Over a course of more than a decade in which I have been reviewing games, music, books and films, I have taken surprisingly little advice from reviewers more experienced than I. Similarly, I never wrote for a website or magazine that imposed strict standards upon the work of its editors. This allowed me to develop my own style without being bound to the conventions that are considered sacred in the ever conventionalised reviewing ‘business’ by magazines and websites alike. As a result, my reviews tend to be much more elaborate and profound (or overdrawn and pretentious, as some would say) than the generally concise and to-the-point reviews that are commonly found online.
Still, I was ever so curious what other reviewers had to say on the standards of their trade. How did they picture the ideal review? Did they abide to conventional structures, or did they choose a more free form of critiquing works of entertainment and art? Yearning for answers, I searched the internet for tips on writing reviews, as well as general thoughts on what constitutes a good review. The result was rather disappointing. From what I read, plenty of reviewers out there still hold to what I like to call high school writing standards: conventions designed to help inexperienced writers avoid the biggest pitfalls. In doing so, young writers are taught to avoid risks; risks that, when taken with a sense of tact, may actually allow more skilled writers to excel. In order to aid those who strive for more than mere competence, I decided to compile a list of (review) writing tips that you can safely ignore from here on.
1. Keep things simple
When taking a writing workshop or simply looking for writing tips online, one of the first things you will be told is that you need to keep things as simple as possible. While concision certainly contributes to the accessibility of a text, always aiming for simplicity can at times kill off great ideas. Do not be afraid to discuss certain topics in-depth if you possess the knowledge and skill to do so. Sure, you might lose a few readers who are looking for short blurbs, but if you can at least make a couple of readers bear with you throughout the text, the chance that they will read more of your work is all the greater.
In any case, keep in mind that you are not the only reviewer out there; if anything, there are way too many of us. This means that, if you write reviews according to the simplicity principle that is prescribed everywhere, your work may be more accessible, but it will also face some stiff competition from reviewers who have been at this game for much longer than you. Distinguish yourself, though, and you will have a much better shot at getting noticed, especially in the beginning. Providing more profound information and perspective than your conventional reviewer is one way of doing that.
2. Cater to your audience
As was established in the first point, one of the most important aspects of reviewing is finding your own style. Not because the review is about you, but because one of the biggest requirements of a review is that it provides a refreshing perspective. This is achieved not only through sharp analysis and original ideas, but also through having a distinct way of putting those thoughts to paper.
Be careful, though, that you do not turn into a ‘writing jukebox’ for your (potential) audience, writing only what you think they want to read. On the internet, there is an audience for almost anything. Have confidence in your own ability, write what you think is best, and your audience will find you eventually. In writing, authenticity is at least as important as originality, so if your reviews and other articles come across as insincere and/or pretentious, readers will simply not accept them.
3. A review is a buyers guide
This is not so much a tip as it is an assertion that is derived from descriptions of what the ideal review looks like; at least according to many dictators of writing tips. Too many writers still live with the conception that everything in a review ultimately serves to provide the reader with an advice, direct or indirect, on whether or not to purchase/rent/download the ‘product’. In a day and age when everyone can go on YouTube to find out what the new album of their favourite artist sounds like, or watch “Let’s Plays” of the latest video games, the role of the review as a ‘buyers guide’ is fading.
While reviews may not be on the same creative level as fiction or philosophy, they prove excellent vehicles for intellectual exercises about the content in question. This is true for readers, seeing as even a seemingly trivial piece of information revealed in a review can change their perspective on something they thought they knew very well. But it is also the writer who benefits: the process of writing a review can put together loose (shards of) ideas, which in turn helps the writer digest his thoughts about a certain topic, resulting in a balanced review that aids readers with putting things into perspective. At the end of the day, the best reviews are those who make you completely re-evaluate your opinion on that which is being discussed.
4. Do not spoil your conclusion
One of the most common pieces of advice I have received over the years – both online and offline – is that a review should by no means give or even hint towards its conclusion in the opening sentences. True, a conclusion is called that for a reason, but skilled writers can allude to or even outright reveal their opinion of a certain work to create a new tension curve. By provoking the reader with an opinion that he may not have expected, or is formulated in a strong way, a reviewer might actually fuel his curiosity.
Bear in mind that, for this tactic to be successful, you need to start your review in such a way that you shock or provoke your readers enough get their attention, but not so much that you chase them away to the more fluffy parts of the internet. And even after you have successfully gotten everybody’s attention, it still takes some good thinking and writing to back up your claims. It is a difficult tactic that should be used with some reservation, but if applied correctly, it can make for damn fine reviews, such as this one, which starts out by calling the album discussed “a catastrophic artistic failure”.
5. Biographical information
Another classic example taken from the strikingly uniform ‘ideal review’ model that is propagated on many websites. More often than not, you are encouraged to start out your review with biographical information and other basic data. Odds are, though, that the people looking for reviews and writings on whatever subject you are discussing, are already well aware of most of these facts. That is why it is much wiser to just include some facts in a special section, separating it from the text body (see this old review of mine for an example). This way, you will cater to those who might still be looking for factual information, without hindering those already familiar with the subject matter.
So how should you start a review? Just use your imagination. You can choose to provoke the readers with a bold statement (see point 4), broaden the scope by touching upon a bigger issue related to the topic (for instance: HD remakes), or even give a personal account of how you stumbled upon this game, film or album. As long as your review does not read as an entry on either Wikipedia or LiveJournal, you will be fine.
In the end, becoming a good reviewer comes down to dedication and passion. Dedication is required because it takes a considerable amount of time and patience to get to know the subject matter well enough to be able to form a well-rounded opinion on it, as does formulating that opinion in such a way that it is worth hearing. If you want to become a serious reviewer, once in a while you will have to talk about something that may not suit your taste at all. Whether you have to play a broken game or listen to an uninspired piece of music, the life of the reviewer is not a bed of roses.
Perhaps passion is even more of essence, as in the end, something you invest a big portion of your time in should generate enjoyment and satisfaction. Reading music and video game reviews in even the most renowned magazines often gives me the impression that the writer cannot wait until he gets to the end of the article. They do not seem to realise that something that was written without joy will also be read without joy. Find something you love to write about, and put that love into your writing. Then, and only then will you be able to contribute something to the oversaturated reviewing landscape.