Friday, January 05, 2007

Writing is Hard: Review guidelines

After my post the other day about critics, a buddy of mine made a comment on the LiveJournal feed that let me know that I hadn't been clear on something. I do believe that it's appropriate for critics to talk about their own experiences and opinions and how those color a particular review. That kind of thing helps the reader know where you're coming from so that they can also know how likely they are to agree with you. My point in the post was that your review can't be just a bunch of personal reactions. For the review to be useful, at some point you've got to actually talk about specific merits and flaws of the work you're reviewing.

Anyway, clarifying that made me remember that I once wrote some review guidelines for people who want to write reviews for Comic World News. They're heavily influenced by Johanna Draper Carlson's article "How to Review," which is also worth reading for anyone interested in this kind of thing, but I also include some of my own observations.

Here's mine (slightly edited to remove requirements that are specific to CWN style):

Reviews should be between 500 - 1500 words, but this is a somewhat flexible rule. Some books, particularly anthologies, require longer reviews, but those should be the exception.

Please use short paragraphs. Densely packed text is unreadable on a computer screen.

Reviews shouldn’t just say what you think about the story. They should also be interesting to read. Start reviews with some kind of hook. Something that will make people want to read the rest of the review.

Summarizing the plot of the story is necessary, but keep it brief and spoiler-free. Imagine that you’re writing the blurb for the back cover of a book. No more than one or two paragraphs. If you can do it in a couple of sentences, that’s even better. If it’s impossible to sum up a plot without spoiling it, that’s your call, but include a spoiler warning.

Discuss what the story does well (if anything) as well as its flaws (if any). Do this in reference not only to the plot, but also the pacing, the dialogue, the characterization, and the sheer entertainment value. Give specific examples of successes and failures. Don’t forget to talk about the art. You don’t have to have studied art to know if things look the way they should or whether or not panel layout is confusing. Talk about word balloons and lettering if there’s something noteworthy there – positive or negative.

Don’t be afraid to trash a story if it doesn’t do anything well, but this should be rare. Don’t be afraid to gush if it hits every single one of your buttons, but this should be even more uncommon. Don’t be afraid to reveal your personal reasons for having a particular reaction to a story. Your personal experiences and baggage color your reviews and it’s only fair to get that stuff in the open so that readers can more accurately decide if their experience will be similar to or different from yours. They don’t need your life story; just enough so that they know where you’re coming from.

Never trash a creator. Stick to commenting on the merits and flaws of the story.

It’s okay to sound like you know what you’re talking about. You should. Just don’t talk down to your readers. Always remember that you’re doing this for them. In that light, let your sense of humor and personality show. You’re not writing an encyclopedia entry.

1 comment:

West said...

I knew that was what you meant.


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