Last September I wrote an essay on the “Subtile art of writing a review/commentary” (in French, but it is also available in a machine-translated English version). It is an essay I wanted to write for a long time, explaining how I was approaching the writing of a book or movie review — which I did for twenty years for a magazine. The funny thing is that I discovered a few weeks ago that I had already written that article in 2009 (in English) and forgot about it! I was checking out some old hard drives looking for something and stumble upon this article that I had written for a special issue (PAX #3) of the magazine I was working for, but we stop publication before it was released. It is based on the guidelines I wrote for our staff writers. My views on how to write a review have not change much since then. I thought it would be interesting to share it with the readers of this blog.
Reviewing a media product (wether it is a book, a manga, an anime series or a live-action movie) might seems an easy task, but in reality it is far from being simple. In fact, we are all doing it when we express an opinion to friends, but it is usually done in an emotional and very imprecise manner: “it was so bad, man” or “it was really cool.” In opposition, a professional reviewer—someone who does it for a living—must do his/her best to remain objective, precise and rigorous.
I admit that, if I always try to be an objective and precise reviewer, I am rarely rigorous. I am lazy and tend to keep my reviews short, introducing the subject and expressing my opinion in the most elementary manner. Today everybody is a critic as they can easily post what they think of this or that on their blog , but what makes the appraisal of a professional reviewer more interesting and valuable is experience. I’ve spent about two decades watching videos or films and reading books related to the subjects I review. I have therefore developped a methodology to assess the subject, an understanding of its workings and a set of criteria that—I hope—better equip me to examine and judge a particular media product.
In this article I have attempted to explain how I approach the writing of a review, what I think a review should be and what aspects of a medium I take in consideration when writing a review. I wanted to talked about this for a long time as I think it can offer interesting insights to both our readers and would-be reviewers.
First, there is two types of reviews: the basic or elementary review (the one I tend to favour) and the exhaustive review.
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IT’S ELEMENTARY MY DEAR WATSON
If you are limited in space (you want a review that fits in one computer screen of your blog) or time (you have a zillion Dvd or manga to talk about and it’s not even your day job) a basic review is a good choice. I consider myself a generalist and I don’t want to spend too much time on one specific subject or title. Therefore I feel that a short review works better for me: I’ll write a 100 to 250-word text where I quickly introduce the title and then express my opinion with a simple rating—which I’ll do my best to justify with an elementary argumentation.
In a basic review you just want to attract the attention of the readers on a particular title. You must be concise and clear, but should never forget to give a quick summary of the story (so the readers can have a relatively good understanding of what the title is about and decide for themselves if it is of interest to them) as well as all the available release details (like the publisher, the author, duration or number of page, ISBN or catalog number, price, etc., to help them easily find the title if they decide to purchase it).
After describing the title, you must tell the readers how you feel about it. I’ve found that the fastest and most efficient way to do that is with a single five-star rating system. Essentially you are telling the readers that you want to share this title with them because you think it is:
0 / .5 = Pathetic (don’t even think about this title)
1 / 1.5 = Poor (it’s not worth wasting your time and money on this title)
2 = Fair (not recommended, but if you’re curious you can always check it out or flip through it at the library)
2.5 = Average (it’s a title worth watching or reading, but maybe you should just rent it or borrow it—from a friend or the public library)
3 = Good (an interesting title that I recommend purchasing)
3.5 = Very Good (a great title that is definitely recommended)
4 / 4.5 = Excellent (an absolute must-see or read title)
5 = Outstanding (it’s a masterpiece or instant classic worth collecting; such titles are exceptional and therefore this rating should be used parsimoniously)
The rating system is used to qualify the overall impression that we have of a title, but we must justify the rating by explaining why we recommend or not this title (“the story of this animation is good, but the animation is dated and below average” or “this book contains useful information, but it is too short for its price”, etc.).
If you are blogging it is always good practice to give references through hyperlinks, so the readers can easily find extra information and even a second opinion. Also, if you are using an illustration with the review (i.e. the cover art), you must always include the copyright notice. It’s the law to do so in many countries, it tells readers who produced or own the title and it shows respect to whoever own the rights.
THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS
An exhaustive review is longer (usually 400 – 500 words, a 1000 words at the most—more than that it’s an article, not a review) and more detailed than a basic review, but should follow the same structure. You can elaborate a little more when you describe the subject or story of the title and give more developped argument to justify your opinion (or rating). You should also take the opportunity to give as much pertinent information as possible on the title (putting it in the larger context of a series, or of the director works, or of the time it was produced, etc.).
A full-fledged review should evaluate a title according to two fundamental aspects: its artistic and entertaining qualities. The artistic aspect is define by how crafty are the techniques used to produce the title and how beautiful is the end result. The entertaining aspect is define by how enjoyable the title is in its whole: was it funny, interesting or boring? Were you captivated by the story? Did you fall asleep?
With the exhaustive review we should use a more complex five-star rating system to qualify all the workmanship & technical aspects of a title. We will rate separately five artistic categories (in the case of an anime series or movie we would be looking at how technically good or bad is the art, the animation, the music, the story, and the dubbing) and one entertainment category. Here’s the detail of each category:
Designs: in this category we look at the art quality, its originality, proportions, the attractiveness of the characters, how interesting are the mecha and backgrounds designs, etc.
Animation: we look at the smoothness, the fluidity, crispness, details of the animation (in a manga we could be looking at the quality of the inking).
Soundtrack: we look at the quality and originality of the soundtrack, how the music (BGM or background music) and lyrics support the storytelling, how catchy is the main melody, etc.
Story: we look at the interest, depth, consistency, plausibility, dialogs, editing, etc. Is it good, well-written and captivating? How is the story-telling (the pace and delivery of the story)?
Dub: we look at the quality of the voice acting, its timing, the characterization, etc. (we don’t rate the sub because nowadays the technical quality (clarity, timing, speed, etc.) of subs is generally good. This category used to be “translation,” referring to the adaptation accuracy of both Dub & Sub, how good or bad it felt, but we changed it since some people complained most reviewers were not proficient enough in Japanese to really judge the quality of the translation).
Overall: this last category is used to express the “entertainment value” of the title and give an overall impression or feeling of the title (it can also simply represents the average of all the artistic and technical ratings).
Some people say that we should not use a rating system with reviews, but only a detailed description and explanation. They see the rating as a cheap short cut. Others say that we should avoid expressing an opinion and strictly judge a title on its qualities and flaws. I personally think that it is unavoidable to have an opinion: reviews are written by humans who have feelings and when you decide what is a bad story or a good quality animation, you do it through your own knowledge and perception. What someone consider good could be considered just average by an other individual. I don’t have too much time when I write a review (I don’t want to spend hours pondering about just one title), so a rating system is a good way to express an opinion with a minimal amount of words. It’s also the best way to remain as objective as possible by being technical, categorizing all aspects of a title and giving them numerical values. It’s not about the fact that we like or dislike a title (lets avoid confusion: we must not consider a title good because we like it, but instead we must like it because it’s good).
I believe that a good review should always be balanced. Each title has good (positive) and bad (negative) aspects. Even if you think that a title is a total dud, you should always try to find at least one positive aspect. Similarly, in the case of a title that you consider a perfect masterpiece, you should make the effort to try to find at least one flaw, one negative aspect. Also, everything is relative in the world and you should always try to see a title in the perspective of its target audience. If a title is aimed at children don’t complain it is childish and too simple, but rather say “it might be too simple and childish for an adult, but should be enjoyed by elementary school children.” Or if you dislike graphically explicit adult titles, you can say “most people will probably be disgusted by this title, but if graphically explicit sexual acts is your cup of tea you might enjoy it” instead of totally dissing it.
You can use humour in a review but should always treat your subject seriously. You must show respect to both viewers and author (try to avoid saying things like “you must be stupid to like this type of show” or “the guy who came up with this idea must be a moron”). Don’t forget that no matter what’s your opinion of a title the people who produced it most likely worked very hard and deserve your respect.
You must also consider the packaging. For a book: how’s the paper, binding or illustrations? For a movie: is it widescreen or not, is the picture clear? For a dvd: is there a booklet or extra goodies? Overall, is the packaging attractive, convenient and easy to manipulate?
IN THE END
The greatest challenge in writing a review—and what makes the difference between an average reviewer like me and a really good one—is the ability to concisely and clearly convey his/her ideas and opinions to the readers.
When you write a review, the first thing you must have is the urge to share with others what you think of a particular title. Then you must take notes and try to organize your opinion in a way that is easy to understand for the reader. Keep it simple. If you are not sure how to do it, just check out how others do it: read magazines and look at blogs. There is no right or wrong way to do a review as long as you have a detailed opinion about a title and can clearly justify it with reasonnable arguments and examples.
Despite all the efforts to remain objective every review is tinted by the reviewer’s experience and personality. In the end, it comes to one individual expressing his/her opinion & feeling about a title. It’s most likely that a review of a particular title from one reviewer will differ from one by another reviewer. That’s why I never hesitated to publish multiple reviews of the same title. A second or third opinion can never hurt. However, I suggest to the readers to pay attention to who write a particular review and, once they have themselves watched or read this title, to compare their own opinion with its reviews. They will most likely discover that there is one or some reviewers with whom they agree most of the time and whose opinion they can trust when comes the time to choose a title to purchase.
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