Upon Further Review: Tips for writing better reviews

While this short article on review writing offers some useful pointers and a basic outline, some may feel it's too short, covers familiar territory, and lacks believable characters. Three stars!

One of the reasons readers spend their time with our publications is to get advice on how to spend their time. What books should they read? Which movies should they see? Is that new CD worth buying? For this kind of information, readers turn to reviews.

A good review answers some basic questions: What did this book, movie, CD, or whatever try to do? How well did it do it? What did the reviewer think of it? Why did the reviewer think that?

One mistake reviewers sometimes make is to provide too much summary and not enough evaluation. A review is different from a book report. You're not trying to prove that you've read the book; you're helping the reader decide whether they should read the book. In the case of a book you're also evaluating its overall contribution to society and literature. Is this a timeless classic? A light diversion? Is there anything in this book that will stick with the reader? Is it believable? Do you learn something about a place or occupation or historical event through the book? Do you identify with the characters and come to care about them?

Remember that while it's acceptable to include first-person references in a review, your writing will have more power if you avoid calling attention to yourself directly. You don't have to say, "I think this is great" in a review, You can just say, "This is great." Since it's you writing it, we'll assume it's you saying it; there's no need to call attention to yourself unnecessarily.

As well as giving your opinion, make sure you tell us how you reached that conclusion. Your readers will want to understand your reasoning so they can see if they agree with it. Your negative review may be a positive thing for somebody with different tastes. For instance, a movie review that says "There's so much nonstop action that you never really get to know the characters" will be helpful to somebody who prefers movies where the characters relate to one another primarily through gunshots and high-speed chases.

As a reviewer, you should know more than your reader about your subject. Right off hand, you've read the book, seen the movie or listened to the CD. But beyond that, you're probably more in touch with industry trends. A review can be an educational piece, helping the reader place the work in some sort of historic context. Feel free to include background information that may help your reader understand and appreciate the work. But be sure to remember that there's a fine line between being informative and showing off.

There are many formats for reviews, but here's a basic one:

  1. An attention-getting lead sentence or paragraph that also lets us know what you're reviewing and gives us a sense of how you liked it.
  2. A recap of the product. This might include mention of earlier products from the same folks, as well as a general description of the product and your take on the creator's goals (but if it's a product with a plot don't give away too much – don't spoil it!).
  3. Your general response. If you liked it or disliked it, tell us why.
  4. Give the other side its due. Even if you generally liked it, be sure to point out that there may be shortcomings. And even if you didn't like it, take time to say what worked.
  5. Recap your general thesis: but, having said that, overall it's great, or it stinks.