How to Write a Review
These guidelines should be useful for writing reviews of nearly any of the kinds of things that Freak Nation deals with. Since there’s such a variety of things we might review here, this document is broken up into sections, making it easy for you to just look at the bits that apply to your particular review. No matter what you’re reviewing, you should read the General Tips and Length guidelines.
While you could possibly skip the rest of this file if you have prior reviewing experience, it should form a useful starting point for any review, whether you’re an old hand with a sudden case of writers’ block or a first-time reviewer who’s wondering where to get started.
You can take a wide variety of tones, from objective and impartial to chatty and friendly, from savage and derisive to wittily scathing. Each of them will have a definite effect on the way your readers react.
You needn’t feel like you have to pan everything just because “that’s what critics do” — a critic who hates everything is just as useless as one who likes everything. (If you’ve ever had to deal with a critic who fell into either of those two camps, you’ll know what I’m talking about!)
Remember that there is a middle ground between adulation and excoriation — indeed, most things fall somewhere between 3 and 7 on a ten-scale, and so should get a mixed review that details what their strengths and weaknesses were. If you say something complex like “the acting was good, the special effects were sort-of good, the costumes sucked and the script was strong on plot but weak on characterization”, that’s not only OK, it’s actually very good!
Whether you give something a review that’s good, bad, or the more complex options in between, say why you think so. Whether you’re lauding or savaging some particular aspect of the thing, giving an objective reason for doing so makes the reader trust you more.
A good length for a review is around 700-900 words, not counting the “peripheral” information. The peripherals include the basic stats on whatever you’re reviewing — for a movie, that would be: title, director and major actors, rating and running time. For an album: title, artist, label and track-listing. For a book, generally include the title and author, publisher, number of pages, and maybe the ISBN. For a club, see the “Vital Statistics” in the section on club reviews.
Since this is the Web, and there are no real space constraints, you can go over that 900-word cap if you need to, definitely up to or even past a thousand words or so. (Past about 1200, your audience may tune out.) Don’t drop below 650 if you can possibly help it — a 600-word review is painfully short, and leaves the reader feeling like they still don’t have enough information to decide whether or not to be interested in the thing.
Don’t be intimidated by the length of this document, or the amount of information in it. If you’ve gotten this far, then you’ve read everyting you need, except for the specific notes on the particular kind of thing you’re reviewing. Just use the following links to find the section that talks about the kind of thing you’re planning to review — once you read that, you should be all set!
Remember to include an author bio and a star rating with your review, or we won’t be able to run it.
Whether the work is on DVD, on VHS, or live and on the air, the considerations involved in reviewing it are pretty similar. For now, I’m just going to call the work “a show” — which could be “a motion picture show” (i.e., a movie, regardless of whether you saw it in a theater or on DVD) or “a TV show”.
When reviewing a show, you should always pay attention to the following items, both while watching the show and in your review:
Additionally, some shows will have other important features that are worth mentioning and discussing in your review. A big one is any major themes, archetypes, or symbols that appear in it. These can really make or break the artistic work — for example, I think mainstream critics mostly panned The Matrix not because they thought Keanu Reeves’ acting was bad (though they were happy to use that as an excuse), but more because they didn’t understand or relate to the themes of alienation, of society being an alien construct and harmful to freedom, of rebels from outside the system trying to set everyone free. (The sequels got panned for entirely different reasons...)
If this show is an adaptation of a previous work (novel, play, comic, graphic novel, etc.), people will want to know how faithful an adaptation it was. If you can’t actually get familiar with the source material before writing a review of an adaptation, you should at least get someone who is familiar with it to look over your review before submitting it.
Finally, in shows where such things are important, other aspects to look at and evaluate include: costuming; set design and lighting; authenticity of historical period; mood, music and appropriateness of soundtrack.
Many major DVD releases these days are “Such-and-So Show, Season X”. In these cases, you’re simultaneously reviewing each individual show, and also the entire season as a whole. So all the questions above about character development, plot pacing, and so on, can apply both to any given episode, and to the season as a whole. (This is particularly true of shows with an ongoing plot arc, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Babylon 5.)
In some games, things like characterization, pacing, and plot can really matter. In others, such as card- or puzzle-based games,there may not even be any characters or plot. The range of games is extremely wide, so simply take note of whatever seems to apply from the following list of suggestions, and ignore the rest:
Naturally, the most crucial question is: Is this game enjoyable? Do you want to keep playing it? Would you be likely to buy the sequel, if one ever came out?
If the game has an online mode (or is an MMORPG, so the only mode it has is “online”), you might also look at some of the online/community aspects that become important. Have the game’s creators have managed to keep lamers from cheating by using patched clients? Are there any strong communities based around the game that new players might want to visit?
With music, it really eventually comes down to “Does it move you?” But if you want your review to be useful to someone who doesn’t necessarily share your tastes (or doesn’t even know what your tastes are), you should probably touch on the following points when talking about the album:
You might also want to give attention to any recurring themes in the music or lyrics (Heavily political? Recurring bird imagery? Lots of baroque counterpoint?). Additionally, you might say how many tracks were on the album (or EP or whatever), and anything else important about them. (Are the tracks generally really short or very long? Do they use some funky instruments on some of them? Is this a concept album? And so on.)
Finally, it’s good to listen to how different the songs are from each other. Do they all blend together and sound like the same song over and over again? (Of course, if the music is techno, that’s probably intentional...) Does the band show a decent range of emotions, rhythms and lyrical styles?
Reviewing books is more like reviewing movies and TV shows than anything else, because many of the same elements apply: pacing, plot, and characterization are all fairly similar. But after that, the similarities end. Here are review guidelines on various types of books:
If the book isn’t a comic or some other form of graphic novel, the special effects in it are as good as your own imagination can make them; ditto the lighting, costumes, cinematography and everything else. So the only major factor to look at (aside from those mentioned above) is the author’s use of words. (If it is a comic or graphic novel, see below.)
Is it smooth? Is it awkward? How well does the author keep your interest? Since characters can no longer be delineated by the actor’s voice, or gestures, or body language, the author must bring all the characters to life simply with his or her words. How does he or she handle that? Are the characters alive? Are they all easily distinguished from each other?
Are the chapters too long, too short, or just right? If the chapters are named, do the names contribute to the overall reading experience? Does the structure of the book help move you through it as you read, or add another dimension to the symbolism and thematic nature of the work? (This may not be obvious until after you’ve finished the thing and thought about it some, of course.)
In these, of course, the previous comments about the use of words being “the only major factor” go out the window. The words are still important, along with the pacing, story, and characterization, but now you need to look at the artwork in addition to all that other stuff.
First off, there’s the basic question of “is it good art?” As with music, this can be very personal and subjective, but you can still point to certain somewhat-objective aspects of the art: strong use of color or shading, loose versus tightly controlled lines, and so forth.
Secondly, you can evaluate things like the visual portrayals of characters (and events, devices, places, and whatnot). Do the people look appropriate to the roles they play in the story? Are facial expressions rendered well? How about action — are you ever confused about what’s going on in a melée?
Finally, there are questions of how well the artistic style matches the tone of the story. In a dark and moody tale of supernatural intrigue, you shouldn’t expect to find the same color palettes or line styles that you’d see in a superhero story.
The crucial purpose of any gaming manual is, of course, to give you the information needed to play a game. So the first thing to look at in a game manual review is, “did it leave you understanding the rules, and feeling like you could use them in game-play?” But that’s really just a starting point, because most RPGs are a lot more complicated than chess or blackjack.
Even though characterization might not seem to be a consideration in a game manual, it turns out that most game companies include at least a few “viewpoint characters” in their books anyway. Are these characters interesting? Do their viewpoints help give you a personal and human sense of what the game-world is like?
Indexes and organization aren’t the most glamorous part of publishing. but in a gaming maual, they’re absolutely critical parts of usability. When you need to find that one particular rule that would clarify the weird situation your party’s gotten itself into, the index is suddenly the most important single percent of the book! So: does this manual even bother to include an index? And if so, is it worth the paper it’s printed on, or does it simply re-hash the table of contents?
Whether there’s an index or not, can you find the information you need, quickly and easily? Can you find it before your gaming group starts getting twitchy and saying “Oh, screw it, let’s just fudge the outcome somehow”?
Art is also important; it helps give the feel of the game-world another dimension. There are a variety of other layout and design considerations, including the use of ornamental typefaces — these considerations vary from book to book and from company to company, so it’s hard to give a single list, but keep your eyes out for anything worth mentioning.
These involve a little of everything: there’s usually a brief sample adventure, plus boatloads of rules, a few sample characters... and plus, this manual needs to lay out the background for an entire game-world. So to some extent, when you review a core manual, you’re also evaluating the entire world and setting. Is it interesting, well thought-out, self-consistent? Does it invite you to enter it and play in it? And more, does the manual give you a firm understanding of the world it’s creating, so you have confidence that you understand what it’s like and how it works?
There’s also a careful balance to be struck between the multiple goals of introducing the world, introducing the rule system, providing flavor, and serving as a reference book. How well did the creators manage to walk that line? Is there a good sense of everything you need, or did some aspects get short shrift?
Adventures have all the attributes of novels (see above), such as pacing, plot, settings and characterization. So take a look at those, remembering that the plot needs to be fluid enough to allow for the players’ freedom of action, and that the players won’t care about the plot if the NPCs they’re interacting with are boring and two-dimensional.
Then consider whether the plot is too complex or too simple, and whether the players are likely to feel railroaded into a single course of action. Does the plot rely on the characters doing (or not doing) some particular thing? How badly will it be ruined if your players try doing something else? (It will probably help to run at least one party through the adventure...)
Also, it’s good to look at how the adventure will affect the party in the long term: are they likely to come out of it with lots of overpowered items, or enormously powerful enemies, or anything else?
Finally, consider things like how well this adventure would fit into a campaign that doesn’t follow the standard game-world timeline too closely. Lots of gaming groups like to tweak their worlds in various ways; will this make the adventure unusuable for them?
Expansions and supplements are usually intended to flesh out an already-introduced rule system, so you don’t need to spend any time evaluating the rule system as a whole. The world, the mechanics, and so forth are already created; you should simply be reviewing how well this particular manual extends and adds to that pre-existing material.
Does it actually give you any useful information about the stuff it covers, or is it mostly just “flavor text” with little hard data? Depending on the topic, you might not need actual charts, graphs, and game mechanics. But game’s original core rule book probably raised lots of questions about the game world, from “Hey, do they have items that will do X?” to “What’s it like to be a character of class, race or clan Y?” to “Will the rules let you do Z, and if so, how?” The job of a supplement is to answer these questions, not just to be pretty or to make more money for the gaming studio. Does this supplement do that? If not, then it may be beautifully laid out, entertaining to read, and even well-indexed... but it’s still not very useful.
Finally, of course, there are the ever-important aspects of layout, style, and the crucial matter of indexing and organization.
Like the gaming manuals, the real purpose of textbooks or of tech manuals is to give you some kind of information. Everything in the book should be aimed at that basic purpose. If there are illustrations, they should: A) actually give you a clearer understanding of the topic; and B) not be there simply to bulk out the page count, keep the publisher’s graphic artists employed, and/or make the book look prettier when it’s lying open on someone’s desk.
Things to look at when considering the book and when writing your review:
The final, most crucial point is simply the book’s ability to teach. If you don’t learn anything from reading this book, it’s not fulfilling its basic function. People don’t (normally) buy textbooks to look pretty on the shelves, or buy tech manuals just to keep their publishers in business. They buy these books to learn things. If the books don’t teach, it doesn’t matter how well organized and indexed they are. So your review should reflect, first and foremost, whether you were actually able to learn from this book.
Software reviews should give the reader every bit of information they might need to decide whether to buy or install the software, as well as what it’s like to use. You should include the following:
Really, the last three points are at least as important as the first three. Because most software reviews are written under tight deadlines, the first three aspects are all the reviewer has time to evaluate, but that simply means that at least half the review covers the installation experience.
You’re only going to install the thing once (under normal circumstances), but you’re going to be dealing with the final three items on that list for as long as you use the application. The installation is the least important part of the review; don’t spend more than one or two paragraphs on it. We’d rather put out a complete review ten days after the software’s released than publish an evaluation of the package’s install script and a first glance at the UI only two days after release.
Freak Nation publishes reviews of practically any type of regular, ongoing or recurring event that freaks habitually attend: goth/punk/industrial clubs; LUG and other tech group meetings, public LARPs, fetish events, you name it. As long as it’s something that’s open to new visitors, and happens at least once a month, we’re willing to review it.
All these sorts of events can be pretty subjective; what one person really likes, another may hate. Here are some guidelines for reviewing an event in a way that will let a random third party figure out whether they’ll like the place.
You should visit the event at least three times before writing your review. (This is one reason why we don’t want to get into reviewing annual or even tri-monthly events — you’d have to use a nine-month or longer timespan just to write your review!) If it’s an every-night event, rather than just a once-a-week thing, you should definitely visit it on three (or more) different days of the week (or nights), including both weekdays and weekends. When you’ve got a good feel for the place, include as much as possible of the following in your review:
Nightclubs have a very different set of special requirements in terms of reviewing, which set them apart from other freak events. In particular:
You may also want to mention the place’s special effects, if they’re worthy of mention. Is the lighting system really cool? Do they have a smoke machine? (If so, do they overuse it, or does the smoke have any noticeable scent? Asthmatics like to know these things.) Do they have lasers, videos, or other cool toys going on? However, these are fairly peripheral considerations, since they’re not really make-or-break criteria. (Who says “I’d quit going to my usual club if their lighting system broke down”?)
These generally include Linux User Group and other technical group meetings, fan clubs, RPG society meetings, and so on. These are generally more informal events than nightclubs, and have a lot more in common with each other. Aside from the stuff mentioned above, under “Events”, some other things to look at for your review include:
Aside from that, you might pay some attention to this group’s overall style. A LUG that’s full of hard-core kernel coders who like to argue vocferously about the merits of different numbers of SMP spin-locks is a far cry from one populated by LAMP developers and Gnome users with friendlier style; a gaming group that concentrates on dark, gritty urban fantasy games won’t be appealing to someone who’s looking for a four-color superhero campaign.