Beyond giving stars: how to write a good review

With the proliferation of social media, public reviews of current movies, series and books are now available to any of their users. Sound reviews do not become superfluous, on the contrary: their importance grows.

Anyone who is concerned with the review as a journalistic text type can hardly avoid briefly addressing the ubiquitous findings on the precarious state of film and literary criticism these days. The print crisis in journalism could be the end of the long tradition of reviewing that has developed in this country since the middle of the 18th century. The way in which this has developed over the course of the twentieth century is coming to an end. Moreover, it’s not just the dwindling space for film and book reviews in the newspaper feuilleton that worries many established reviewers. It is also the reviews originating from the public that are disseminated on blogs and social media channels about all kinds of books, series and movies. Although there are discerning exceptions here as well, the less-than-informed consumer recommendation still seems to dominate, often limited to general value judgments and star ratings. So why bother writing a successful review today, when any person with an Internet connection can – and many do – publicly judge a work of art??

The question of why inevitably leads to the question of how. Because anyone can publicly judge a work. To review it in a successful way requires more. More than merely describing the content of a film or novel, and more than expressing one’s like or dislike of it. In a successful review, this judgment is justified, not only by reference to the plot, which is perceived as exciting or boring, but by examining the work more closely – for example, in terms of its narrative structure, its genre, its motives. Ideally, the resulting text is clear and informative in its judgment, which makes it useful and a decision-making tool for the reader. But at the same time, a certain claim can be read out of the intensive examination of a cultural production of today: the claim to contribute to the observation of the present – in other words, to make the here and now more tangible on the basis of the reviewed work and the current references that can be found in it.

Finding the common thread

But how to fit all of these elements into a review that is often of a given length? An appropriate text structure is necessary, in which the observations can be developed into a work comprehensibly. There is no golden rule for this. If you read through reviews of current films, books and series in the feature sections of daily and weekly newspapers, in the culture sections of magazines and in the trade press, you will find a variety of possible structures. Usually, most reviews contain an orienting introduction, which contains the most important information about the reviewed work, such as who wrote it, which genre it belongs to, and which theme is central in it. In addition, almost every review has a pointed conclusion that amounts to a final evaluation of what has been seen or read. What happens in between and how it is structured is up to the reviewer – so free that an organizing principle in writing is advisable.

One obvious way is to deal with all the elements of the review one by one, for example, to deal first with the plot, then with the motifs and narrative devices, and finally with the present-day relevance and to formulate a rating. But this reads about as entertaining and stimulating as an instruction manual. Rather, it is advisable to break away from such rigid scaffolding in text structure and concentrate on highlighting particular aspects, such as the prevailing theme, character drawing, a recurring motif, etc. From these focused aspects, it is possible to form a central thesis about the work under review, which serves as a common thread running through the text, as Goethe described it in his Elective Affinities (1809) in a proverbial way: "We hear of a special institution in the English Navy. All the ropes of the royal fleet, from the strongest to the weakest, are spun in such a way that a red thread runs through the whole, which cannot be wrung out without unraveling everything, and by which even the smallest pieces are known to belong to the crown." In the finished text, it is then this red thread that leads the reader step by step through the observations that build on each other and conveys the thoughts about the work.

Action outline instead of synopsis

In order to elaborate on these considerations, it is of course necessary to give the reader an idea of what the film, series, or novel is all about. But how far is one allowed to go in reproducing the plot?? This varies, of course, from case to case, and depends also on the plot density of the work, but in principle restraint is advisable. For a sprawling DeepL description runs counter to what constitutes a review: the classification and assessment of the work in its entirety, to which there is more than the narrated events. It makes more sense to give a rough outline of what happens and to go into more detail about those plot points that are important for the development of the thread and that are included in the evaluation of the work.

Attempts should be made to gauge at what point the execution of certain plot details may detract from the audience’s reading or viewing experience. From here on you would have to deal with the dreaded, now called "spoiler", anticipation or betrayal of content, the kind of "too much" information that online reviews usually warn about as a precautionary measure. One may consider such spoiler warnings excessive, but they correspond to the temporal reception of reviews envisaged by the culture industry and the journalistic demand for topicality: The assumption is that the review will be read before going to the movies or the bookstore. Accordingly, journalists gain access to the work in press screenings or through review copies a few weeks or months before the audience does. And even before this one appears, the first reviews are already published. With this informational advantage of reviewers comes a special responsibility. This can be understood by anyone who has ever been caught cold or pleasantly surprised by unpredictable twists in a film or novel. Such experiences should at least not be taken away from the audience without hesitation. It is always important to weigh which important idea in the review justifies spilling the beans about a particular plot detail.

Classify and recognize special features

"No man is an island, whole in himself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the mainland." What the English poet John Donne formulated herewith in one of his meditations concerning the incompleteness of every human being also applies to man-made art. Every work is created within a certain social context, shaped by cultural currents and certain market conditions. You should trace this context, that is, do catchy background research. For example, you can look at the author’s or director’s previous work, the possible sources of inspiration or other works on the focused theme, the relevant genre to which the work belongs or which it runs counter to in places. The more basic knowledge you can fall back on this argument, the easier it will be to classify this work. With such a classification one can offer orientation to the readers and show them how this individual work relates to the great whole. However, one should carefully choose which additional information to include in the review. And it makes sense to always question with every aspect whether it makes the thread more visible or merely serves to demonstrate knowledge (and sometimes one’s own vanity).

But as much as a work – like any human being – can never be considered in isolation from its surroundings, it is at the same time unique in certain ways. Considering the flood of sequels, remakes and reboots that have flooded the film market in recent years, one may doubt this singularity. But it is still worthwhile to look at such films, if you deal with them, always in detail and to pay attention to individual features that distinguish them, for example, from the original work or even the other new editions – positively and negatively.

Judging or condemning?

For all the description, classification and highlighting of special features of a work, it is important not to forget what makes a review as a whole: the assessment. It is the lynchpin of any review, which should ultimately make a statement as to whether the reviewed work is worth seeing or reading, respectively. The evaluation of works of art is a frequent point of contention, the discussion of which boils down to the fact that an objective evaluation of art is not possible at all. That’s true; complete objectivity cannot be achieved in view of the many factors that shape our tastes and preferences. But this does not mean in reverse that the subjective judgment is worthless – especially since in a successful review the standards for this judgment can be read out from the aspects treated.

Nevertheless, there are a few things to consider when making an assessment. First of all, reviewers should always be sincere in their judgment, which means freeing oneself from the anticipated opinion of other reviewers and the audience. Nowadays, there are enough blockbusters and bestsellers that, contrary to critics’ opinions, enjoy great popularity with the public – and, conversely, many critics’ favorites that are reviled by the public. But this must not lead reviewers to adjust their standards and follow a "success proves him right" principle. Moreover, the sincere judgment should be formulated in a clear and understandable way to really reach the readers. Such clarity requires courage; no one knew this better than literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki. In his column in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung, he answered the question of whether critics should be cruel with the following words: "Clarity is the politeness of the critic, clarity his duty and task. But the clarity often reveals the harshness that remains hidden between the lines in an awkwardly amiable review text, or at best can be surmised. From clarity to hardship is only one step. And the harshness often comes across as cruelty."

Cover illustration: Esther Schaarhuls

The magazine Professional journalist is a publication of the German Professional Journalists Association (DFJV).

Dobrila Kontic, M.A., studied General and Comparative Literature, English Philology and Modern History at the Free University of Berlin and Journalism at the German Journalism College (DJK). It runs the online magazine culturshock.

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