So, about that “writing reviews” thing…

19 Apr

As some of you may know, I am a moderator at MyMedia, which started as one of the biggest LOST discussion forums back in September 2004. I cross-post most of my reviews over there, and recently I was asked to write a quick and dirty primer for the movie review subforum.

After a bit of thought, I realized it addresses one of my main pet peeves about reviewing (i.e., what makes for a good review). The post is after the fold, minus the bits that pertain specifically to MyMedia; I also have added a few further thoughts after it.


I know that there are many people who are intimidated at the idea of writing a review, particularly if they feel that there are some complicated rules, or rigid expectations.

There really aren’t; a good review boils down to a very simple thing: why did you like/didn’t like something? Why did you find it useful/interesting/boring/offensive/likable?

Think about that movie you saw that has you bubbling with excitement. You want everyone to watch it, so you can talk about it, and relive all the good parts. What do you say to a friend to encourage her to watch it with you?

Or perhaps it’s a movie that had many problematic elements, and you would like to discuss it with other people. What would you tell them to convince them to watch it?

Or how about a movie you felt was the most terrible waste of time and money in the history of cinema. What about it makes it so terrible for you?

The level of detail in a review is entirely up to you; the only caveat on this would be giving away a particular twist or surprise ending, because that kind of thing tends to spoil the experience for potential viewers. (I still want to murder my son for spoiling The Sixth Sense for me, for example)

One way to start is to think about the aspects of the movie that resonated with you:

  • It’s an action movie, and the fight scenes are great/suck/don’t work
  • It’s a romantic comedy, and you didn’t find it funny/didn’t feel chemistry between the leads
  • It’s a period drama, and the costumes are anachronistic/perfect
  • It’s billed as a science fiction movie, but there is no science

That’s pretty much it.

~ * ~

I didn’t realize until after posting the above, that the second line encapsulates what, for me, as a reader and consumer, constitutes a good review; where good = useful.

Those of you who have known me around these here intrawebs for a while, know that I get my dander up every time someone refers to a negative review as a bad review, and to any and all positive reviews as good reviews. I find it particularly grating when it’s people who talk about how they use reviews to make purchasing decisions.

Because, seriously, how helpful do you find a review that reads, in its entirety, “BEST THING EVER!!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!!!!”

Off the top of my head I can think of at least five bloggers/reviewers who complain about those one-line-gush fests that say nothing about the book, yet commiserate with authors about long, detailed, well-written ‘bad’ reviews. I wonder whether those same bloggers ever stop to think that some of the reviews they themselves have written over the years, would fall under the ‘bad review’ rubric, using that yardstick.

(Yeah, I know, I’m old and cranky.)

Why does this bother me so much? Because I put quite a bit of thought into my reviews. It’s not just reading the freaking book, it’s thinking about why I feel about it the way I do. What works, what doesn’t, and why. And then, trying to put those feelings down in some sort of coherent order. Paying attention to how much I say about the plot, because I really don’t want to spoil someone else’s reading experience, while trying to ensure I give enough detail so that people who have specific triggers know what to expect.

As I type this, I have something like two dozen reviews in draft form, because I just didn’t find a way to write down all those whys I mentioned above. In some cases, I’ll have to read the book again before I can finish writing the reviews. Some of those reviews will never be published, because I just can’t be bothered to re-read the novel–and no, it’s not always that I didn’t like that particular book, it’s more than I’m a mood reader.

I am perfectly aware that I don’t always succeed in answering those all-important what and why questions, but I damned well try, and it pisses me off to have a good chunk of my work dismissed as ‘bad’ simply because it addresses whatever it is that didn’t work for me.

Negative reviews have value, dammit.

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18 Responses to “So, about that “writing reviews” thing…”

  1. Miss Bates 19/04/2016 at 6:30 PM #

    Hear, hear!

    • azteclady 19/04/2016 at 6:41 PM #

      You are much too kind, my dear Miss Bates.

      • Miss Bates 19/04/2016 at 6:42 PM #

        You are very much astute! 😉

      • azteclady 19/04/2016 at 6:48 PM #

        (Mostly, I’m just cranky)

      • Miss Bates 19/04/2016 at 10:57 PM #

        We prefer curmudgeonly. 😉

      • azteclady 19/04/2016 at 10:59 PM #

        Indeed!

        Indeed, we do.

  2. Dorine 22/04/2016 at 6:30 PM #

    Excellent points. Most of the books I buy are based on someone’s review and it’s not usually a gusher that convinces me. I need details on what does and doesn’t work unless I know the reviewer has similar tastes to mine.

    • azteclady 22/04/2016 at 6:37 PM #

      Exactly–and even then, I want to know at least something of how that particular book aligned with that reader’s tastes. People can like the same things for different reasons, so it’s always better to know what and why resonated with that person at that time.

      • Dorine 22/04/2016 at 6:50 PM #

        Good point. I’ll try to remember that for my myself in the future.

  3. Bona Caballero 23/04/2016 at 5:44 AM #

    Good post! I realise that sometimes I use the terms good/bad review when I should be using positive/negative. I will try to be more careful with language in the future.
    The basic idea is –IMO- that reviews are for readers, not for authors, but many writers do not think so. Therefore, for them, it’s just good/bad review considering the impact they think it’s going to have in sales. BTW, a (Spanish) romance writer whose blog I follow has recently written about how she deals with
    ‘Las malas críticas’, perhaps it could interest you as it’s spoken from the other side, as a writer.

    • azteclady 23/04/2016 at 5:52 AM #

      I understand very well why authors see negative reviews as inherently bad–very few authors truly subscribe to the ‘reviews are for readers, and authors should not read them.’ Mind you, many authors say that, but I don’t think all who do truly believe it.

      But aren’t authors and readers often talking about how words matter? Words often reflect a subconscious bias. If we–readers who review–continue to internalize that negative=bad, we are also doing a couple more things:
      1) we are telling ourselves that the hard work we put in crafting a negative review is wasted.
      2) we are telling ourselves that we are doing something we shouldn’t (bad)
      3) we help justify the charge that readers who write negative reviews are ‘mean girls’
      4) which gives more ammunition to the ‘if you can’t say something nice, say nothing’ movement

      • Bona Caballero 23/04/2016 at 6:17 AM #

        You’re right. The last sentence, in particular, is a clear gender stereotype. No, we women do not have to be nice or shut up.

    • azteclady 23/04/2016 at 5:59 AM #

      Also, I followed the link; I vehemently disagree with the author’s sentiments. The implication is that ‘only good readers’ can write critical reviews, and the idea that the author should ‘defend her authorial decisions’ negates the fact that reviews are not for the author. Readers write reviews to share their personal views with other readers, we are not content editors here to offer writers “constructive criticism” so they can learn to write better.

      Authors who spend their time checking the credentials–as this writer says she does “only when she has the time”–of their reviewers risk falling down the rabbit hole, sliding down the slippery slope that ends with them writing abusive posts on GoodReads’ reviews that are not glowing enough.

      • Bona Caballero 23/04/2016 at 6:56 AM #

        I think that’s, more or less, what I told her, and she seemed to agree. But you have to understand that the Spanish blogosphere -generally speaking- lacks of serious criticism. Every book is great and everybody is wonderful, etc. That’s one of the reasons why I started my blog. So it’s a total shock when someone points out the bad grammar, or the trite plots.
        Spanish writers usually have this problem not only with bloggers but also with editors! Whenever you have time (it’s a long post and the comments are quite detailed) you can read this post of a “correctora” (not exactly an editor, but I just don’t know the name in English) about how badly authors react to certain professional editing. I think KJ Charles, who has worked editing herself, has posted about it once, if I remember correctly.

      • azteclady 23/04/2016 at 7:10 AM #

        That lack of serious criticism in the English speaking romance reading ‘community’ is why Karen Scott, the SmartBitches, Dear Author, and many other blogs were started; even at AAR, ten years ago, criticism of any aspect of the book–not just poorly done characterization, or plot holes, but an abundance of typos or whatever–meant that the author of said criticism would be drummed out of the community.

        The fact that Karen, and Candy and Sarah, and the Ja(y)nes (Dear Author), had to create their own spaces so that they could share their own, uncensored reactions to what they read, is very telling–and the fact that to this day (keep in mind, these three blogs are all over ten years old), they are all considered to be ‘mean girls,’ that there are people, both readers and writers, who feel glee that Jane was sued, who feel that ‘she had it coming’ and talk about how she ‘eviscerated’ authors, etc.; all of these, also speak to the fact that women are expected to always be nice–or be quiet.

        Almost four years ago I mentioned that no one blinked when Roger Ebert wrote blistering movie reviews. Yeah, the director of that one movie may bitch about the review, but it wasn't something that was discussed or debated, and Ebert was never called a bully or a meanie–and let's remember, he was arguably the best know and most influential movie critic for decades.

        But dog forbid a woman points the flaws or weaknesses of a book/movie/game; the torches and pitchforks come out in droves.

      • azteclady 23/04/2016 at 7:12 AM #

        (Sorry, I bypassed this: I believe that ‘correctora’ is ‘line editor’ in English)

  4. Jules Jones 23/04/2016 at 6:27 AM #

    On the “a negative review is a bad review” thing – a well-written negative review can sell books to readers who like whatever it is the reviewer dislikes, or at least don’t care about but do care about something else in the book. As I have noted occasionally on my own blog, there is a one star review of The Syndicate on Amazon US that makes me wince every time I see it, but I know that review sold several copies to people who read the snarky line about “if you like…” and said to themselves, “Why yes, I *would* like that. [click]”

    • azteclady 23/04/2016 at 6:32 AM #

      Exactly!

      I don’t remember which ones exactly, but I know that some of Karen Scott’s most blistering reviews have netted the authors some sales–and granted, some of those sales have probably been of the “I need to hate read this/I can’t believe it’s that bad” variety, but not all of them.

      And your point–the “do care about something else in the book”–is why writing a review that answers the “what did you/didn’t you like and why” questions is so important, regardless of what that one reader thought about the book.

      (Sorry, I’m repeating myself, but it really rubs me wrong)

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