REVIEW WRITING (ARTS): "What is it? Is it any good?"
Notes by Chris Horrie
This is one of the simplest formats.
Your job when reviewing a CD, a book, a work of art, live performance (or anything else) is to tell the readers/listeners:
(A) WHAT IS IT
(B) IS IT ANY GOOD?
Unfortunately GONZO (which is good in its place) has crept into reviewing, with many reviewers using it as yet another opportunity to show off how clever they are. These sometimes do not go beyond the reviewers own personal preferences and reaction to the work. This is no good for professional journalism. Readers want a SERVICE and do not really care what you think of whatever it is.
The question in the reader's mind is "does it do what it says on the tin?"
Contrast with the highly professional reviews in Sight and Sound magazine (British Film Institute). This magazine is written for an expert audience. The magazine reviews every new release. The review style here is absolutely classic as you can see from this typical and unexceptional example.
The magazine actually separates the "what is it" from "is it any good" typographically. It starts with a summary of what the film is about (synopsis) - who the actors are, how long it is and so on. It then goes on to pass a (balance and informed) opinion on whether the film achieves what it has apparently set out to do.
All professional review writing should follow this sort of two part structure. In the consumer press the "is it any good" is often done as a system with a number of stars.
Another elaboration on this basic format is the FEATURE REVIEW which involves reviewing a clutch of products under a single heading - eg young British film-makers; eg - all recent productions of the Magic Flute around the world. This sort of "Feature Review" - supposedly detecting a new trend in culture" can be played very big in the arts/culture sections of newspapers and magazines.
Proper reviewing takes a tremendous amount of work and is very badly paid (particularly book reviews - yes you DO have to read it all). And in order to pass an expert opinion it helps to have some expertise in the area.
So this is a simple but poorly paid corner of the Features world - unless you can get a staff job as a professional critic - which is difficult.
Many reviewers are freelancers or experts in their own field who are doing the reviews in their spare time. Authors, for example, like to write book reviews, since it keeps them inside the circle of review activity and probably helps their standing as writers and authors.
Consumer reviews - evaluating products for readers - follows the same sort of format, but is worthy of special consideration since it is such an important part of the contemporary features scene.