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:
- Have an Argument
- Show, don’t tell
- Speak the Language
- Make it personal
- Discuss the wider picture
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?