[Editorial]: On Reviewing – A Primer

 

Review

[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.

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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.”

Or

“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.”

Or

“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.

Forgiv

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).

Study

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.

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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!

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About Silvachief

I'm a Gamer that dabbles in a little bit of everything. I'm big on Video Games, Visual Novels, Anime, Books and TV Series, but there's more to me than just those!
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15 Responses to [Editorial]: On Reviewing – A Primer

  1. JekoJeko says:

    I believe many reviews can and should contain marked spoiler-material; the assumption that a ‘review’ is primarily for people yet to experience material and ‘discussion’ for after forgets that a large proportion of anime-loving netizens enjoy reading reviews of what they’ve watched to bounce their own opinions off it. With this in mind, a review not marked as completely ‘spoiler-free’ can be implied as one that’s more aimed at this readership. You can even mark off the ‘spoiler-free’ section and expand on it in more critical depth with spoilers in a later part of the article.

    I’d also say it’s doing the internet no favours to continue bucking the trend of a ‘7’ being the benchmark for satisfaction. The issue that arises is demonstrated by lower boundaries being much wider, while higher ones being pinpoint, with different thoughts about ‘7’, ‘8’, ‘9’ and ’10’ but rough estimates for ‘2-4’ and ‘5-6’. Let’s face it – thought only goes into the former lot. For the rest, there is little difference between a 5 or a 6, and even less between a 4 and a 3. Readers see ‘greater than 7’ or ‘less than 7’ in a review number for an anime first; if it’s the latter, any number you put on your review below 7 will usually match your review. This is one reason why I never score reviews, because I never feel the need to, and because I hate the thought that everything I’ve written can be boiled down into a TL;DR number that the reader can use to bypass the content of my criticism, or even question it pointlessly.

    Finally, reviews cannot be objective, but the content of reviews can. Objective reference to the material – ‘evidence’ – grounds your subjective comments in a relatable foundation. I really don’t know why every review of reviewing I read – and they /all/ sound exactly the same as this – treats objectivity as a solely holistic measure and not something for the specifics of content.

    • Silvachief says:

      I agree that comparing opinions with other reviewers and anime watchers is a worthwhile use of reviews, however I don’t believe that spoilers enhance the initial reviewing process. By including them you lower the utility of the review for a portion of your audience, and as i’ve mentioned in-depth discussions can always take place in the comments section. Though you did note the possibility of including a spoiler-free section which i’ve seen used to good effect previously as well. The problem lies in identifying which kind of article is being posted so that readers can find what they’re looking for, which is why I prefer the distinction of review versus discussion (because there’s no rule saying that scores and evaluations cannot be place in a discussion, and the opinion-bouncing mentioned doesn’t require the setting of a review to take place). This is more about terminology than anything else, though.

      I also think about the greater/lesser than seven rule when looking for shows I might be interested in watching, but it’s worth noting that my seven is indeed the “satisfaction benchmark”. More thought goes into the higher numbers because those are the titles that the writer is trying to push to their readers. Negative opinions about shows will always be similar, whereas positive ones will be varied and amenable to greater exploration. The ranges at the lower ends allow for a continuum to be established, though it’s doubtful that the reader would care about the difference between, say, a three and four, so there isn’t as much need to elaborate on exactly what each number means.

      While the inclusion of scores is entirely according the preference, I find them quite useful. That’s because while I know exactly how I feel about a title and how my review relates to that, a reader has only limited means of knowing how much importance I place on any one statement of criticism or praise. For instance, when I evaluate a sequel that is not as good as the original there’s gonna be a whole lot of negative points being thrown around which won’t necessarily result in a bad score. The number eliminates ambiguity, which suits the purpose of my reviews. The truth of the matter is that any review can be boiled down to a number in the end, and anyone that goes straight for the number wouldn’t have read the review anyway, so the result is that nothing is lost and another reader is able to gain what they sought from the article in the first place. I personally find reviews without scores frustrating, because the authors opinion can be very unclear if they haven’t been able to summarise sufficiently. Also, if we return to the point that titles of greater quality beget more thought, that leaves the reader awash in a sea of opinions when it comes to those reviews because regardless of the existence of the subjective benchmark, there is a massive difference between a ten and a seven.

      I think this final point once again comes down to the purpose of the review you are writing. For me, evidence isn’t useful. My target reader has no idea about the event I might mention or the context of the context I provide (ie. the reader is unable to relate to any foundation I might provide), and thus it doesn’t add to the review. If necessary for an argument that evidence can be provided in the comments. For a discussion, evidence is required for the reasons you have specified.

      While it might seem like we disagree on a number of issues, most of them stem from our differing definitions rather than any real contention.

      • JekoJeko says:

        No, we do have absolute contention on a number of points, including definitions, which in art criticism are a much bigger deal than you’re making out.

        The thought that ‘negative opinions about shows will always be similar, whereas positive ones will be varied and amenable to greater exploration’ is a dumb and lazy practice in criticism. If you don’t choose to think just as hard about things you don’t like, as a critic, you’re doing your readers a disservice. Equal treatment of material enjoyed and despised is what makes for continued quality throughout all of a critic’s reviews.

        If ‘the number eliminates ambiguity, which suits the purpose of my reviews’, then the purpose of your reviews is to lazily ignore the capability for specificity in your content. I’ve read many famous reviews by famous writers of works by famous artists; they do not need a number on the end because the content is compelling, informative and are, rather than concerned with only reaching an arbitrary ‘how good is this’ measure, centred on exploring a work for all its points of merit and issue. Try reading such reviews and say that ‘the truth of the matter is that any review can be boiled down to a number in the end’; that is a flawed and narrow-minded opinion, not a truth.

        It appears that numbers are, to you, a crutch to reading and writing reviews. Not many well-written reviews will exist on your average anime blog/site, but where they do, you will not need a number to tell you what to think about them; likewise, the number will not hold back the review’s expansive quality.

        If ‘evidence isn’t required’ for your reviews, you can make up bullshit about what you watch and persuade people on what to watch through it. That’s not a good precedent to set. You ought to note that the style of review you’re aiming towards, professionally, is far, far more compact than most anibloggers’ efforts, and while it doesn’t have ‘spoilers’ for evidence, it doesn’t make statements that demand them in the first place. How many people do you expect to see in the comments section? A reader who does not agree with an unevidenced point is not obliged to engage with you – they can just leave, and you’d have lost them through an unevidenced argument that demands evidence propped up by the vapid excuse that your review is ‘spoiler-free’. You can write things that are convincing without evidence, but that does not constitute every statement you can make about a work of art.

        I think you’re getting ahead of yourself with these thoughts on the art of reviewing that have no knowledge or treatment of the established art of reviewing.

        • Silvachief says:

          This might be the first legitimate contention, because the definitions behind the articles we write are really very loose and trying to fit any single label to every article that evaluates a production would be pointless, for one, and on some level unfair to the intent of the author.

          My statement that “negative opinions will always be similar” was poorly worded and for that I apologise. What I should have said was that the shows awarded the lower spectrum of scores often have similar reasons for reviewers not liking them. Perhaps the rate of delivery of information was off or the plot was nonsensical; if the base production is of low quality viewers will be less inclined to spend time and effort analysing the smaller details. It’s when a plot or cast of characters are particularly noteworthy that the audience becomes interested in that manner, which is why I believe the less tightly defined lower scores are appropriate. You are absolutely correct that negative opinions deserve to be explored just as thoroughly as positive ones, and to be honest in my own writing it’s probably the negative ones that take up more space.

          I disagree regarding your second point. Beyond the fact that having read “many famous reviews by famous writers of works by famous artists” means very little at all when it comes to your personal opinion, it could also be expressed that an author who is unable to do such a thing might be conflicted beyond being able to offer a solid opinion and is instead satisfied with leaving that work to their reader. However, that would be only be one possibility, with the other being that for that particular writer a final score does not suit the purpose of their review. This is all about personal preference, you see, and the goal of the reviewer is important to consider. On one hand, consider the blog that wishes to convey an opinion to potential viewers/readers/players with a modicum of justification so that their audience may make an informed decision, on the other consider the professional reviewer that needs to distinguish themselves among their peers and might even consider the writing of the review to be more important than the conveyance of an opinion, and then on a third (because we’re not limited by regular limitations here) consider the fan that wishes to dissect every positive and negative aspect on offer so that nothing at all is missed or overlooked. Of course this is all on a spectrum, so there would be a range of individuals with varying goals in between each example.

          Whereas a score is not useful to the latter two examples, it is to the first because it furthers the goal of the review. In this case the score is not an “arbitrary how good is this measure” but an indicator that collates the arguments of the writer into a final representation of their opinion of the work reviewed for the benefit of the reader. A crutch is but a tool, as is a score. And once again, the score takes nothing away while adding to the utility of the article for a select portion of readers…even in articles where an opinion could absolutely not be misconstrued I include a score for those people.

          Let’s be honest here, if any blogger fabricated anything about the titles they covered then it would very quickly be picked up on and their audience would decline swiftly, thus that particular argument is of little value. You may have noted that this is not and does not claim to be a professionally authored blog, and I would add that it doesn’t aim to be one. I stand by my statement that evidence has no meaning for the audience I write for, and as mentioned multiple times before the reader that wishes to pursue a line of thought that requires further justification during a response can do so in the comments section and have their desires fulfilled. While comment fishing isn’t the goal of this blog either, you might also note that this method has been used to good effect on multiple occasions so that any reader that disagrees with a point is responded to and a consensus is reached, even if that consensus is that enjoyment of a work differs subjectively. Any reader that chooses not to voice disagreement also does so of their own volition and evidence is not required for either action.

          Finally, you continue to argue from a standpoint that assumes the value and goal of a review are set firmly within your own definitions of such. From the beginning, this article is merely a primer and has been repeatedly and explicitly described as opinion rather than fact.

          • JekoJeko says:

            This all ultimately comes down to the consideration of the writer’s ‘personal preference’ /over the reader’s/. It’s the classic journeyman journalistic flaw of self-centeredness. Your views, and tone, reek of pushing the reader away from your considerations of what you write.

            All his general faff about the philosophy of reviewing is useless if you don’t have that basic matter of approach covered, so I’ll leave it at that.

            • Silvachief says:

              It’s a shame to hear that, because the audience I write for has formed the basis of all of my arguments, whereas from my perspective your points represent sophistry arguing for a “one true review format” which doesn’t take readers into account.

              Philosophy itself is not helpful if the practical purpose of the item of contention is ignored.

              • JekoJeko says:

                Interesting how, as all these articles about ‘reviewing’ end up the same, all the conversations I have about them go that way too.

                At no point did I advocate ‘one true review format’. I am merely criticising certain practices that I find get in the way of reader’s interests, or guide them down a path unhelpful to them. Someone who tells you that you shouldn’t smoke in public is not setting out ‘one true city living format’; he’s just concerned about the unhealthy side effect on others, and the damage to common aesthetics.

                • Shinygami says:

                  “All his general faff about the philosophy of reviewing is useless if you don’t have that basic matter of approach covered, so I’ll leave it at that.” Weren’t you leaving it at that? From my angle this is looking less and less like someone trying to be helpful and more and more like someone who is trying to start a fight.

                • Silvachief says:

                  One might wonder why all of your conversations on the topic end up the same.

                  Your analogy doesn’t quite apply, given that different writing styles, preferences and goals do not amount to a health-harming practice with plenty of evidence backing up public feeling against it (somewhere that evidence is actually rather useful). To my view, this is more like two buskers playing the same instrument in two different styles, and one declaring to the other that his technique is incorrect and amateurish because it doesn’t align with his view of how the instrument should be played. Art, as you put it, is diverse.

                  (If you reply please start on a new line, since wordpress likes to compress comment threads as they go on)

                  • JekoJeko says:

                    By your argument, if all these ‘different styles’ of reviewing are fine, you just wrote a completely vapid article. You can’t put your thoughts out about what’s good and bad in reviewing practice and then tell someone with different thoughts that they’re wrong to treat a different opinion as incorrect or amateurish.

                    Unless you’re one of those ‘it’s just my opinion guys’ guys, which makes your opinions amount to nothing.

  2. Silvachief says:

    [Replying to JekoJeko’s comment]

    If you had fully read the article, you might have seen that I identify this as my thoughts on what makes for a good review and that my style is only one of many. Good and bad are subjective, and this article outlines my perspective. It doesn’t comment on any other authors’ ability to review, and it doesn’t try to claim to be backed by a poorly defined “established art of reviewing”.

    There is no “correct” form of reviewing, though if I had to choose one then this is what I would pick. This is my opinion, which I am willing to defend without trying to falsely pass it off as fact.

    • JekoJeko says:

      Your opinion, as you’re stating it, is that your thoughts on good and bad reviewing have nothing to do with anyone else’s – if they did, there would be a standard of what constitutes a good or bad review. But there obviously is. Reviewing is a matter of rhetoric. Rhetoric is an art that’s been studied for long enough (read: thousands of years) to be referenced as a body of established ‘good’ and ‘bad’ mechanics. Reviewing is also a matter of study. I’m a student. There’s an art to what I do too, with many absolute do’s and don’t regarding, for instance, how to read a text ‘better’ or ‘worse’, and many cases of approaches that are ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for making your argument in an essay.

      If you started trying to pass your opinions off as fact or ‘correct’, which is what one does when they debate an issue, rather than hide behind your discursive pacifism, your conversations on what constitutes a good review might get somewhere. All the facts we have in the world only exist because people noticed things and had the opinion that that was how something was and convinced the world that that was how it was; that is how facts are born, through persuasion. You are not ever trying to be persuasive; you are trying to deflate, to dampen, to avoid, the issues being raised.

      But you’re right. I didn’t fully read the article. Forgive me for having talked such length with you having not fully read the article. Forgive me; I’m losing brain cells here.

      • Silvachief says:

        What constitutes a good or bad practice of any sort is how well it manages to achieve its purpose. If being a student has taught me anything it’s that textbook approaches to just about anything at all are a bad idea, so any “established ‘good’ or ‘bad’ mechanics” you might read about are merely guidelines to be referenced in order to achieve whatever the writer intends and every writer’s intention is different. For that matter, those student do’s and don’ts you’ve referenced don’t apply to every student, either. I’ve also learned that being a student or having a degree means very little about one’s capability to talk about anything with authority. There -is- an art to writing, I agree, which means that the impact of science, that is recorded technique, on any work is limited.

        Fact generally stems from evidence used to prove it, rather than primary debate, whereas opinion is the very resource that debates deal in. “Correct” in the cases of opinion is subjective and determined by the audience rather than the participants. Given you hadn’t read the article you earlier attempted to argue against, I might also assume your assertion that I am trying to deflate any argument comes from a similarly shaky foundation, as I have explicitly disagreed and rebutted the vast majority of your points in the comments above.

        As you brought up debating, you should know subject of debate is determined by the affirmative team, that being how to write an article that is for “people that have yet to experience whatever is being critiqued” to answer the question “is this worth my time”, and that it’s always awkward when the opposition fails to take the cue provided. It’s also frowned upon to include poorly veiled insults (or open ones, as the case may be), as they do more to distract from and avoid the topic at hand than polite speech, but this is the internet, I suppose.

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