How to Write a Kick-Ass Review

How to Write a Kick-Ass Review

Too often, we writers fob reviews off as easy content. After all, someone else has done the creative work – it’s simply our job to judge it. And being loud, opinionated writers, we’re quite fond of judging.

But writing a good review – a review that engages interest and causes action – is more than just giving a product rating and pointing your readers to the Amazon link. A review tests the writer’s skill at persuasion and description.

On my blog I review heavy metal albums, movies, books and shows. Of all the columns in my online metal magazine, writing reviews takes the longest. After listening to hundreds of albums and spending hours brainstorming ideas, researching concepts and discographies and writing and editing reviews, I’ve come up with a few techniques to give my reviews that added awesome factor.

How to Write a Kick-Ass Review:

  1. Have an Argument

  2. Why are you writing a review? Is it to share your enthusiasm about an album or book? Is it to convince people to buy an affiliate product? Is it to give consumers a fair and unbiased resource? Is it to slur the good name of the product’s creator across the Internet?

    A review is a piece of persuasive writing. You begin with an argument, such as “this album is worse than the worst thing I could think of, and I have a very active imagination”, and the rest of the review must back up your argument. Whatever your argument, know it from the onset.

  3. Show, don’t tell
  4. Music reviewers love to call an album “groundbreaking” or “genre-bending”, but forget to explain why. Congratulations – you’ve told me nothing. I have no idea what the album sounds like. Will it have a place amongst my Slayer and Bob Dylan records? Not if you don’t give me a reason to buy it.

    You could tell me Justin Bieber’s new album is groundbreaking, but unless you’re recommending breaking it against the ground, I’m not going to listen to you if you don’t qualify your statement.

    This is where your writerly powers of description come into play. You have to put the reader inside the product, give them a taste, leave them breathless, haunted, hungry for more. Use comparisons with other words and examples from the product itself – snippets of lyrics, quotes, concepts and ideas, but be careful to describe the content, rather than the actual product. I don’t want to know that a kick-ass riff begins at 2.23 into the third song; I want to know what the riffs sound like.

    Which one of these examples gives you a better idea of what this album – Blood Fire Death by Bathory – sounds like?

    “Bathory’s Blood Fire Death is a groundbreaking album – a one-man project of Quorthon, who is now dead. The album contains 8 songs – 7 are awesome and dark and epic, and 1 is kind of mediocre. There’s a kick ass riff at 2.24 on “Dies Irae” and the lyrics of this song form a satanic acrostic …”


    “Quorthorn re-imagines the tropes of thrash and death metal as sweeping sagas of the Viking age, moving from rock anti-anthems to layered, classical compositions. A distorted fuzz pervades the album, giving an ethereal, otherworldly quality. No album before or since has captured this same sense of dissolution and menace.”

  5. Speak the Language

  6. You probably don’t know, or care, about the differences between thrash, death and black metal, but to my readers, these definitions are part of our collective knowledge. When I read “bay-Area thrash” or “true Norwegian black metal” in a review, my mind instantly conjures up comparative sounds.

    Know your audience, and speak their language. Don’t explain concepts they already understand, and give them comparisons with other products they know so they can understand how this new work stands up.

  7. Make it personal

  8. A review will be much more interesting if you can weave a bit of personality in there. I like to tell people how I discovered a band, or where I brought the album from, or what the songs remind me of.

    Some people worry that if they give personal anecdotes in reviews they disclose their biases and discredit themselves. But writing a review is the very act of revealing your biases, whether it’s that you’re a sucker for ebooks with swear words in the title or you prefer Norwegian black metal over Hellenic black metal. Your readers understand you’re giving your opinion, so color it with you experience.

  9. Discuss the wider picture

  10. One way to make reviews more interesting – both for you as the writer and for your readers – is to focus on the wider picture. What does the product reveal about the world?

    Music often reflects wider social issues, so in the process of discussing an album, I may be called upon to comment about religion, racism, politics, gender studies, or the appalling lack of decent sausage rolls.

    A kick-ass review doesn’t just tell you something is good, it gives you a mini experience of the product – a taste, a flicker of the concept. It whets your appetite for more.

    What kind of products do you review? What are your tips for writing a kick-ass review?

Post by Steff Metal

Steff is a writer, blogger, heavy metal maiden, sausage roll fanatic, and blind New Zealander who writes about the much-misunderstood heavy metal lifestyle at and offers her multi-tentacled approaches to creative business at You can follow her at @steffmetal on twitter.

Join the Discussion. Click Here to Leave a Comment.

  1. Hello Steff,

    Thanks for this advice. But let me share to you that I also once read a same topic/post as yours that I think has contradicted number 4. Oh well, maybe it’s just saying that when writing a review, one must not be too engross with himself which might lead to losing the main point.

    Anyway, I just want to ask on how far can we go in “making it persona” when writing a review.

    Once again, thank you for sharing! Kudos!

    • I think it’s a delicate balancing act. There’s an argument for removing oneself completely from the review, in order to obtain some kind of “objectivity”, but I think that’s – excuse my language – bollocks. The truth is, as soon as you listen to, or watch something, you cast your own prejudices, experiences and impressions upon it, so a review is always, ALWAYS coloured by your own unique experience. One example of this is how often the first album of a band that you hear will remain your favorite, even if it’s not “objectively” their best album.

      On the other hand, you don’t want a review to be all about YOU. It should be showcasing the music/product/movie or whatever.

      I like to hear how people discovered a band, who put them on to them, their first impressions verses their impression after several days of listening, and their “history” with the band – is this the first album they heard, or have they listened to the band’s back catalogue. What did they think of the other material? I like to hear what people think of cover art and the image it conveys. A popular band Opeth just released a new album cover today and half the metal blogs are calling it terrible, the other half genius. I like to know what makes a reviewer arrive at that conclusion.

      • Thanks so much for clearing that out Steff. Now it’s much more clearer for me on to what extent I can get personal with writing reviews. Actually I’m still starting to right such kind of posts that’s why I find what you’ve written really helpful on my part. It’s an additional knowledge.

        Anyway, I’ll keep in mind what you said that it’s more of a balancing act.I especially like the idea that a review or even anything that we write has always some part of us in it (coloured by our own unique experience) That’s really nice.

        Once more, thanks a lot!

        Cheers :)

    • Eric R. Wirsing says:

      I apologize for raising the dead here, but I saw this article and I had to share.

      First off, I want to thank you for your article. It’s well-written, clear as a bell, and sausage rolls rock!

      While I don’t write about metal (not that lucky), I do have some S.O.P.s:
      1) My reviews are pretty structured:
      – Intro statement about the band. Four or more sentences. Could be about the album, too. I try not to dwell too much on any controversy. Merely acknowledging that there is some lets them know I’m aware of it.
      – Song by song analysis. Individual songs, highlights of songs, song lyrics, etc.
      – Outro. Closing paragraph. How did it make me feel? Any additional information.
      The formula has been pretty successful so far, and I’ve got about 400+ paid articles to my credit on Say what you like about the music — I’ve heard literally everything under the sun. Literally. I’m happy with my current genre.

      2) Writing under pressure is probably the best thing. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled a review out of my butt and cranked it out quickly, often the same day it was commissioned. Shouldn’t affect the quality any. Any writer worth their salt doesn’t need three or four months to form an opinion.

      3) Generally I don’t start with an argument. Ofttimes the first time I sit down to write a review is literally the first time I’ve heard the album, and I’ve maligned the single only to have the whole rest of the album redeemed.

      4) I’m given a wide latitude by my editor, but other writers may not be so lucky. I eviscerate albums on a daily basis if I don’t like them. I also recognize quality — something may be done well, even if I don’t like it. I will reward artists for what they do well, and punish them mercilessly for what they mess up on.

      5) Obviously, YMMV. My word isn’t gospel, these words aren’t engraved on stone tablets handed down from the mountain, they just reflect my experience. This is what works for me.

  2. Hi Steff,

    Love your titles as Heavy metal maiden and sausage roll fanatic.

    You’ve kicked some nice writing ass in this piece. People don’t want to read wishy washy. They want to either love it or hate it. I don’t write reviews but I do write newspaper columns and essays. If I don’t want to retrieve the article from the editor after sending it in, then I know I didn’t go far enough from the wishy washy center.

    Thanks! Giulietta

    • Thank you Guilietta! I know that feeling – if you want to take something down off your site or grab it back from the editor, often it’s because you know it’s not quite right, not your best work. But sometimes, for me, it’s being a silly perfectionist :)

  3. Great advice but Justin Bieber’s fans are NOT going to be happy. :) :)

    • That’s true, Mary – I guess I took a bit of a risk there. That’s OK. They probably have worse things to say about my music :)

      • I doubt the JB fans are reading Men with Pens, er, or anything worthwhile.

        BTW: Wanted to point out this was a great example of guest blogging. Taking your passion and experience and finding lessons for a different market.

  4. I love rabble rousers. And writers with attitude. Nice work.

  5. Speaking of aggressive writers, here’s a short-short interview with Joan Didion who talks about writing giving her control over this “tiny, tiny world”

  6. Brilliant advice here, Steff (and hey, awesome to see you on Men With Pens — I think we should pester James for “I guest posted on MwP” badges…)

    I particularly like #2, “Show, don’t tell” — made me realise that I’m a little guilty of telling readers all about the contents of a product, rather than giving them the “feel” of it.

  7. Thanks for the good advice. I usually stay away from writing reviews (wrote a few) because I like to get to the point. I agree that it’s better to show than tell. Rock on =)

  8. Great tips for really making your reviews kick-ass! (I actually googled “how to write a kick-ass review” and found this page, so that’s awesome.) I was trying to figure out how to explain to someone that book reviews need to express your opinion, not just summarize the plot, and your point about having an argument is really helpful. I’ve also found that, personally, I like to try to balance out any negativity about a book (or any other media being reviewed) by ending with a recommendation of one or two other similar titles. Even if you don’t directly link to them (a no-no for Amazon product reviews, for instance), just offering some second choices is a great way to end things on a positive note, no matter how you felt about the book in question.


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