Although I’ve written literally over a thousand reviews about many different products, it’s a fair bet to say that my favorite subject to write about is movies, both theatrical and made-for-TV ones.
It all started when I was struggling to find out which beat or section of my high school student newspaper I wanted to be assigned in. Because I’d been “drafted” into my first journalism class by my ninth-grade teacher before I even set foot inside South Miami High, I literally felt like a fish out of water in Mr. Gary Bridge’s Newspaper Reporting and Editing class.
Fortunately, we students were issued a huge hardcover textbook that covered all the essential points of a journalism course. Topics ranged from what a pica and a font are to the thorny issues of what constitutes libel, and somewhere in between there were chapters devoted to each section (News, Features, Sports, Op/Ed) in an average student newspaper.
I browsed through these chapters rather half-heartedly, not really feeling very confident that I’d ever write for the more important News or popular Sports sections. Ditto for Features, which seemed to call for writers with a better grip on wit and details than I thought I had at the time.
However, when I came to the section on how to write reviews, especially movie reviews, I was a bit more hopeful about my future at the student paper.
I don’t remember the title of the text book nor who wrote it, but in that chapter there was a complete review of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, complete with helpful analysis and “how-to” hints from the author (or authors.)
Though I also can’t remember the review itself – I read it in early September of 1980, after all – I do remember that I adopted certain techniques and rules from it and the textbooks instructions which I still use today in my online reviews.
1. Draw the reader in with a relevant intro: This isn’t always easy to do, especially if you’re writing the 10th or 140th review of a well-known movie. There are ways to help you avoid either sounding like just one more voice in a choir or parroting someone else’s opinion; not reading others’ review on your topic helps, of course, but choosing relevant select details works even better.
2. Don’t be afraid to show your knowledge: A good online reviewer knows that he or she has a lot of competitors and different opinions, so it’s best if you use all the tools at your disposal to stand out in a crowd and grab readers’ attention. You might want to, for instance, take a bit of trivia about a movie or series of movies and carefully inject into a review’s lead, as I did in my review of The Star Wars Prequel Trilogy box set:
“In May of 1999, 22 years after beginning his Star Wars saga in mid-tale with the film he later re-titled Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope, writer-director George Lucas took millions of viewers back to that galaxy far, far away when Lucasfilm Limited and 20th Century Fox released Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace.”
3. Avoid complex references within the text of a review: While a good reviewer strives to be as informative and detailed whenever possible, you must try to adopt a shorthand that can convey a more complex statement without being wordy.
Example, say you want to mention in a review of Star Wars – Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back that it was written by the guy who wrote Body Heat and Raiders of the Lost Ark and directed by the guy who helmed The Eyes of Laura Mars.
Clunky: Executive producer George Lucas hired Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote both Body Heat and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to write the screenplay, while to take over as director, he hired Irvin Kershner, best known for The Eyes of Laura Mars.
Now, while you might have a great deal of relevant facts there, that sentence is too long and unwieldy.
Better: To bring The Empire Strikes Back to the big screen, executive producer George Lucas brought in writer Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat, Raiders of the Lost Ark) and director Irvin Kershner (The Eyes of Laura Mars).
4. Never give away the whole plot or the ending of a movie: No matter if you’re writing about a new film just starting its first run or a classic such as Gone With the Wind, never, ever summarize more of a plot than the middle of the second act. Your job as a reviewer is not to tell viewers everything you saw or heard in the movie; it is to sway them to see (or not) the movie or TV show in question. You have to always assume that you are writing about something your reader has never seen or used before, even if that assumption is wrong. Spoilers in a review are called that because, well, they spoil a movie goer’s experience by revealing things best left for the audience to discover.