Friday, May 11, 2018

Writing Basics: How To Write A Review

I've worked with students and fledgling writers and I've read a lot of blog posts over the years. While the style and content of arts writing continues to evolve and break new ground, I think some basic conventions need to be observed. I came up with the following to help a client.


As with ANY ESSAY, start with a THESIS STATEMENT. This will encapsulate your MAIN IDEA about the play, book, movie, piece of music you are reviewing: It is good, it is bad, it is problematic, it has great performances, it should do well, I wish it was longer/shorter– whatever. Say it up front.

The opening paragraph should incorporate BASIC DETAILS about the thing being reviewed: full title, author, artist, producer, date, location, etc. If there are other specifics, they can be woven into subsequent paragraphs.

KEEP YOUR AUDIENCE IN MIND when you write. Are they older, younger, male, female, avid fans of the artist or genre, or a general audience? You may employ a different thesis and/or different details when writing for a more specific audience.

• For example: If you are writing about Magic Johnson, don’t just use his name and go on from there. On first mention, tell us he is Earvin “Magic” Johnson, an ENTREPRENEUR, RETIRED NBA CHAMPION, and PRESIDENT of OPERATIONS for the LOS ANGELES LAKERS.
• Be as specific as possible. No one knows everything. And even if they once knew, they need to be reminded of the details.

IDENTIFY THE GENRE in first or second paragraph. Is it a musical, a comedy, a thriller, a mystery, a drama, a buddy flick, a romantic comedy, a sci-fi fantasy? Say so up front. Music should also be identified as rock, pop, hip-hop, country, etcetera. If it combines genres, or twists them into something new, note that as well. Many artists today don't like to be typed within a genre, so it's up to you to give the reader a sense of where the art falls on the spectrum.

Keep your verb tenses in the PRESENT. Art comes into existence and remains in existence forever, even if the performance in real time is over.

Try NOT TO TELL THE WHOLE STORY. This is important in a review of a film or play. It is best to share the premise, the main characters, and the details of the main character’s struggle. This gets tricky, though; some reviews do contain an entire synopsis of the story in order to assess the success of the story and the production.

DON’T CONFUSE ACTORS WITH THEIR CHARACTERS in your description of the action. You may like an actor personally, but that doesn’t mean he/she is perfectly cast, or that they give a great performance in that role -- you must decide that as a reviewer. In my opinion, there are several actors who simply play themselves over and over, which doesn’t stretch them as actors. Similarly, not all recording artists write their own music.

ANALYZE ALL THE MOVING PARTS of what you are reviewing. A film and a play consist of acting, costuming, script/storyline, set design, locations, pacing/timing, editing, soundtrack/score/ incidental music, lighting, stunts. Which of these factors made the film stand out? Which were less than stellar? Acknowledge the work of production members where possible and by name. The same goes for music: There may be distinctions between the song and the production/arrangement/performance of said song.

It is OK to COMPARE & CONTRAST with other works in the genre. By mentioning other works with similar themes, or by the same creators, you help readers understand a bit more about the piece you are reviewing. Make sure that your reference is detailed, and your comparison is descriptive.

Even if you hate it, find at least ONE POSITIVE thing to say about it. Art represents an investment of time and effort, and art should always be encouraged even when we don’t like the outcome. By the same token, if you have a positive review, it’s OK to mention things that could have been better.

FOR YOUR CONCLUSION, CIRCLE BACK TO YOUR THESIS. It’s smart to repeat the overall main point of your thesis at the end, then add more confirmation or opinion. The whole piece should have been spelling out just why you think that main thesis is true and why what you’re reviewing is bad, good, or otherwise.

Some outlets require you to end with the specifics of how/where/when the reader can access the work, so be aware of that.

Now certainly, there are variations on how a review can be written, and sometimes your word count will affect how well a writer can hit all of these marks. But these are the basics.