Ok so this is a bit of a departure — as it’s not strictly about wine, food or travel — but most of the principles highlighted here could easily be adapted for travel writing or restaurant reviews, if you’re into that sort of thing.
As you may know, I earn money from writing reviews and previews of TV shows and films. In this capacity, a friend, who heads the Media Arts department at Royal Holloway, University of London, asked me to talk to his students about life as a TV and film journalist.
After an initial knee-jerk reaction of “what the hell do I know about that?!”, I came up with a list of factors to consider when writing a review. It turns out I know more than I realised about my own job. After a few minutes of writer’s block, the ideas came vomiting out by the dozen.
As a bonus, I managed to get a few of my journo mates to muck in too. You can find their perspectives at the bottom.
My Review-Writing Tips
Think about the overarching statement you wish to make or the angle you’d like to take and shove it in at the start, then expand on it in the subsequent sentences. This shows readers there’s a clear point to what you’re saying.
Be self assured. Avoid doubtful expressions like “arguably”, “a bit”, “possibly”. Readers will respect your authority, even if they don’t agree with you.
Use simple language and short sentences. Don’t try to show off your vocabulary: abuse of adjectives and flowery synonyms sounds amateurish.
Quotes can be a useful flavour enhancer. Be alert for quotable lines while watching your source material. You’ll find your quote radar sharpening rapidly with use. This counts equally for other review types. It’s amazing how many restaurant reviewers don’t think to chat to the chef and quote them in their piece.
Why not start your piece with a question?
Talk conversationally and don’t be afraid to speak your mind. People love writers with a distinctive voice. Radio Times’s most popular writer, Alison Graham, is also its most outspoken. At the same time, don’t be controversial for the sake of it, people will see through that.
Analyse writers you admire. Find a review you like and break it down. What is it about it that makes it stand out?
Do some research beforehand. Prior knowledge of the subject matter always adds to the quality of a review.
This almost goes without saying, but practise: write often, edit your own work and be your own sternest critic.
If possible, tie the start and end of the review together thematically. This can’t always be done, especially in a short format. But when it’s achieved, it’s an impressive device.
Obviously avoid all clichés. Concoct original metaphors and similes — it’s fun, stimulates creativity… and you could end up inventing a new word.
Be funny (where appropriate). Like me.
Chat to other people about the subject matter. This is brainstorming, effectively. Ideas will come out of your mouth that otherwise might not have made it as far as your fingers.
Chip away at your piece like a sculpture. It’ll get better every time you read through it, making incremental adjustments to its structure and editing out superfluous words like “that”. “The vicar was very surprised to hear that we’d made him a cup of hot tea.” Sounds better as “The vicar was surprised to hear we’d made him tea.”
Adopt your publication’s tone. Who are your readers? You need to know who you’re talking to.
Don’t overwrite, especially for print. Remember, sub-editors only get noticed when they cock something up, so are not always the most sympathetic bunch. You don’t want too many of your nuggets of wisdom ending up on the cutting-room floor.
Never use apostrophes to pluralise anything. Ever. I mean it. Not even 1960s, CDs or DJs.
Avoid exclamation marks. Unless you want to emphasise something extremely important!
Here’s an exercise in super-succinctness for you: imagine you only have nine words to write your review. Often, trying to think of something such as a standfirst can bring into focus a glaring point or phrase you might have left out otherwise.
The Thoughts of Other Journalists
Andrew Collins: Author, TV Script Writer, Broadcaster, Radio Times Film Editor: Write your review and, if appropriate, add your star rating as soon after seeing the film or TV programme as is practical. Then leave it. Walk away. If it doesn’t have to be filed immediately, read the review again the next morning. How does it read? A good night’s sleep makes all the difference, and gives a bit of distance. In a perfect world, you’d write a review and leave it for a year before filing it, but hey, that never happens.
Don’t give anything five stars or one star in order to make a name for yourself as some kind of edgy, or cheerleading kind of reviewer. There is no shame in giving a film three stars. Most films, and TV shows, are three stars, and the world would turn nicely if that remained the case.
Avoid reviewing films you have seen at screenings where beer, wine and pizza are given out. You will never be able to trust your opinion.
Ben Preston, Executive Editor, The Sunday Times (Former Editor of Radio Times): “My advice is always remember the reader. In a world of blogs, there’s a surfeit of people blabbing on about their opinions about TV shows, and too many try to show off by using ornate language and forget that people are more interested in the show itself.
Tell readers why it’s worth watching and what it’s about – and if you can throw in a few good jokes and a sharp opinion or two, so much the better. And don’t try to be the next AA Gill – he softened his meanness with excellent jokes and punctuated it with praise.”
David Butcher, Deputy TV Editor, Radio Times: “The basic thing is getting a balance between description – summarising what’s in the programme – and comment on whether it’s any good or not. The temptation is always to have too much of the former, when the latter is what makes things a lively read.”
“There’s loads of other stuff – importance of rhythm, images, working around spoilers, and so on, but the biggest thing is having a voice, a point of view that readers pick up on. They may not share it but they know where you’re coming from.”
Jamie Healy, Film Reviewer, Radio Times: “What’s the film about? Who’s in it/directed it? Is it any good? And why? If a review doesn’t address these basics, it’s failed to do its job.”
“You also need some kind of context, in the genre itself or in the star or director’s greater body of work (eg discussing Oliver Stone and his Vietnam films).”
“Does it succeed in what it sets out to achieve (if it’s a comedy, is it actually funny?).
What makes it stand out? A performance, the direction, the dialogue, the soundtrack even?”
“I’m personally not a big fan of the first person perspective being used in a review, unless it’s written by someone you actually give a hoot about (no offence there).”
“Also be aware of future-proofing. My particular bugbear is stuff like ‘This is Clooney’s greatest film’ — well maybe… until the next one.”
Jane Rackham, TV Reviewer, Radio Times: “Be very careful about spoilers in previews (obviously this is less important in an after-the-fact review).”
“I’d say the key thing is to aim to make your review an entertaining read regardless of whether the reader is interested in the programme. You should make them either wish they had seen it, glad they didn’t bother, make their blood boil at your opinions or feel smug that they agree with you. But you should provoke some kind of reaction.”
“As Radio Times’s Queen of the Unseen, I preview all those shows you can’t see beforehand, ie live shows such as Strictly and other seriously protected ones such as Britain’s Got Talent. My tip for this kind of thing is to immerse yourself in the show, read everything you can on Twitter and in the media. Find a peg to hang your preview on – a character like Ann Widdecombe in Strictly is a gift, but you could also pull a Simon Cowell quote, some audience figures or viewers’ reactions to an act.”
Jack Seale, Freelance TV Critic, The Guardian, Radio Times: “I’d say there are two things to avoid, fundamentally: “good/bad” reviews, where you assert that it is or isn’t worth watching but don’t really say why, eg it’s “enjoyable” but you haven’t told us why; it’s a comedy that’s “unfunny” but we don’t know in what way it didn’t work — basically summaries peppered with empty superlatives/insults are to be avoided.”
“And, ‘me me me’ reviews, where you’ve let your own personal tastes slip in too much, for example you don’t like crime dramas and this is a crime drama, so you give it a negative write-up without assessing how good it is by the standards of the genre.”
“A good thing I always try to aim for is to create copy that’s interesting and entertaining for its own sake, with one eye on the fact that most people have not seen and/or will not see the programme. So, make a joke that stands up on its own (eg it’s about a character in a long-running drama, but you’ve said it in a way that doesn’t alienate people who have never seen the show), make a wider point about the topic a documentary is touching on, etc.”
“Also, unless you’re very lucky and are a picture-bylined main reviewer, we’re probably talking 100 words or less here. So, hone it: expunge cliché and repetition, make every word do a job and work hard on sentence construction and length so it all flows.”