Though I have no intention of writing reviews anytime soon, I might someday, so this article, judged by its title, seemed interesting: How to Write a Good Review.
While I disagree that becoming a full-time critic is a good use of one’s life (rule three of the artist’s creed), the skill of critiquing is vital for the development of almost any skill, especially creative ones, where the choices are plenty and the rules lost in the depths of the subconscious mind.
On a quick side note, one thing I’ve noticed about reviews, which I find to be extremely annoying, is that they spend sometimes up to over half their time describing the plot of the work they’re reviewing. That’s a summary, not a review. But I suppose it makes sense; many people read reviews to decide whether or not to see a certain film or read a certain book. It can also be helpful in establishing the context of the review. I sometimes read reviews for this purpose, but more often I read them out of curiosity, to get different perspectives on work I’ve already experienced and naturally made my own judgments about, but might’ve missed some important point. Different people can see the same piece of work so differently, especially because so many people have different past experiences upon which to base their new experiences.
I suppose that brings up an important point that must be considered when writing a review. Why will a reader be reading it? In the aforementioned article, the author quotes a phrase from a review of the film Green Lantern (2011):
This is pure popcorn entertainment, a one-dimensional outing that is more in the ballpark of Thor and Fantastic Four than anything else.
The author says this about it:
Roberts use of certain critical clichés like ‘popcorn entertainment’ and ‘one-dimensional’ without either explaining them or relating them to some broader opinion about the film does suggest that he is applying a set of rules and templates without necessarily understanding what they mean.
I won’t argue about whether or not Roberts understands what those phrases mean; I think most readers will understand what he means in the context he uses them. (He’s saying the movie does little more than provide visual entertainment; there’s no deeper theme in the story, or if there is, it’s not a very good one.) I think Roberts’ review was meant for readers who didn’t want the details, they just wanted to know whether or not to see the movie that weekend or spend their $30 elsewhere. Roberts wasn’t pleased with the movie, but he does mention two other movies, Thor and Fantastic Four, so if readers enjoyed those movies, they might enjoy this one as well. So Roberts’ review may indeed include cliché phrases, but if the readers just want a brief answer to the question of whether or not they should go see it, I think clichés are perfectly fine. I think the author of the article wants to write reviews for readers who want a more in-depth, more analytical review.
As I say in the artist’s creed, no work of art is perfect. You could find something to critique in just about every work of art, especially films and literature. But looking at every work of art with that critical eye can be exhausting. If you’re watching a film or reading a book to be entertained, the mind may be a bit more passive, bathing in the vague feelings the work brings about, but otherwise not questioning where such emotions are coming from, at least not to a very great degree.
But I think the author’s point is still important. It may be OK for a review to be filled with clichés, but if the reader and writer don’t even realize when and how they’re using clichés and are simply being vague because they’re stupid or lazy or both, then the writer may be unintentionally misleading the reader, keeping him from enjoying a film he might’ve enjoyed because he didn’t enjoy it for reasons that might not have affected the reader had he chosen to see it. Or, at best, the review becomes mostly superfluous, and the writer fills a page with clichés and vague notions when a simple “I didn’t like it” would have sufficed, wasting the readers’ time (and perhaps the reviewer’s time, if he’s not getting paid).
The author tries to fit the skill of writing reviews in with “A Dreyfus Model of Critical Skill Acquisition.” I think this is silly at best. While the Dreyfus model he describes is somewhat interesting by itself, I think it’s inapplicable to the acquisition of any practical skills.
Not that the author is implying otherwise, but I think this Dreyfus model is too simplistic; a skill in and of itself is not a discrete entity. Acquiring skills may still fit the model, but you can’t rate your own or someone else’s “level of skill” that easily. Aspects of your skill may be low, while other aspects may already be mastered. For example, in chess, while we can say that you will be objectively better at the game after five years of studying for eight hours a day, you may be better at king and pawn endgames while another player is better at openings. The real “rules” of chess are not the rules of how you move pieces, nor are they just the sorts of patterns you read in books on chess. They are ultimately large-scale patterns that you only memorize with the experience of conscious effort, and even then it’s not necessarily guaranteed. It is similar with language and music; if we could completely define the rules by which we create and perceive such things, then we should be able to make computers write stories and symphonies. We can’t yet. Some rules are still elusive. So how do we know whether or not we have mastered these rules? We can’t, really. All we can judge is whether we can achieve the outcome we want, and how hard it was to achieve that outcome.
Overall, this article didn’t seem live up to the title; the only thing the author really says about how to write a review is to be more specific than giving vague cliché phrases to represent your conclusions. Not being a big reader of reviews, I thought there might have been some kind of conventional formatting or style that I didn’t know about or something, but perhaps not.