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As some of you may know, I write reviews for a site called Haunted MTL. And yes, being a critic has always been a dream of mine. I think it’s probably a dream a lot of people have. I won’t lie, it’s pretty awesome. I get free books and foreign screeners. And I get to do my favorite thing, talk about fiction work that I love.
That being said, it’s not always easy. I’ve turned a relaxing activity into work. Because a lot more goes into writing a review and cultivating a career around reviews, than one might assume. So today I thought I’d talk about how I do it. How I write reviews, the work that goes into them, and how I manage my critical career.
It starts with a fresh watch or read
When I review something, I like to read or watch it myself and get my first impressions down before I let the opinions of others pollute my own. I’ll watch the content with a notebook in hand, making notes about scenes or actors as I go. This scene went on too long, this was gross in a good way, and this was gross in a bad way. That sort of thing.
Once I’ve consumed the content, I’ll go into research mode. Who was in this piece? What else have they done that my readers might have seen? What Easter Eggs were hidden in the content? What references might a casual viewer have missed? These are all things to consider in writing an entertaining and informative review.
This is not, of course, the main focus of the review. So it’s best not to get lost in the research too much. But it’s fun, especially for nerds like me.
Making stylistic choices
In any form of writing, you’re going to make some stylistic choices. Some of those will depend on genre, others on your personal preference. For instance, I write for an audience of horror fans. So I tend to write using more adult language and about adult subjects. For instance, I don’t think I’ve ever used the word boobies here on PBW. It comes up often on Haunted.
The important thing here is to pick a style and stick with it. Yes, your style is going to change over time, but you want to avoid any dramatic switches.
Conveying information about the content, without giving too much away.
Spoilers suck. I will never get over having the death of Rita ruined for me in Dexter. And if you as a critic are spoiling the endings of things all over the place, you’re not going to be a popular critic. So you’ll have to learn how to tell part of the story, without telling it all.
The way I do this is by focusing more on my opinion of the story, rather than explaining what happened.
Now, there are some situations where it’s really hard to avoid. For instance, when I wrote a review of The Mist. A big reason why I hated that movie was the twist ending. But I didn’t want to give the ending away in case anyone still wanted to see that piece of shit film after reading my review. (The book was way better.) So, I had to sort of dance around it. I let on that the ending was different than in the book. I called it intentionally mean, and unsatisfying. And I mentioned at the start of the review that it might be spoiler-esq. It’s tricky, I’m not going to lie. But it’s vital.
Knowing why something works or doesn’t work.
What’s the difference between a critical review and asking a buddy if they liked a movie? While your buddy might tell you a movie sucked, a critic will tell you why from a professional standpoint it sucked.
Many critics are professionally trained in film school, or deeply involved in content creation like myself. The reason is that it’s not enough to say that something is good or bad. Why was it good? Why was it bad?
I do this in part here, with my Why It Works series. But while that series is aimed at teaching you how to write better, a review is aimed at telling a fan exactly why I wanted to pitch my remote at the screen in disgust.
This is something that is best learned by watching a lot and reading a lot, then considering why you liked or didn’t like what you consumed. Was that film really hard to see because the lighting was bad? Was the dialog realistic? Were the characters likable? It requires an understanding of good writing and good film work that you only develop over time and practice.
But there are worst ways to spend your time.
Watching and reviewing bad content
Speaking of worse ways to spend your time, I want to end off with this. Sometimes I have to review stuff that is just terrible. And I have to watch the whole thing, to explain to other people exactly how terrible it was.
Several times, this has meant I have had to watch a movie that I pray no one ever knows I watched. There was one whose title I will not mention that emotionally scarred me. Sometimes it means I have to finish a tv series that I would have given up on long before the end.
There is an upside, though. Bad content is often really fun to review because you can use some of your most colorful languages. I despised the ending of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and enjoyed explaining in detail how lazy and damaging it was. It made me feel like watching the ending hadn’t been a complete waste of time.
There’s a lot more to be said about writing reviews, but as we’re nearing a thousand words here I’m going to stop for now and continue next week. But I want to hear from you. Do you enjoy reviews? Who is your favorite go-to critic? Have you ever dreamed of being a critic? Let us know in the comments.