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Ten Secrets of Writing Reviews That Keep Readers Coming Back

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As evidenced by Blogcritics itself, reviews make great blog posts.  We mustn't forget though, that for bloggers, reviews aren't only a novel answer to the perpetual conundrum of “what shall I write about today?” but also a cool way to attract readers. Lots of people want to know if the new U2 record (for example) is any good, so why not write to cater for an audience that’s already there?

Furthermore, if you write an interesting and comprehensive article, it's just the sort of thing that readers will bookmark for later reference, e-mail to friends or link to from their own blogs. This is especially true for high-investment purchases like technology or household electronics. A detailed review can even mean you or your blog become recognised as an authority on the subject.

But how to write those great reviews? I’ve been reviewing music for ages, and apart from trying to read as much of my fellow reviewers' work, both at Blogcritics and elsewhere, I always try to stick to these 10 rules. Although they’re from a music journalism point of view, they’ll work for most subjects.

1. Ask yourself “what does the reader want to know?”

This is the most important thing to remember when writing a review. You can craft the wittiest prose with the cleverest metaphors, but unless the reader finds out what they want to know, you’ve not done your job as a reviewer.

Think of the sort of questions they’re likely to be asking themselves – these will vary depending on what you’re writing about: “Is this book a light, enjoyable read for on the beach?”, “Why should I upgrade to Windows Vista?”, or even “Does Justin Timberlake’s new CD have anything on it as good as 'Cry Me A River'?”

Find that one question, and make the sole aim of your article to answer it.

2. Decide on the overall point you want to get across to the reader.

If you know your subject matter well (which, as a reviewer, you should do), you’ll no doubt have a whole ream of opinions, both good and bad, that you can knock back and forth like a review-writing game of tennis. All those viewpoints can get confusing, so simplify it.

Decide on an overall basic opinion of the product, such as “A hilarious, if overlong movie – just don’t expect anything groundbreaking”, and use that as a framework for your review. Hang everything else off this one idea. How does the movie’s acting influence this opinion? Why isn’t the plot that groundbreaking?

You can get all your points across, but just relate them all to this central theme (in conjunction with number 1 above) and your review will seem less like the sort of conversation you have in a bar after the movie, and more like real journalism!

3. Be ruthless when editing – don’t be precious about your “art”.

If it doesn’t help you answer the reader’s question (point number 1, above), or isn’t directly conducive to getting your main point across (number 2), then get rid of it! You might be really proud of a line you’ve written, but unless it helps the review as a whole it’s no good.

Review writing isn’t art -– save that for your novel -– so don’t get precious about it. Remember the words of science fiction author James Patrick Kelly on this subject: “murder your darlings”. Readers don’t think someone’s a great writer because of a single sharp-but-irrelevant observation; they’ll think you’re a great writer if all the cogs in the machine of your review work together.

This is something I sometimes struggle with, but Copyblogger further underlines the importance of keeping your writing simple.

4. Don’t write about yourself; it’s about the band, book, movie or whatever you’re reviewing.

A classic novice’s mistake this one. Look at any page of Amazon customer reviews, and you’ll no doubt come across someone who tells a story all about how the guy they work with said <i>The Da Vinci Code</i> is great, but I wasn’t sure because he’s not too smart, but then he did recommend that other book to me that was pretty good, although he’s a religious nut so it probably won’t be my thing, but I suppose I should because otherwise he’ll never shut up about it… WHO CARES?

As we’ve said already, reviewers want to know about the product, and that should be what you concentrate on. Of course, blogging is a personal medium, and it can be great for personal anecdotes, but within a review isn’t the place. As mentioned previously, one of the main benefits of review writing is that your posts can become a point of reference for people, and even an authority on a product depending on what it is you choose to review. But if you cloud the matter with irrelevancies, you won’t get the linkbacks and word-of-mouth publicity that these things merit.

By all means stamp a bit of your personality and thoughts on the review, but stick to the subject matter; the reader shouldn’t really know the reviewer is there. A good rule of thumb is to try not to say “I” at all.

5. Ask yourself “what makes my review unique?”

Well-anticipated products like Hollywood movies or a new release from Apple (hurry up iPhone!) can generate thousands of reviews both across the blogosphere and the more traditional media. So why would anyone want to read yours?

That’s not meant to be a criticism of your writing – I’m sure it’s great. But it’s meant to make you think about having a “unique selling point” – something that your review can offer that people won’t be able to find elsewhere. Do you manage to bring a humorous slant to it? Do you have a specific or rare expertise (eg. wouldn’t it have been an interesting take on things if a priest posted his thoughts on the aforementioned Da Vinci Code)? Is your opinion vastly different to that of everyone else? Have you managed to be the first one to review something?

Whatever you decide your unique selling point is, make sure you emphasise it! There's some good advice along these lines in Matt Cutts' article on a blogging technique know as linkbait.

6. You don’t always need to be a smartarse – sometimes it’s better to write as if you’re chatting to your friends.

Writing like a smartarse is something I must admit to being (very!) guilty of at times. It can be very tempting to get wrapped up in metaphors and tie yourself in linguistic knots. While this may make you feel like Charles Dickens, often it can just confuse the reader. By all means write well and write interestingly, but don’t try to translate everything to purple prose – sometimes it really is better to just write exactly what you said as you walked out of the cinema, without looking up 27 different synonyms for “crappy chic-flick”.

7. Compare to other similar products – but not too much!

One of the advantages of being an expert in your field is that you can place a new release in context – is it better or worse than the author’s previous work, are there other better alternatives in a similar genre, and so on. This is something it’s definitely worth doing if you don’t already, as it can lend your writing an air of expertise and authority.

The thing to remember though is not to do it too much, as it’s easy to end up writing more about other products than the one you’re meant to be reviewing. This is something beginners tend to do a lot – many of my early music reviews read like a who’s who of the genre (probably in an attempt to show off my knowledge!), so watch out for it.

8. Strong quotable sentences are great, but let them come naturally.

One of the best ways to learn to write good reviews is to read professional ones, and try to imitate them. What bits of their style do you like? What ideas can you borrow? One of the dangers of this though is that you can easily write reviews full of the sort of phrases that appear on movie posters – “a rip-roaring thrill ride for all the family!”.

Needless to say, clichés like that should be avoided at all costs. And even if they’re not clichés, such sentences can often be superficial. So don’t go looking for them. If they genuinely serve a purpose and help you say what you want to say, then great. But if you’re just writing something because it sounds like a movie poster quote, then really it’s just a platitude.

Having said that, if you do come up with a killer quote, you may want to consider using it as your review's headline; Freelance Switch outlines the importance of "writing headlines that kill" in order to attract readers.

9. Be specific!

Used in conjunction with the tips on comparison (above) and stating the obvious (below), this can be one of the things that really makes your review a resource that people are going to return to months, or even years, after you’ve written it.

Much of this applies to reviews of events: touring bands, theatre shows etc. It’s easy to write a cookie-cutter review of a gig that does a good job of describing the music and the songs that were played. But be specific: what happened on the night you saw the show that will differentiate your review from that of anyone who saw the show on a different night? For example, in live music reviews, try and include a notable quote from the stage. Mention the atmosphere. What about context: has the artist been in the news recently? If you're reviewing a pop star's first show after a big court case, this could even form part of your unique selling point, as described above.

Although mostly useful in a performing arts sense, these same techniques are useful for anything: just ask yourself, “what was unique about my experience?” This stops your reviews committing the cardinal sin of reading like a press-release, and as long as you don’t start telling boring personal anecdotes like our friend from the Amazon review above, you’ll be fine!

10. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious.

You’re an expert in your field – anything you don’t know about the works of Stephen King isn’t worth knowing! So it can be a bit frustrating as a reviewer to have to hold your reader’s hand and explain to them that he’s a quite well-known horror writer, and that they may even have heard of <i>The Shining</i> – it was made into a film, you know?

Obviously, that depends on your audience. If it’s for the Stephen King fan club, by all means go straight into depth. But if it’s for a more general audience, don’t underestimate how little your reader may actually know about the subject. There’s no need to give a full life story, but a bit of background info is always good. When reviewing bands for example: where are they from, how many members are there, what’s their biggest hit, and so on. If nothing else, it means your first paragraph’s sorted!

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About Jonathan

  • Heather Ames

    Lots of good advice, Jonathan. I’d better take one last look at my latest review to see if I stepped into any of the pitfalls you listed.

  • Matt Paprocki

    “A good rule of thumb is to try not to say “I” at all.”

    Yes, thank you. Nothing irritates me more than when I see “In my opinion” or “I felt” when reading a review. Do we not know that these are your personal thoughts from the word “review” in the title?

  • Ray Ellis

    Agreed, Matt. I’ve said this before, but you should strike “in my opinion” from your vocabulary–and not just in reviews. The phrase is either apologetic, showing your own insecurities–or condescending, as if you’re talking down to your audience. They already know it’s your opinion!
    On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with peppering a piece with personal experience when appropriate. It makes the review more personable, and makes the reader feel like the reviewer is an okay guy, rather than an elitist foaming at the mouth.

  • Pico

    so says Ray Ellis:
    “On the other hand, I see nothing wrong with peppering a piece with personal experience when appropriate. It makes the review more personable, and makes the reader feel like the reviewer is an okay guy, rather than an elitist foaming at the mouth.”

    I agree with this statement. Go read Mark Saleski’s reviews, he does this all the time. They make his articles more like reading a story, and judging from the comments he gets, readers respond positively to that.

    His latest article, published yesterday, barely mentions the Rush record he reviewed but the conversation he instigated is lively and very much on topic.

    In my opinion (I know, I know), #4 should be “don’t write about yourself, *unless* you can effectively relate your personal experience to the subject matter.”

    Aside from that, I think the tips were quite useful. I’ll keep these in mind for my own writings. Thanks.

  • Mark Saleski

    Don’t write about yourself; it’s about the band, book, movie or whatever you’re reviewing.



    seriously though (and gees pico, thanks for the kind words), look at somebody like Lester Bangs. i mean, not only did he sometimes write about himself, he wrote about…well, at times i didn’t know what the hell he was getting at!

    this isn’t to say that i write the way i do because of Bangs, it just feels natural to me. i’m sure there are people out there who don’t like it. so be it. i can’t please everybody.

  • Miss Cordy

    I like this a lot, Jonathan. I think you hit on all of the major aspects of writing a review. I know I have a problem with being a bit too flowery when writing reviews (I used to write movie and TV reviews for my local newspaper), so I’m trying really hard to get better. Your piece will help me with that, so thanks!

    Of course, if you want to add a bunch of extra stuff, you’d probably prefer writing recaps rather than strict reviews, which is what I’m trying.