Writing Good Reviews Is Not as Easy as It Looks

I like to think she's working on a review of that book, or that cat.
I like to think she’s working on a review of that book, or that cat.

I’m putting together my lesson for my Nonfiction 101 class tonight on review writing and thought I’d share a few thoughts about it with the Internet, since the Internet loves to review things, and not always intelligently or constructively. Here, I offer you, Internet, some of my tips culled from a decade in the trenches at Entertainment Weekly, being taught by some of the best around:

1. Context. Have some. Here is a very simple example from a review of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in Time Out London this week: “What are the odds? Like Katniss Everdeen ducking a poison-tip arrow, the keepers of Suzanne Collins’s trilogy of fantasy novels have dodged the perils of the sloppy second franchise film.” These first two sentences of the review say a ton. They tell us the reviewer likes the film. They give us, assuming we’re fans of The Hunger Games, a little Katniss reference/simile, which indicates we’re in the hands of someone who knows the series. They remind us of the books the movie comes from, and of the fact that we’re on number 2 of 3. And they even hint at a wider range of film knowledge, given the historic precedent of the “sloppy second franchise film.” This all feels basic when you read it casually, but it’s the mark of a good reviewer. Well done, Cath Clarke, which is also a great British name.

2. Back up your opinions. The scourge of amateur online reviewers is the “this sucks because I said so and also because I am sad and lonely and want attention” mentality. Even if something does suck, you’re the one who sounds lame if all you do is whine about not liking something without imparting why. Hell, I wouldn’t even tolerate this from a friend whom I’d asked for an opinion on a movie, song, TV show, or similar. What sucks so much about it? Spend like three more seconds figuring out why you don’t like something. Give us examples of a terrible plotline, a botched lyric, a bum note. Be specific, as if you’re critiquing a classmate’s work to his or her face.

3. Think about who’s reading you. When I recap The Mindy Project for New York magazine, I pay extra attention to the New York-ish stuff in the show (which is set in, but not filmed in, New York). I wouldn’t worry so much about the authenticity of a subway scene if I were recapping for LA Weekly. This goes for broader ideas as well — The New Yorker reviewers tackle pop culture quite frequently, but they do it in much more depth, with much more meaning, history, and social commentary than you’ll see in an EW review. That’s not a knock on my old magazine, of course; they simply have different audiences. This New Yorker review of Jay-Z’s album, Magna Carta Holy Grail does way, way more than tell you whether the album is worth downloading or not. In fact, the prospect of you buying the album is irrelevant to you getting something out of the piece, which ties into the rapper’s past, rap history in general, Trayvon Martin, international politics, and celebrities’ obligation to become social activists. That matches The New Yorker‘s space constraints (it tends to have few) and its longstanding intentions, which are understood implicitly by its loyal audience.

4. Don’t be mean just for the thrill of being mean to people who are more famous or better-looking or richer than you. Yes, Internet, that means you.

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