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So You Want to Be a Critic?

Tips for Writing Great Reviews of Movies, Books, TV Shows and More


So You Want to Be a Critic?
Photo courtesy Getty Images

So you want to be a critic? Does a career spent reviewing movies, music, books, TV shows or restaurants seem like Nirvana to you? Then you’re a born critic. But writing great reviews is a real art, one that many have tried but only a few have mastered.

Here then are some tips on how you can write great reviews.

Know Your Subject

Too many beginning critics are eager to write but know painfully little about their chosen topic. If you want to write reviews that carry some authority, then you need to learn everything you can. Want to be the next Roger Ebert? Take college courses on the history of film, read as many books as you can and of course, watch lots of movies. The same goes for any topic.

Some people carry this idea too far. They believe that in order to be a truly good film critic you must have worked as a director, or that in order to review music you must have been a professional musician. Certainly that kind of experience wouldn’t hurt, but it’s more important that the critic be a well-informed layman.

Read Other Critics

This goes along with knowing your subject. Just as an aspiring novelist reads the great writers who came before her, a good critic should read accomplished and respected reviewers, whether it’s the aforementioned Ebert or Pauline Kael on film, Ruth Reichl on food or Michiko Kakutani on books. Read their reviews, analyze what they do and learn from them.

Don’t Be Afraid to Have Strong Opinions

Read great critics and you’ll notice something they all have in common – strong opinions. But newbies who aren’t quite confident in their opinions often write wishy-washy reviews. They write sentences like “I sort of enjoyed this” or “that was okay, though not great.” They’re afraid to take a strong stand for fear of being challenged

But there’s nothing more boring than a hemming-and-hawing review. So decide what you think, and don’t be afraid to state it in no uncertain terms.

Avoid “I” and “In My Opinion”

Too many critics pepper reviews with phrases like “I think” or “In my opinion.” Again, this is often done by novice critics afraid of writing declarative sentences. But such phrases are unnecessary; your reader understands that it’s your opinion you’re writing about, not someone else’s. So leave out the “I.”

Give Background

The critic’s analysis is the centerpiece of any review, but that’s not much use to readers if he doesn’t provide enough background information.

So if you’re reviewing a movie, that means not just outlining the plot but also discussing the director and his previous films, the actors and perhaps even the screenwriter. Critiquing a restaurant? When did it open, who owns it and who’s the head chef? An art exhibit? Tell us a little about the artist, her influences and her previous works.

Don’t Spoil the Ending

There’s nothing readers hate more than a film critic who gives away the ending to the latest blockbuster. So yes, give plenty of background information, but not - I repeat not – the ending of the story.

Know Your Audience

Whether you’re writing for a magazine aimed at intellectuals or a mass-market publication meant for average folks, you need to keep your target audience in mind. So if you’re reviewing a film for a publication aimed at cineastes, you can wax rhapsodic about things like the Italian neo-realists and the French New Wave. But if you’re writing for a wider audience, such references might not mean much.

That’s not to say you can’t educate your readers in the course of a review. But remember – even the most knowledgeable critic won’t succeed if he bores his readers to tears.

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