There is no single way to write a review. These days, a work of criticism can be anything from a 140-character tweet, to a 200-word capsule review in a newspaper, to a 10,000-word essay on a blog. Each of these formats has its own requirements for length and style. But, assuming you’ve got at least a few hundred words to play with (George Orwell reckoned you need a minimum of 1,000 to say anything worthwhile about a book), you might like to consider the following advice if you’re interested in crafting criticism that is both engaged and engaging.
Pay attention. Whether you’re reviewing a novel, a film or a play, take notice (and notes if you find this helps) of everything that you see in front of you. Not all of it will make sense at first – it may be that some research is required, or some deep thinking that will have to happen once you’ve put the book down or left the theatre – but use your eyes and ears to absorb as much as you can.
Assessing the work is important, but so is assessing your response to it. Everybody has a reaction – wonder, loathing, excitement, puzzlement – to a book they have read or a film they have seen. The more important thing to get to grips with is why you reacted the way you did, and also the ability to communicate this to your readers. If you thought the leads in a romantic comedy had no chemistry, back this up with an example from the film. Was there a scene that really showed up how misguidedly cast the parts were? These are the sorts of things discerning review readers will want to hear about – not the ins and outs of the plot, which they can easily find elsewhere.
A related point: be true to yourself. If you didn’t understand an element of a particular work, and find that you can’t resolve this through further thinking or research, don’t be afraid to say so. Your honesty will be appreciated. If your opinion seems to be out of step with the critical consensus, don’t lose your nerve. You may in this way be able to throw some light on an aspect of a work that others have neglected owing to ignorance or timidity.
Consider your review a work of art, too, and not just a checklist, report or consumer guide. This means that your reviews should be able to hold the interest of people who, for whatever reason, will never see/read/hear the work you are writing about. In other words: work on your prose as well as your opinions. Reviews, as with any other kind of writing, should have, in the words of ABR editor Peter Rose, ‘literary dash, good grammar, individuality and confidence’.
It’s often obvious when critics have not done their homework or when they have relied too heavily on other people’s reviews or on publicity material. So: research where necessary; be aware of but don’t immerse yourself in other reviews of the work you’re writing about; and read but don’t rehash the promotional guff.
Don’t be afraid of nuance. There is nothing wrong with saying that you thought a play was terrific in almost every respect except that the music was awful. A lack of nuance is generally much worse, so avoid gushing or cruelty. Ask yourself: how many plays have you seen that are 100 per cent amazing or woeful? Most, for most people, sit somewhere in between and you should be prepared to say this rather than rush to judgment or make generalisations. This means: avoid hyperbole and clichés. In her Book Review Bingo game, Michelle Kerns identified these hackneyed favourites of critics: compelling, beautifully written, lyrical, in the tradition of, rollicking, tour de force, thought-provoking, at once, haunting, riveting, nuanced, x meets x, cliché-free, stunning, epic, pitch-perfect, readable, timely, unputdownable, that said, gritty, powerful, sweeping, unflinching, fully-realised.
Reviewers have many obligations – to the work, to their own abilities, to their editor and publisher – but they also have, as Susan Wyndham put it, a responsibility ‘to help create an intelligent conversation’. Remember to make your words count – but also remember that they will almost certainly not mark the end of the conversation around a work.
Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, critic, essayist and playwright. He has written about theatre for dB Magazine, RealTime, Fringe Benefits, artsHub and the Daily Review. Twitter: @BenMBrooker