[Warning – Wall Of Text Incoming]
I’ve been doing some thinking lately about what writing reviews is all about, so today I want to talk about what goes into my own writing as well as what I think makes for a good review. Now, that doesn’t mean I think I know everything about critique and it certainly doesn’t mean that I think the articles I post here do everything a good review should.
To start at the beginning, I should probably discuss the purpose of a review. Think about why people read them; most individuals searching for a review have a simple question on their mind: Is this worth my time? Reviews are primarily for people who have yet to experience whatever is being critiqued, so they should be written with that in mind. By the end of a review the reader should understand the author’s opinion of the subject and have some idea of why that opinion is held so that they can apply the outcome to their own situation. These types of articles need to be contrasted with discussions, which are very different, being targeted at people who have already finished the item in question and are seeking others with whom they can talk about their experience.
So, other than the aim, what makes reviews different to other articles? A good review should have absolutely no spoiler material (unless it is appropriately marked) and really shouldn’t mention specific events portrayed by the production at all. I’ve seen a lot of sentences like:
“When XX chases YY down the hallway, confessing her love for him at the top of her lungs, it shows how disconnected with reality she really is.”
“XX’s fight with YY where he pulls like 20 guns out of nowhere was awesome!”
Which are massive no-nos, in my opinion. In the first example the reader has no idea what the relationship between the two is to begin with and no context to which to apply it, and aside from being a potential spoiler the second adds nothing at all to the reader’s quest to understand whether they want to experience whatever you’re discussing. More appropriate comments would have been:
“The writers have done an excellent job of using character interactions to not only develop relationships but also illustrate individual personalities in a way that blends seamlessly with the main plot.”
“XX’s action scenes are heart-pumping, edge-of-your-seat affairs with plenty of twists that will set your expectations on end.”
Which has immediately informed the reader that the target of your praise has an impressive quality of writing or excellent action without having to expose them to events they’re going to experience themselves. Discussions, of course, can and should probably use the first examples. Reviewers often discuss titles in more detail with people who have already experienced them in their comment section, which is fine (though spoilers should still be marked).
Beyond being on-topic, there are a number of components that need to be covered in a review. The best writers will blend these together flawlessly, while others with limited time to develop their writing ability (yep, that’s my excuse) find it helpful to group them into categories. A synopsis in the writer’s own words is optional; I just like to include them because they can often give a better idea of what the focus of the story is (according to the reviewer) than official summaries. A review should touch on main story (or quality of writing, potentially including mention of concept, setting, execution and immersion if applicable), characterization (including believability, consistency and how connected to characters you felt), gameplay (if applicable), technical aspects (such as art, sound and user interface) and then anything else the reviewer believes has served to set the topic of review apart from other, similar productions in either good or bad ways. Different audiences will place varying levels of importance on each aspect so it’s worth covering all of them to some degree but this is done at the writer’s discretion. For example, a number of my readers find that the themes explored by a story are what they’re really after, rather than quality of writing or production. For me, however, themes only become important once I have already been entertained, so the reviews in which I discuss themes are relatively few in number. Similarly, some find that interesting concepts allow them to see past poor writing, so there is massive variation in what your readers may be looking for.
I’d like to make a quick note about including relatively unrelated material in a review. Occasionally I like to include a brief commentary on a particular aspect of visual novels or anime that a particular title encouraged me to think about, but it’s important to realize that every off-topic paragraph you include is one that the review-seeking reader may not be interested in. While your regular visitors might find such entries to be interesting asides, newcomers may be turned off by information they simply don’t care about. Whenever you’re going to write about something that isn’t critique of some form or other, take a moment to ask yourself whether it actually adds to the review as a whole. If it doesn’t then scrap it, save it for another post or, better yet, use it to illustrate why you feel the way you do about a particular point you have made.
Of course, people who are opening multiple tabs of reviews to quickly decide if the subject of their query interests them aren’t going to stop long enough to read screeds and screeds of discussion. To cater to this audience summaries and final scores are essential in addition to making sure you’re not confronting potential readers with massive walls of text. My reviews in particular can be relatively negative during their body paragraphs but end in a decent conclusion because I want to cover a show’s weak points even if I’ve enjoyed it without making the article prohibitively long. Because of this, a summary paragraph with my definitive view on the topic serves to ensure the reader knows exactly what my final thoughts and recommendations are. Words can be tricky, though, so a concrete score leaves no room for misinterpretation (and is fantastic for the person that skips straight to the end of the review).
That brings me to a whole ‘nother aspect of reviewing: How does a scoring system work? Well, it goes without saying that, beyond simply having differing opinions, everyone scores differently. Rather than going into what a point system should and should not have, I’ll share my own as an example. To start with, I find that a ten point scale gives me a reasonable ability to rank titles on an individual basis while still being able to fit them into generalised categories.
1 – Abysmal – This is more of a joke score than anything. For a title to reach this level it needs to be beyond bad, which is almost an accomplishment in itself, and I don’t think any serious production can actually do that as long as I take it for what it tries to be.
2-4 – Bad – Anything given a score in this range has done something terribly wrong. I didn’t just not like it, I hated it and was able to justify that feeling by identifying key errors in its writing, production values or general flow. I don’t give many of these scores out simply because I’m unlikely to finish anything that’s just that bad.
5-6 – Average – While these titles may not have done anything obviously wrong, I just didn’t have fun with them. Whether the time input for the payoff was too long or the experience as a whole was just kind of boring, I can’t recommend anything in this area. If you think the synopsis sounds cool or you’ve been recommended something by someone you trust, you may still enjoy it, though.
7 – Enjoyable – This is starting to get into the stuff I’m really interested in; 7 is the gatekeeper to my recommendations lists. It marks the productions that make me look back upon my time with them and smile, the ones that I…well, enjoyed. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have any issues, however, and I wouldn’t recommend these to everyone. Anything given a 7 is something I may be willing to experience a second time.
8 – Good – Anything in this range is good stuff, literally. In my opinion, the majority of people should like whatever I score at this level. While I recognise that my opinion isn’t necessarily on-target, these titles either don’t make any major mistakes or any mistakes they make didn’t have a big impact on my enjoyment of them, in addition to having been a lot of fun to begin with.
9 – Great – If 7 is the gatekeeper to recommendations, then 9 is where my list of true favourites begins. Anything given this score goes above and beyond good to a level where the vast majority of its components are well implemented and also complement one another. I looked forward to getting back to these almost every night I played/watched them and I definitely plan to give them another round once a sufficient period of time has passed.
10 – Excellent or Masterful – Unlike some other systems, my 10s aren’t absolute perfects. Nothing would ever reach that level, so including that concept in a scoring schedule makes no sense. These titles are the best of the best; they got my heart pounding or my eyes watering multiple times throughout their course and they’re not leaving my memory any time soon. They’re so good, in fact, that it’s actually kind of hard to identify the specific components that made them what they are. The Masterful title is one that I have only given to a single production and indicates that at the time of writing I believed that “Excellent” simply did not go far enough to describe what I had experienced.
Notice how my descriptions become more and more about my own responses to a story as my scores rise. That leads nicely into the next point I’d like to briefly discuss, which Froggy brought up a while back. My reviews are not objective…they simply can’t be, and anyone who attempts to tell you that they have written an objective review has made a fundamental mistake. Reviews, after all, are about personal opinion and it’s up to the reader to find reviewers that they feel they resonate with. With that in mind, I often mention where my opinion differs from what I perceive to be the majority’s. My opinion doesn’t change according to what other people think, but it’s important to remember that the purpose of a review is to inform a reader’s decision, so it only makes sense to ensure that they are fully informed.
While subjectivity is all well and good, it can be worth noting that your point of view may not be the most informative one for certain audiences. When I reviewed NekoPara, for instance, I had to recognise that I simply wasn’t the type of person the visual novel was attempting to appeal to. There’s a difference between quality and subjective enjoyment, and while cute cat girls doing cute things that amount to very little overall may not have been my cup of tea, the production values of that VN were pretty phenomenal and it accomplished exactly what it aimed to accomplish. Similarly, though one might argue that Cowboy Bebop is a better anime than Love Live according to their tastes, I believe that the latter example does a better job of being a slice of life idol show than the former does of being a gritty action episodic, and have scored them accordingly. I guess the moral of the story for this paragraph is that it’s worth taking the goal of a production into account when reviewing, as well as the audience it is targeting.
Before moving on from scoring, I want to note that it’s important to keep your scores consistent (which I’m probably terrible at). This is difficult to do because, simply put, tastes change as time passes and you review more items. My only advice here is that it’s perfectly acceptable to compare your thoughts and feelings concerning a production to others you have reviewed before assigning a score, and even to change scores you have given previously. With a score in mind, I often look at what else I have given that score to in the past so I can decide where titles fall in relation to one another and in that manner preserve the continuum of quality I strive to produce (that last bit is only slightly serious, I assure you).
Of course, it’s also worth noting that my word is not gospel. Technically, a review can be whatever you want it to be and this is just my take on how things should be done. For those of you reading, is there anything that you think should be added? Any finer points of writing that need to be explored? Alternatively, are there any arguments that have you convinced I’ve got the wrong end of the stick? Either way, I hope this hasn’t been too incoherent and that you have enjoyed the read!