Feature Writing: Writing Reviews

Many get their first taste of feature writing via reviews. Many features perform the same function as the review in that they help the reader decide whether something is for them.

First Steps

  • Be clear what the readers expect from a  review in regards to length, content, structure, knowledge and experience.
  • Be clear about who you’re writing for and the publication you’re writing for – how much time will your reader be able to devote to your review. Metro reviews are ‘short and punchy’ for a reason.
  • Your readers are not likely to experience the thing that you are reviewing so your review should be a ‘seductive piece’ that stands in its own right.
  • Keep to the point and don’t beat about the bush. Get rid of the waffle. Why is the thing you are reviewing successful (or not) and why? Nothing else.
  • You can’t write a credible review without knowing some knowledge on the subject you’re writing.

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What Should Reviews Include?

Description and Information – describe what you have seen, heard, tasted and experienced. A film review would include information on the film, the director, the star, the character, the plot and genre using terminology specific to the topic.

Context – explain the plot, setting and character motivation but make it succinct.

Preconceptions – What did people expect of the film? What did you expect? Were these expectations met?

First Impressions – What were your thoughts or feelings as the film opened?

Referring to previous work by the same director, or same actors etc while reviewing something current shows a greater knowledge and greater authority of the reviewer. They reassure the reader that you know what you are talking about.

Establish What The Review Is About – Within the first few paragraphs, ‘you must identify the film, genre, plot, director, stars and their characters and make it clear what you think about them. Is this review of a good performance or a bad one?’

Anecdotes (if applicable) – By describing a certain scene (for example) and how you experienced it adds credibility to your review.

Add colour and imagery to your review (if appropriate). Descriptive prose can add ‘dramatic impetus to the review as a piece of writing but also gives the readers a flavour of what the film is about in terms of content and characterisation’. 

Your review must have a decisive end. Did you like it? You cannot sit on the fence, you must inform your readers whether or not to experience the same thing you did. You might like to add how the experience could have been improved or fixed. 

Dates/Times/Facts – Make sure that you have told your readers where they can experience the festival, show or film that you have reviewed, nothing is worse than a glamouring review spectacularly detailing why someone should go see something when you haven’t told them how or where they can go to do so. This can be done in a separate side box.

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REVIEWING FILMS

  • Always check your facts – make sure you have the title correct and spell people’s names correctly.
  • Use an actor’s name when discussing his or her performance, use the character’s name when discussing the plot.
  • Detailed technical knowledge on lighting, photography, sound and music is not entirely necessary but ensure you mention these things somehow to build a mental image for readers.
  • Credit the individuals involved.
  • Be aware of the symbolism and imagery used by filmmakers, film is a visual thing – don’t forget that.
  • Also a bad film is not necessarily a bad thing. Just make sure to say why something didn’t work – you owe that to the readers.

REVIEWING THEATRE

  • Identify the genre and outline the plot.
  • Bear in mind performances get more polished over time.
  • Consider audience reactions (when watching something live).
  • Use present tense if the performances are still taking place, and the past tense if the show has finished.
  • Look for last-minute cast changes.
  • Spell names correctly.
  • Don’t forget the people behind-the-scenes and make sure to correctly credit people.

REVIEWING TELEVISION AND RADIO

  • The same general rules apply, however TV and radio do not bear the same weight as film reviews, for example. This is because people give less attention to these mediums.
  • Many TV programmes are more likely to be forgotten than a film which can often be re-watched. This should be reflected in your review which should stand as its own piece of writing.
  • How is the pace affected by advertising breaks? How is the drama keeping viewers hooked?
  • TV reviewers will occasionally review soaps. These must be covered seriously as with any other programme. You must be familiar with the back story and the shows’ personalities.
  • ‘While it is appropriate to take a tongue-in-cheek line with light-weight shows, TV documentaries need to be handled a little more carefully.’ Think about the amount of research that went into the documentary – how sound is it? Does the documentary achieve its purpose?

REVIEWING BOOKS

  • Provide story or plot details early – but do not give away the ending.
  • Provide details on the author and whether this is a debut novel, a follow up or a surprise bestseller.
  • Can you make comparisons to other writers? To the previous works of the writer? Is the sequel as good as the original?
  • Use direct quotes from the book to give some flavour of the book.
  • Be clear about the author’s intention.
  • Does the author fulfil that intention? Is the book successful?
  • Always provide information on the price and publisher and sometimes the number of pages the book holds.

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REVIEWING FOOD

  • Describe the decor of the restaurant.
  • First impressions?
  • Expectations?
  • What sort of food was served?
  • Is the restaurant part of a chain?
  • What did you eat? What did the people you were with eat?
  • Describe the taste, texture and appearance of your food.
  • Did you like it?
  • Was it good value for money?
  • Provide information on the chef and his cooking background.
  • Comment on service (if appropriate).
  • Provide information on location and opening times, perhaps a telephone number too.

REVIEWING MUSIC AND THE FINE ARTS

  • Because both are non-verbal media, you must use ‘vivid and pertinent description to explain sights and sounds’.
  • References to everyday experiences can help contextualise your experience.
  • Have an understanding of the artist/composer themselves, as well as their intentions with the specific piece you’re reviewing.
  • What emotions does the piece seek to create? Does it succeed?
  • Consider audience reaction.
  • Remember that not everyone reading will have expertise in this subject and your review must reflect this in your language and analysis.

Opinions and What Not To Do

‘A review, almost by definition, reflects your opinion, your thoughts and your feelings so avoid unnecessary, tautological repetition’. Make sure that your review reaches a logical conclusion too – you need evidence as to why something doesn’t work.

Don’t go over the top with praise – your review should have some semblance of balance and consideration so that you don’t seem biased and keep your credibility with the reader. Also, you’ll have more success keeping the reader interested if you don’t go overboard from the start.

Be careful not to say anything libellous. ‘Criticise the performance and not the performer’.

When reviewing, you don’t want to ruin or spoil anything for anyone, so explain the plot but not the ending. Hint rather than tell.

‘Don’t feel guilty criticising a poor performance’ but don’t be cruel just because you can be, have some tact when discussing why something was bad and provide ideas for how something can be fixed or improved.

NOTES IN THIS POST ARE FROM: SUSAN PAPE AND SUE FEATHERSTONE, 2006, FEATURE WRITING: A PRACTICAL INTRODUCTION, LONDON: SAGE. P108 – 120 (CHAPTER 9)
I DO NOT OWN THE ABOVE IMAGES, THEY ARE FROM: http://www.victoriabid.co.uk/work/victoria-bid-film-club/, http://soluble-fiber.com/2015/07/31/honest-review-of-comwave/ and https://theclarice.umd.edu/venues/kay-theatre.
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