Saturday, September 18, 2010

What Makes a Good Reviewer?

The answer to that question is probably best said by a classmate of mine, an extremely talented girl a year younger than me. She's talking about music journalism here, but I think it's so applicable to any other type of writing, particularly reviews:
"The mark of a good music critic is the ability to describe a piece of music so that a listener who has not heard the song can hear exactly what the writer is hearing. It's impossible, but what else can I do but try?

"I love 'Rocky Raccoon' because it's imperfect and atypical. I like it because Paul McCartney's mouth is too close to the microphone, and you can hear him swallowing. His diction isn't very good, and the words seem to roll off his tongue, not quite making it over the edge. The melody is simple, and the lyrics are effortless. Paul's crooning tone adds vulnerability to the song, but the smoothness of the lyrics and the languorous movement of Ringo's downbeat and George's strumming guitar give the tune a lighthearted ambiance." © I.N. 2010
If you can't hear exactly what she's talking about in her description, then pigs are probably flying. I've never heard this song before but I can practically hear it playing right next to me, reading that.

This, friends, is what it means to be a reviewer, or really, a writer of anything. It's describing something in such a way that someone who has no expertise in the subject can almost perfectly understand what you're talking about.

Don't get me wrong: it's definitely hard. It takes lots of practice and direct/indirect exposure to the field that you're writing about and lots of trial and error. As well as a bit of talent. Yes, I believe that people are born and/or shaped to be predisposed to some activities and interests over others, but even that's not enough to be good at what you're doing. It also involves a certain degree of humility, of actually LISTENING to criticism and learning from it, and then learning to separate the good criticism from the so-so criticism.

The way I see it, to write--to transfer anything from thought to language--is to communicate. Doesn't matter if you're only scribbling half-formed sentences in your journal, or drafting an article that's going to appear in the New York Times. They might be different levels of writing, but it's all writing when it comes down to it. To write is to communicate, which means to have an audience. And by "audience," I mean anything from a half-second, grimacing glance before you trash/burn/otherwise destroy what you just wrote, or the legions of readers who will discover and rediscover your writing for centuries to come.

The easiest audience to write for is, arguably, yourself. That's because you know yourself, you can take shortcuts with your writing and still be able to decipher what you are talking about. The more people read your stuff, however, the harder it is to write, and the less easy it is to define the qualities of a work that make people continue to read it generations after it was originally written. What is the reason Homer is still read and taught today? What about Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu, who actually wrote in another language? What is it about their writings that have withstood the tests of time, evolving audiences, and even languages?

Here we go back to that intangible definition of writing that transcends individual language and experiential limitations. As a book reviewer, I strive to describe the book I'm reviewing to myself... my YA-loving friends... readers in general... non-reviewers... my mother's cousin's husband's sister's youngest son's best friend, who HATES reading. On and on and on, attempting to reach whoever manages to stumble across this speck of a blog in this corner of the infinite Internet universe. With every bit of writing I do, blogging or non-blogging-related, I am thinking about audience. Because, from a sociocultural perspective, in our world, those who have language are those who succeed. Sure, you should definitely write for yourself, all of your writing should reflect YOU, but at the same time, the "you" is a form of audience as well.

Language is a construct to bridge--nay, to organize--human thoughts and consciences. It necessarily requires the existence of an audience. And it is the act of a good writer/reviewer that we are able to communicate our thoughts about something to someone who knows nothing about it. It doesn't matter how the reviewer goes about it: they can be snarky, biting, insulting, raving, obsequious. The attitude with which one reviews something is not what I'm talking about right now (and is subject for a different conversation at another time); what I'm talking about right now is the act of communication. My favorite book reviewers have that ability to let me really get what he/she wants to say about the book. And that's what I'm looking for when it comes to writing.


  1. Thanks for this post! As a fairly new YA book blogger, I appreciate reading words of wisdom from seasoned, award-winning (congratulations!) book bloggers like yourself. Many thanks for all that you do! (now, I'm off to listen to Rocky Raccoon)

  2. It makes me sound better than I am! You write incredibly well, and this is a great "Essay" to encourage other reviewers! Good job and thanks!

  3. This post is so interesting to read, and so perceptive. Sometimes as a blogger you can start to lose confidence in your reviewing technique, which is why these insights are sure to come in helpful to many who read this. I always aim to describe the book I'm reviewing as best I can, but when I get off track I'm going to look back at this post for guidance and inspiration!

  4. I really like this a lot. A lot of the reviewers I come back to time after time after time do exactly as you wrote above. They describe the book in such a way to make me desperately want it. i.e. Angie of Angieville, I don't know anyone immune to her recommendations, or the girls at Forever Young Adult, they don't write like that Rocky Raccoon reviewer, but they have their own wonderful voice, which again, makes me feel like I know the book, and that it's something I want to read. I like it when bloggers 'get it'. Where we use our unique voices to really bring the book across and our feelings across. Of course, I am rambling here, but thanks for this post. This is what I want to see in bloglandia.

  5. Well said Steph I think encouraging a level of understanding of a book is equally important to giving it a thumbs-up or thumbs-down. I suppose it could be said one wouldn't have to give the up or down if the review is written well enough. A reader would just know without being told.

    I do think there is a lot to be discussed about personality in posting. Like April I love Angie and I love Forever YA, but they each have a very distinct and different voice. Yet I still trust both implicity.

  6. I love what you said and the way you said it and why you said it...I am a new blogger and reviewer and although I have taught reading and literature for most of my teaching career...I try to write my reviews as a talk...a book my audience...when I taught that is what made my students want to pick up a book and read. When I read a review I am looking for the exact things that you mentioned...I truly do not care how long it is...I just want to be able to somehow connect so much with the book that I have to race out and get it...or Kindle it...

  7. Someone said a writer should never utter the words "I couldn't describe it. It's beyond words" because as a writer its our job to describe the indescribable. Sometimes it's a very tough job!

  8. Great post, Steph! You have definitely given me food for thought on my own approaches to reviewing and writing in general. I do try to consider my audience when I write, but now I feel like I could do an even better job with that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  9. I love this post. It's so spot on and rings true for me.

  10. Wonderful post, Steph Su :)

    The problem I see(when it comes to my writing)is that people are afraid of criticizing. I cannot remember having received any critic after I started blogging. I wish people would criticize though because I know I have a huge potential for improving and with every post I write I try to do better then the last. It is especially hard for me to form my thoughts and write them down; also I struggle a bit with my grammar (since English and Norwegian grammar is so very different at times).

  11. GREAT post! I have to remember a lot of this when I'm writing my own reviews. I'm always trying to have better-written posts. One of the best projects I ever had to do in college seemed ridiculous when I received the prompt - Aliens have invaded earth and ask you what your watch is for. Describe it to them, but don't forget they probably need help understanding what time is, too.... Crazy, right? But also such a great exercise. This post reminded me of that.

  12. Extremely well-said. Of course, not all of us look for the same thing in a reviewer or a review. Or even writing in general, really. But that is a perfectly wonderful description of what YOU want, and I mostly agree. Except that I also look for entertainment value (i.e. laughs).

  13. What an awesome post. I find it extremely frustrating when someone picks up a book, stares at the cover for 2 seconds, then expects me to sum up my thoughts in 3 words. I feel like it would be an embarrassment to the author and the story for me to be able to do that. I appreciate bloggers like yourself who can articulate exactly why you like/dislike a book. I can also appreciate when you write about a novel where you're not completely compartmentalizing everything.


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