I was having a conversation with Ana, a fellow reviewer with a blog HERE! about the nature of reviewing. Recently I’ve been getting a blush worthy amount of attention for my reviews, which is fantastic, but as I was telling my lady-friend, Katherine, I never set out to be a reviewer. The intention behind this blog was to create a conduit through which I could interact with my readers. That my reviews have garnered more attention than my published works is ironic, but hey, you gotta start somewhere!
Anyways, my conversation with Ana got me thinking about reviewing in a broader sense and what it means to write good reviews. I have a bathrobe and a pointy hat, but I’m not a wizard, so I can’t provide any magic answers. Or am I?
What I can do, however, is provide some little tips and tricks into my reviewing process. Some of these are really obvious, some of them maybe not so much. Will these work for you? Boy howdy, I don’t know. Reviewing is like writing a story, there is no right way, just the way that works for you.
So here’s some food for thought when you’re writing your next review, blog post, short story, love letter, or eviction notice.
1) Make your words do more.
I can be notoriously long winded. I type as fast as I speak, so if I’m not careful I end up with a deluge of words on the page. This is actually a common problem for most authors. A good rule of thumb is that the difference between your first draft and final draft should be -10%. Meaning cut out 10% of the unnecessary words. This gets rid of fluff and filler which have no nutritional value anyhow. They’re the literary version of popcorn: eating more doesn’t necessarily make you feel fuller, so cut them out.
What do I mean by this? Well, I went to my WordPress Reader, found a new blog post at random and took the first two sentences which read:
“I realize this topic is as incredibly deep and complex as it is general. I will start this by stating that I am not in robotics nor do I work with artificial intelligence.”
After a little jazzercising, here’s the passage minus the fluff:
“This topic is as incredibly deep and complex as it is general. Now, I don’t work with robots or artificial intelligences, but…”
The first passage has 33 words. The second only has 22. That’s cutting well more than 10%, but hey, I like using my Fiskers! The substance of the draft remains, but it’s punchier and more succinct. Is it better? Hell if I know, but the point is it’s less likely to create ‘Reader Fatigue’ (a new disease I just invented). Reader Fatigue occurs when Mrs. Reader is subjected to too many unnecessary words and starts cognitively shutting down. Soon, she’ll start skimming, and all those hard fought words you bled to get on the page will be worthless.
Side-note: Your blood is important, keep it inside you.
Another snazzy way to make your lazy words do more is to make them self-referential. Simple things like referencing earlier portions of a work give the reader a nostalgic sensation. It makes them feel as though they are on the inside of an inside joke.
This doesn’t mean be heavy-handed with your references: subtlety goes a long way. Then again I’m just a guy wearing a bathrobe and a pointy hat, so what do I know?
2) Review The Stuff You Hate
It will happen, guaranteed that you will come across a work that you simply despise. As a reviewer you got some choices to make. On the one hand, nobody is holding a pair of safety scissors to your hair and forcing you to write a review. Momma always said, “If you aint got nothing nice to say, don’t not say nuttin’ at all.” Momma, with all her double and triple negatives, was a hard woman to understand.
But that doesn’t work for me. It’s a cop out. If you’re doing it right, people come to read your reviews to get your opinion, your likes and dislikes. If you only review the works you like, then the reader only gets half the story, half your opinion. Your short-changing them.
Some of the most valuable feedback is negative. Constructive negativity is a formidable force for good.
3) But Don’t Be A Dick!
Dissecting other people’s work makes you feel like a real jerk, especially when you have nothing positive to say. But hey, as a Reviewer that’s your job. As an Author it’s your job to take the criticism as best you can and keep trucking.
Reviewer and Author are not enemies. Don’t go out of your way to make somebody feel bad for their word-baby, that just makes you a bully.
Here’s a couple things I do to blunt the edge on my words when I don’t want to appear ‘ranty’.
First, use a compliment sandwich. The idea is that you lead with something nice, then say something mean, and finish with something nice again.
For instance, in my recent Jupiter Ascending review the general structure looked something like this:
I was really looking forward to the movie based on the trailer. It looked fantastic and I was very excited. Unfortunately, it sucked. Here’s why. But ya know what, that’s okay, ’cause the visual effects were cool with some neat action sequences so it wasn’t a complete waste of my money. I just recommend not wasting any of your own money.
That’s the watered down version, but you get the idea. This softens the blow by displaying a certain amount of objectivity. If you simply eviscerate a book or movie, then people are likely to think you are just bitter. If you want them to take you seriously, you have to soften the blow, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still throw the punch.
The second technique I use, and this doesn’t work for everybody, is to throw in a fair amount of self-deprecating humor. Making fun of yourself does a number of things: it invites the audience to not take you so seriously, while also diffusing any tension accumulated over the course of a particularly scathing review.
Self-Deprecating humor is tricky, though. If done incorrectly it comes off obnoxious and self-serving. Almost as if the writer is begging for somebody to come and say, “Oh no, that’s not true. That’s a lovely robe, and that pointy hat is very wizardly.”
This won’t work for everybody, but it works for me because it stays true to my internal voice. I’m not putting on an ‘act’ so to speak, but I am making a conscious effort to highlight parts of my personality I want the reader to engage with.
4) Stay True To You
Whether you are a reviewer, or author, if done correctly, people are coming to hear *your* opinion or story or voice. People don’t pick up Stephen King books anymore, read the blurb, and then debate whether or not they think they will like the story. If they like King, they are probably going to like the story regardless of what its about.
This happens because King has a distinctive voice that the reader knows they’ll like. It’s the same with reviewing. People are coming to hear *you*, so don’t be something you’re not. Don’t try and emulate King. Nobody wants a King copy-cat. If they want to read a King’esque story, they’ll read King.
Give the audience something only you can provide. Your personality, marred and scarred with all sorts of quirks and foibles, is unique. So use it. This will take some thought on your part as you consider what side of yourself you want to present. Do you want to be ultra-serious with laser like directness, or more loosey-goosey with only cursory attention to detail?
That’s your choice and nobody can make it for you.
But here’s something to consider: Don’t try and be something you’re not. Besides being exhausting and impractical in the long run, readers will see through it. Use your natural strengths and weaknesses as an asset because only you, dear reader, have the peculiar mix of characteristics that makes you so gosh-darn irresistibly weird.