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Arts and Literature

Writing a Review

Whether to review the creative effort of a musician, filmmaker, artist, author, etc. you need an open mind, careful choice of words, conscious effort to examine the piece of work, and mostly an interest in the subject/ art-form so as to give an authoritative or at least a comprehensive commentary on the work in question.

In this article we will briefly go over the basic motives, purpose and required skills to do an effective review of a creative endeavour.

Purpose of a review:

Mostly, the basic aim to review a movie or a book, etc is to state your experience of that movie/ book for the benefit of others who haven’t experienced it as yet. When you review a movie, you are giving your feelings toward the movie to others who are interested in watching movies. So this is something personal, yet it is something influencing others. You may be able to find a book so worthy that you would deem it necessary reading for everyone. So if you feel that strongly about a work of creativity, you have the natural desire to share it with the world – to tell them that this is good, that they need to experience it as well.

Simply saying a movie is “awesome” doesn’t really help. You have to give a coherent analysis of the work to influence others. So if you hated the “Transformers” movie, simply saying so doesn’t tell others how bad the movie is. You need to put into words the horrible experience and state reasons why moviegoers should preferably avoid it.

For aficionados money may be of no concern. So that is a very lame reason to state – don’t buy that because the book isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. It is lame because you have given no insight into the novel. It’s not just juvenile but also unfair to the person who is reading your rant-like review.

So the purpose:

1. Express your feelings and experiences of the work in question

2. Influence others with analysis and review of the work in question

3. Establish your own position as an authority on the subject with insight and thoughtful commentary

4. Avoid ad hominem attack on the creator or fans and justify your stand with critical but unbiased view

Essentials of a Reviewer:

In today’s internet age, no one needs qualified credentials to write a review. You don’t need a Doctorate degree in the subject to state your experience/ opinion of the creative work. Nor do you need to be an engineer to review a car or a laptop. If you have read a dozen books by different authors and find that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is still better than today’s detective authors – that’s fine. You don’t need to have a Masters in Literature to come to that conclusion. Because it is your personal opinion based on your personal experience. Nonetheless, you need to prove your point. Simply saying Sherlock Holmes tops Philip Marlowe gives us no benefit of your experience. You need to be able to compare and criticise and analyse the works in question.

The word “criticise” itself seems to have got very strong negative connotations in modern times.

The definition we should consider here is:

criticise (verb) = Act as a critic

critic (noun) = A person who is professionally engaged in the analysis and interpretation of works of art

So all you need to do is apply thought and focus on evaluating the authors/ characters/ plots/ scenes/ dialogues/ flow/ prose/ etc. to show us why you think Sherlock Holmes is better than the other works of detective fiction.

Essential Pointers:

1. Be open-minded, unbiased, and open to the exploration of the subject

2. Be Analytical and state reasons for your choice, likes/ dislikes, etc.

3. Illustrate for the reader your passion for or against the movie/ book/ product/ etc. being reviewed

4. Educate, inform and be engaging/ entertaining

5. Give feedback to the creator/ seller

6. Don’t miss the forest for the trees

7. Separate the work from the creator

8. Don’t write a Wiki, don’t giveaway spoilers

9. Create value or degrade value – create interest or project disinterest

10. Basic writing skills (elementary school essay writing level at the least)

The detached spectator:

A good reviewer knows how to detach personal emotions, ambitions, bias, favourites, etc. to look at a creative product in its naked state. He needs to be free from guilt or prejudice. To view the work in its entirety as well in its fragments.

Such an open-mind is not easy to maintain for everyone. To read “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” and appreciate that drug-addled adventure, it’s not something everyone can do. But see the story and the characters and the words and emotions instead of focussing on the thought of your personal disgust of drug-addicts.

If you, for instance, have a severe dislike of smokers, and then you see a movie where the upright hero is a chain smoker – you should be able to view the character and story for what it is instead of bringing personal disgust of the habit into the review.

For example: The hero of a book is married but cheats on his wife with other women. So he then goes on to great things and even gets a happy ending despite his immoral behaviour. Maybe he divorces and finds true love elsewhere.

Now if you as a person can’t associate with this man, that’s fine. You may think he is corrupt beyond forgiveness and may wish the book was never published. But you need to analyse and reveal to us in your review why the story is good or bad. Don’t bring your own personal belief system to a work of art. If you hate “Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, bring more to the table than the Bible.

The book and the movie “The English Patient” for example, does have a wife who cheats on her husband and her husband does die devastated about his cheating wife.

But also, it is a great emotional tale, set in the grand backdrop of World War II. The story analyses not just human emotions and their nature, but also gives us a greatly engaging tale of love and war and fate, etc.

So be detached from personal bias. Prejudice against a subject won’t help you give a worthwhile review.

That is not to say that you should be a cold-blooded surgeon dissecting the work.

You should be able to show your enthusiasm or disgust in words that are analytical and state valid reasons why the work is great or lousy. Saying Harry Potter feeds souls to the Devil is not a critical review; it’s just lame and lacks any critical thought.

Passion is indeed an asset to the critic. The passionate reviewer inflicts on his reader a contagious thought about the book he reviewed. This effect of a review to excite the reader about a book or movie is part of the job for the critic. The reviewer’s passion spreads to his reader to make the reader feel strongly about watching that movie or deciding not to watch it.

Another aspect of this detachment is to remove yourself from your feelings toward the creator. Some may love all movies of Steven Spielberg just because it is directed by him. A reviewer needs a sharper judgment. You need to analyse his movie for what it is, not by the director’s past work and certainly not by your love of his past movies. You may have grown up admiring him for his movies, but as a critic you need to shed that Indian Jones fedora hat and be rational. Same goes for authors whose books you love. Analyse the next book for what it is instead of assuming it to be great because it is by that famous author you adore. You may love Sylvester Stallone and he has starred in thrilling action movies, but now try to look at his movie without feeling so strongly about Stallone – instead focus on the character he plays – is that a good character, is the plot of the movie playing out well, etc. The character in the story is more important than the actor who plays it for a reviewer. But of course you also need to evaluate the actor’s ability at acting, for his screen presence, dialogue delivery, etc. This detachment is not so easy and needs practice and conscious effort. Same way, just because you dislike an actor or even hate his personal lifestyle, avoid bringing all that personal baggage of yours into the review of his movie.

One should always try to separate the art from the artist.

For example: Just because a musician is critically or commercially appreciated – it should not be assumed he is a great guy in person – and he should also not be expected to live a life of Sainthood.

It works in reverse as well: Example: Just because a filmmaker like George Lucas is a great guy, great human – it doesn’t have to mean that any fan is obligated to assume his crappy prequel of Star Wars is as good as the past ones.

Of course people have expectations from their idols, it is a given. It is also a given that they are humans after all.

To thine own art be true:

So it is a fine balance actually to be passionate about something, yet give a fair unbiased commentary on a creative endeavour or any product/ service. Example: If you hate Bill Gates, that’s fine. But use your critical skills to tell us why Windows OS doesn’t deserve to be widely used. Security issues, or privacy issues, etc. could help you build a case against Microsoft Windows and then you can add to it by comparing the benefits of Linux or Mac OS, etc.

If you are fiercely vegan, you can’t possibly give an honest review about the new KFC franchise that opened in your town. You won’t know how good the chicken tastes, or other aspects of their menu. So sometimes, you just have to stick to subjects you have the knowledge about.

The positive reviewer:

A good reviewer entertains as well as educates with his review. You could inform the reader about the wonderful new restaurant and at the same time poke fun at its competitors. Essentially, people taking time to read your review need to receive – they deserve to receive – benefit from your experience/ opinion.

Also your review is your feedback on the product/ service/ artwork.

So you have the chance to weigh the pros and cons. You can also make suggestions or say how that bit of dialogue seemed out of place in a movie.

As an editor of Freedom Fiction Journal at http://freedomfriends.in/, I have edited and reviewed many fiction stories and digital art. But since these authors and artists have sincerely taken efforts to create something and wish to share it with the editor, it is important for me to give them a good analysis. So I always ensure that irrespective of whether their work is accepted or rejected, they receive feedback on their skills as a writer or artist. They know I have read and scrutinised their work, that I have responded to their creative efforts with an effort to help them improve, or to simply tell them what is right about the story, why it is good work.

So that is another way to look at reviews. A feedback from a consumer to the creator/seller of the movie/ book/ video game/ toaster/ etc. – anything – anything that is sold or offered for use by others can be reviewed.

Also it is of prime importance that you don’t ruin the experience for others. If you blurt out the complete plot of the novel or movie, you are just ruining things for everyone and not being helpful to a book-lover or movie-buff. So ensure you watch out for things which may make the review into a Wiki of a movie/ book and thus defeat the purpose to inspire/ influence a person’s intent of reading that book or watching that movie.

Ensure that you can be true to yourself as a user and thus share an experience from which others can learn and appreciate the value of the product.

For example, if you think that a fashion store is really giving value for money, that they have quality products at affordable prices, do mention that to show how valuable that store itself is to a fashionable city-gal. Generate the value for their service. Sometimes a good review of a DVD has been known to create a surge in sales of that DVD. You don’t get any money out of it but you have shared your joy with others and given them the benefit of your experience. Coming back to the store, there are columnists who write simply about the best place to buy something. They review stores, for example various shoe stores to find that best one. Then pick another product, say coffee and review various cafés to inform us from their experience.

So reviewers sometimes make the leap to be professional critics. Usually newspapers and magazines won’t employ someone as critic without valid credentials/ qualifications. But there are enough examples on the internet on how a simple blog or online web-magazine has influenced decisions of consumers and also that of creators/sellers. There are professional bloggers who have successfully attracted an audience of readers who appreciate the reviews and allow the reviewer to thus be a fulltime critic.

Basically, if you know what you are talking about, it is a good review and people will read it and come back again for your views on other products/ creations.

Few Tips:

1. Passion without abuse or ga-ga fandom

2. Analysis and evaluation of that creative work or product or service

3. Reasoning to support your claims of it being good or bad or average

4. Words that entertain as well educates

5. Ensure you don’t ruin other’s experience of it by revealing details that make the reader’s experience of it redundant

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About udey

Ujjwal Dey has written 20 post in this blog.

www.UjjwalDey.com www.FreedomFiction.com www.IQmind.org www.GoodNews.name