I’ve had Writing Reviews on my mind a lot lately (for some strange reason), and I thought I’d share some of the points I think that a good review must have.
- Bare Facts. No matter what you’re reviewing–books, movies, technology, restaurants–you need to provide the facts. For books, include the title, author, publisher, copyright date. For movies, include the title, producer and/or director, lead actors, studio, genre, and rating. For technology, include the manufacturer, designer,
operating system (if it matters), basic compatibility issues. For restaurants, include the name, the owner, the address, the type of food they make. None of these items takes any real thought on your part, but they’re vital for the people reading your review. What good does it do to hear about a fantastic movie if you don’t know its name? Or a software program that would just exactly meet your needs, but the reviewer didn’t bother to tell you if it was for a Mac or PC.
- First Impressions. You may not be able to judge a book by its cover, but that doesn’t mean its impression doesn’t matter. When you pick up the book, does it look classy? Exciting? Trashy? Does that new cellphone fit nicely in your hand and bring a twinkle to your eye, or is it an ugly box, no matter how functional? Does the restaurant look clean? Crowded? Appealing? It never hurts to let your reader know your first thoughts … you’re going to get into details later, but chances are that if you were impressed by the initial presentation, they will be, too. Or–more important–if you were initially turned off by something that ended up being completely rewarding, they need to know that, so they won’t give up at their first impression.
- Details, Details, and Even More Details. Yes, this is the meat of the review, and is a must. How many recipes are in the book? How many gory scenes that your 10-year old shouldn’t watch were in the horror movie? Did the new gadget crash your computer? How many tables did the restaurant have? Is the camera the only thing in the box, or does it come with a rechargeable battery, a memory card, and a case, too? Is the pretty pattern on the cover the only decent knitting pattern in the entire book? Did the movie’s director bounce all over the place while piecing together the story? People make decisions at least partially based on information–so be sure to give it to them.
- But Not Too Many Details. It’s tempting to say that you can’t have too many details, but, well, you can. You don’t want to get bogged down. There’s no need to list every recipe in the cookbook–but you want to give your readers a good idea of what they’re getting. Give them a taste, but not a whole serving. Like a good chef, you want to leave them satisfied but wanting more.
- Photos. Depending on where your review is going, this might not be an option. A 100-word capsule in a magazine might not have room for a photo, but if you can, provide pictures. Illustrations from the book. Stills from the movie. Pictures of the MP3 player in right out of the box–along with a side view, a picture of the powered-on screen, and one with a coin or a paperclip for scale. Because not everybody is going to read every word in your review, BUT almost everyone will at least glance at the pictures. And if your pictures are good enough, they might decide to read after all. And, besides, you can describe a restaurant as “crowded,” but a picture can really clarify if you mean snug or crammed-like-sardines.
- Stay Impartial. Above all, be FAIR. Even if you hated the restaurant, there had to be something good about the experience, right? Maybe the bread was delicious, or the waiter was funny. Or the lighting made reading the menus easy, and we didn’t trip when we came through the easily-opening door, and the chairs were sturdy and didn’t collapse under our weight. Or, if you loved the movie and thought it was the best thing since Citizen Kane, you might still want to point out that the actor playing the lead’s third-cousin’s brother-in-law couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag, or that the lighting in the scene where the murder took place was a trifle too moody to make out what was happening.
It’s easy to see both sides when you feel more or less neutral about what you’re reviewing–some things were good, some things were bad, and you’re happy to share both for the enlightenment of your readers. But when you are completely on the love or hate side of the spectrum … well, you still need to find something on the contrary end. Because, remember, not everybody has the same sterling taste that you have, and while you may think that book was the best thing between two covers–even better than your spouse–you may be sure that there will be other people who hated it with every fiber of their being. So, try to be impartial–if only to cut down on the “You idiot, how could you be so stupid?” emails later on.
- But Give Your Personal Opinion. Still … people are presumably reading your review because they respect your opinion. If you stay completely impartial, you start sounding like an evenly balanced Pro/Con list, and where’s the fun in that? There’s absolutely nothing wrong (in my opinion) in closing your review with a personal summation. “This is one book I’ll keep on my shelves.” “I’m going back to see the movie, and taking my nephew with me.” “All in all, I’m delighted I bought this widget for my camera.”
- Remember the Purpose of the Review. My feeling is that a review’s main purpose is to give the consumer advice on whether or not the product or service you are reviewing is worth their time and money. This is not the same thing as telling them what to do, but rather giving them the tools they need to make an informed decision. I could rave about an Italian restaurant, but if you hate Italian food, you still won’t be interested … until, perhaps, I mention the killer chocolate lava dessert, or that one of your favorite bands performs there regularly on weekends, so that suddenly, you ARE interested in an Italian restaurant. As long as you preface your personal opinion as being your opinion … well, it’s your review. It can’t help but be a little personal.
- Rating … or Not? Finally–this one is your choice. Do you give a rating? Four Stars? A-Plus? Thumbs-Up? Five Swizzle Sticks? Or not? Personally, I prefer not to because, again, my readers’ mileage may vary, and I don’t want to assume they’re in the same car I am–I could hate it, they could love it, but if I gave something a triple-thumbs-down, they might skip the review altogether and miss out on what they would have thought was the best horror movie ever–just because I can’t stand horror films. Rating systems act as handy shortcuts–“That movie got four stars!”–but in my opinion, they counteract the impartiality thing, and the “everybody’s taste is different” rule, so I prefer not to use them. (Of course, I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feeling by giving the result of decades of their hard work an F-minus … their work should count for something, right?)
Think of your review as a movie-trailer–you need to give enough information that they know (or think they know) what to expect, but not giving too much away. Although you have to play fair (unlike the movie trailer people)–don’t put all the best lines in your review, and don’t give away too much information.
But, ultimately, you’re letting people know about something they might not have known about and sharing your presumably informed opinions about it … and leaving the rest of the decision up to them.
What do you think? Did I miss anything? What do YOU think makes a good review?