthetic judgment about them.
When I was a theater reviewer many years ago, friends who’d accompany me would ask, “How can you enjoy the play when you’re always taking notes and tearing it apart like that?” Hence the “like” vs. “good” issue. Critics enjoy the work more because they understand how difficult it is to get all the elements to come together in a masterpiece, or they can see which elements failed and which caused the piece to not be a masterpiece. Ask yourself, who would appreciate a jazz album more, Thelonius Monk or your five-year-old? (Note, I didn’t say “enjoy.” Appreciating is an aesthetic experience; enjoying is a personal one.
If you review books, read constantly. If you review plays or movies, try to go three or four times a week. If you review music, you should be listening to everything you can get your hands on. And you should be reading reviews written by the top reviewers in the field to get a feel for what they do.
Being a critic can be one of the most satisfying things you’ll ever do — but you’ll only succeed if you know what the hell you’re doing.Powered by Sidelines