Jonathan Deamer

No longer being updated, just here for posterity.

How to write great reviews

Reviews make great blog posts: they’re not only a novel answer to the perpetual blogger’s conundrum of “what shall I write about today?”, but also a cool way to attract readers. Lots of people want to know if the new U2 record (for example) is any good, so why not write to cater for an audience that’s already there?

Furthermore, if you write an interesting and comprehensive article, it’s just the sort of thing that readers will bookmark for later reference, e-mail to friends or link to from their own blogs. This is especially true for high-investment purchases like technology or household electronics. A detailed review can even mean you or your blog become recognised as an authority on the subject.

But how to write those great reviews? I’ve been reviewing music for ages, and I always try to stick to these 10 rules. Although they’re from a music journalism point of view, they’ll work for most subjects. Let me know how you get on, whether it’s reviewing books, movies, software, or something different altogether.

1. Ask yourself “what does the reader want to know?”

This is the most important thing to remember when writing a review. You can craft the wittiest prose with the cleverest metaphors, but unless the reader finds out what they want to know, you’ve not done your job as a reviewer.

Think of the sort of questions they’re likely to be asking themselves – these will vary depending on what you’re writing about: “Is this book a light, enjoyable read for on the beach?”, “Why should I upgrade to Windows Vista?”, or even “Does Justin Timberlake’s new CD have anything on it as good as Cry Me A River?”

Find that one question, and make the sole aim of your article to answer it.

2. Decide on the overall point you want to get across to the reader.

If you know your subject matter well (which, as a reviewer, you should do), you’ll no doubt have a whole ream of opinions, both good and bad, that you can knock back and forth like a review-writing game of tennis. All those viewpoints can get confusing, so simplify it.

Decide on an overall basic opinion of the product, such as “An hilarious, if overlong movie – just don’t expect anything groundbreaking”, and use that as a framework for your review. Hang everything else off this one idea. How does the movie’s acting influence this opinion? Why isn’t the plot that groundbreaking?

You can get all your points across, but just relate them all to this central theme (in conjunction with number 1 above) and your review will seem less like the sort of conversation you have in a bar after the movie, and more like real journalism!

3. Be ruthless when editing – don’t be precious about your “art”.

If it doesn’t help you answer the reader’s question (point number 1, above), or isn’t directly conducive to getting your main point across (number 2), then get rid of it! You might be really proud of a line you’ve written, but unless it helps the review as a whole it’s no good.

Review writing isn’t art – save that for your novel – so don’t get precious about it. Remember the words of science fiction author James Patrick Kelly on this subject: “murder your darlings”. Readers don’t think someone’s a great writer because of a single sharp-but-irrelevant observation; they’ll think you’re a great writer if all the cogs in the machine of your review work together.

This is something I sometimes stuggle with, but Copyblogger further underlines the importance of keeping your writing simple.

4. Don’t write about yourself; it’s about the band, book, movie or whatever you’re reviewing.

A classic novice’s mistake this one. Look at any page of Amazon customer reviews, and you’ll no doubt come across someone who tells a story all about how the guy they work with said The Da Vinci Code is great, but I wasn’t sure because he’s not too smart, but then he did recommend that other book to me that was pretty good, although he’s a religious nut so it probably won’t be my thing, but I suppose I should because otherwise he’ll never shut up about it…WHO CARES?

As we’ve said already, reviewers want to know about the product, and that should be what you concentrate on. Of course, blogging is a personal medium, and it can be great for personal anecdotes, but within a review isn’t the place. As mentioned previously, one of the main benefits of review writing is that your posts can become a point of reference for people, and even an authority on a product depending on what it is you choose to review. But if you cloud the matter with irrelevancies, you won’t get the linkbacks and word-of-mouth publicity that these things merit.

By all means stamp a bit of your personality and thoughts on the review, but stick to the subject matter; the reader shouldn’t really know the reviewer is there. A good rule of thumb is to try not to say “I” at all.

5. Ask yourself “what makes my review unique?”

Well-anticipated products like Hollywood movies or a new release from Apple (hurry up iPhone!) can generate thousands of reviews both across the blogosphere and the more traditional media. So why would anyone want to read yours?

That’s not meant to be a criticism of your writing – I’m sure it’s great. But it’s meant to make you think about having a “unique selling point” – something that your review can offer that people won’t be able to find elsewhere. Do you manage to bring a humorous slant to it? Do you have a specific or rare expertise (eg. wouldn’t it have been an interesting take on things if a priest posted his thoughts on the aforementioned Da Vinci Code)? Is your opinion vastly different to that of everyone else? Have you managed to be the first one to review something?

Whatever you decide your unique selling point is, make sure you emphasise it! There’s some good advice along these lines in Matt Cutts’ article on a blogging technique know as linkbait.

6. You don’t always need to be a smartarse – sometimes it’s better to write as if you’re chatting to your friends.

Writing like a smartarse is something I must admit to being (very!) guilty of at times. It can be very tempting to get wrapped up in metaphors and tie yourself in linguistic knots. While this may make you feel like Charles Dickens, often it can just confuse the reader. By all means write well and write interestingly, but don’t try to translate everything to purple prose – sometimes it really is better to just write exactly what you said as you walked out of the cinema, without looking up 27 different synonyms for “crappy chic-flick”.

7. Compare to other similar products – but not too much!

One of the advantages of being an expert in your field is that you can place a new release in context – is it better or worse than the author’s previous work, are there other better alternatives in a similar genre, and so on. This is something it’s definitely worth doing if you don’t already, as it can lend your writing an air of expertise and authority.

The thing to remember though is not to do it too much, as it’s easy to end up writing more about other products than the one you’re meant to be reviewing. This is something beginners tend to do a lot – many of my early music reviews read like a who’s who of the genre (probably in an attempt to show off my knowledge!), so watch out for it.

8. Strong quotable sentences are great, but let them come naturally.

One of the best ways to learn to write good reviews is to read professional ones, and try to imitate them. What bits of their style do you like? What ideas can you borrow? One of the dangers of this though is that you can easily write reviews full of the sort of phrases that appear on movie posters – “a rip-roaring thrill ride for all the family!”.

Needless to say, clichés like that should be avoided at all costs. And even if they’re not clichés, such sentences can often be superficial. So don’t go looking for them. If they genuinely serve a purpose and help you say what you want to say, then great. But if you’re just writing something because it sounds like a movie poster quote, then really it’s just a platitude.

Having said that, if you do come up with a killer quote, you may want to consider using it as your review’s headline; Freelance Switch outlines the importance of “writing headlines that kill” in order to attract readers.

9. Be specific!

Used in conjunction with the tips on comparison (above) and stating the obvious (below), this can be one of the things that really makes your review a resource that people are going to return to months, or even years, after you’ve written it.

Much of this applies to reviews of events: touring bands, theatre shows etc. It’s easy to write a cookie-cutter review of a gig that does a good job of describing the music and the songs that were played. But be specific: what happened on the night you saw the show that will differentiate your review from that of anyone who saw the show on a different night? For example, in live music reviews, try and include a notable quote from the stage. Mention the atmosphere. What about context: has the artist been in the news recently? If you’re reviewing a popstar’s first show after a big court case, this could even form part of your unique selling point, as described above.

Although mostly useful in a performing arts sense, these same techniques are useful for anything: just ask yourself, “what was unique about my experience?” This stops your reviews commiting the cardinal sin of reading like a press-release, and as long as you don’t start telling boring personal anecdotes like our friend from the Amazon review above, you’ll be fine!

10. Don’t be afraid to state the obvious.

You’re an expert in your field – anything you don’t know about the works of Stephen King isn’t worth knowing! So it can be a bit frustrating as a reviewer to have to hold your reader’s hand and explain to them that he’s a quite well-known horror writer, and that they may even have heard of The Shining – it was made into a film, you know?

Obviously, that depends on your audience. If it’s for the Stephen King fanclub, by all means go straight into depth. But if it’s for a more general audience, don’t underestimate how little your reader may actually know about the subject. There’s no need to give a full life story, but a bit of background info is always good. When reviewing bands for example: where are they from, how many members are there, what’s their biggest hit, and so on. If nothing else, it means your first paragraph’s sorted!

Feel free to post links to reviews you’ve written using these techniques in the comments below…

Written by Jonathan Deamer

June 12, 2007 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

41 Responses

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  1. Good one…..


    June 12, 2007 at 5:58 pm

  2. That is so true. I always have of think of what I plan to write in order to make readers come back to my site. Hey, at least, blogging helps me improving my writing skills and my English.

    Dear A

    June 12, 2007 at 7:44 pm

  3. Very good advice, Jonathan!
    And also a big thanks for your mail!
    Although my field is quite different, I especially agree with 3) and 4)!
    I would add another tip:
    As a real blogger, do spare some time to regularly check/investigate other blogs in your field or that you enjoy reading and leave a comment/message!
    Too many people come nad go without leaving a trace. A blog is a means of communication after all!
    Please do keep me informed of all your new posts!

    Robert-Gilles Martineau

    June 13, 2007 at 1:37 am

  4. JD,

    This is good advice for many types of writing. There’s a tried-and-true equation in tech writing that applies here: Audience + Purpose = Tone; from there you’ve the groundwork to keep the piece, whatever it is, afloat. That last paragraph of number two is huge as well. Too many people think that strong writing meanders with surprises, twists, and loose connections between ideas, facts, or assertions. But that controlling idea ought to be like a hub on a wheel. Great post. I’m glad to see it was frontpaged.


    June 13, 2007 at 3:49 am

  5. After reading this, I’d like to tear down my entire week’s worth of posts and re-do. Thanks for the good part(s) of that English book I never read.


    June 13, 2007 at 6:31 am

  6. Having read 2 of your postings, maybe I write a review of your postings and try to incorporate all the 10 secrets..:)


    June 13, 2007 at 10:02 am

  7. sweet I will have to use these…….


    June 13, 2007 at 11:41 am

  8. Being of the older generation once I started blogging I realised how little I know about computers and here’s me thinking I was so clever.
    I’m still trying to figure out the RSS feed.

    As for being a blogaholic, I ticked off 10 reasons. What’s Scoble.



    June 19, 2007 at 7:49 pm

  9. i will try to implement some of your thoughts on my site. nice stuff here.

    syahid ali

    June 23, 2007 at 6:18 pm

  10. Aloha and great advice…thanks alot. welcome to:
    Your Future, Your Past

    You never know what the tide will bring in the next day…..especially here in Hawaii!


    July 15, 2007 at 10:30 am

  11. Good article. There is a great need for more in-depth reviews of certain products and technologies. Your tips are really helpful for anybody who wants to create reviews of any type. Good job.


    July 17, 2007 at 8:13 pm

  12. I just wrote a book review and it was harder than i thought it would be – so thanks for the tips. Keep adding more.:)


    August 3, 2007 at 6:57 pm

  13. Nice one… im new to writing stuff… and still learning .. i was searching for a book online and came through your post …

    a good one ..

    Priyankeshu Parihar

    May 12, 2008 at 9:36 am

  14. Thank you for submission your article to the 5th Edition of the “Bringing more traffic to your blog” Blog Carnival. The edition was published today:

    Have a good weekend!


    June 6, 2008 at 8:00 am

  15. very nice tips, I’ll try to implement some of those recommendation.
    then i will add another comment.


    August 1, 2008 at 3:30 pm

  16. Well, the “secrets” are good…
    I just think if every blogger writes to “keep readers coming back”?


    December 19, 2008 at 4:07 am

  17. I am really searching for tips on how to write a good review. I am thankful I come across your post. Thank you for sharing these helpful tips.


    April 5, 2009 at 3:29 pm

  18. Thanks! this helped loads. clear and precise. great work.


    April 23, 2009 at 10:38 am

  19. Great advice. Just what I needed.

    I’ve just started a site with music, concert, movie, alcohol, pub and club reviews (I know, a wide range to cover). Getting a review style has been difficult but this will help me a lot.

    Any one interested in writing reviews for my site, please visit the provided link.



    May 25, 2009 at 9:12 am

  20. Your tips are very helpful. I’m just a highschool student who loves english. I love writing storys and essays and am apparently good at writing poems but reviews I got stuck on. Mainly because I just simply didn’t understand what I was meant to say exactly. (I’m an A grade student but I have to have things explained to me in detail or i can’t do it. SO ANNOYING) My teachers were no help, they just gave me some vague ‘Oh, you just write it…” well more or less. but now I actually get what I have to write… more or less… so thanks


    August 14, 2009 at 2:00 pm

    • Glad to have helped Lee. I do know what you mean about teachers…I was always useless at art, and my teacher’s continual advice of “just give it 110%” was no good in helping me understand perspective or shading!

      Let me know how you get on with writing reviews…feel free to send one over :-)

      Jonathan Deamer

      August 14, 2009 at 2:58 pm

  21. Thanks so much. Pretty much in the same position as Lee, so again very helpful! The teachers expect us to guess or something! Have you written any about essay-writing/ Creative writing? cos if so, love to see them :)
    Thanks again x


    September 25, 2009 at 9:54 am

  22. Very information article. I have been writing reports, reviews and presentations for over 7 years but I am constantly reviewing my own style. Thank you.

    Lisa Gibbons

    October 7, 2009 at 12:49 pm

  23. good tips


    December 21, 2009 at 1:20 am

  24. Thanks for the advice. Will be writing my first review soon and needed some pointers.



    January 2, 2010 at 6:58 am

  25. I think it’s hilarious that you pretty much wrote a review on how to write a review so that people will stumble upon your blog, considering that that’s how I happened upon your website. Thanks for the tips! They were very useful!


    January 26, 2010 at 6:00 am

  26. An advice of worth considering. Thank you very much.


    January 30, 2010 at 11:52 am

  27. I love writing and reading books. I love the notion that people can make things up in their mind and then make them real on a page, for the pleasure or utility of someone else.


    February 18, 2010 at 3:23 pm

  28. thanks for the tips, I always want to write and learn a lot from your post


    March 7, 2010 at 2:18 pm

    • thank you very much for the tips


      January 28, 2011 at 5:41 pm

  29. Had a review to write as part of an application to college, this was extremely helpful. Thankyou(:


    March 8, 2010 at 7:44 pm

  30. Awesome!!!
    Thanks you so much for this precious sharing!!!
    Have a nice day, guys!!!


    March 10, 2010 at 2:28 am

  31. My favorite thing in this post is:

    3. Be ruthless when editing – don’t be precious about your “art”.

    It is so easy to go over peoples head with your own psychological babble. That is why I update and edit my work over a period of time. Sometimes you have to keep coming back to it with fresh eyes to see…You make know since to anyone with this statement or you said that so many times in different ways etc. etc.

    Good one for all us deep self-development types.


    March 14, 2010 at 6:30 pm

  32. Just finished my review website and your checklist was very helpful to me!

    Especially your last point, ‘don’t be afraid to state the obvious’ was great advice as I sometimes assume everybody must know what I know :o).

    Thanks for this great post!

  33. I’m so thankful for this post…I’m writing a review for some English coursework which makes a massive change from all the essays i normally have to write so i want to make mine interesting and awesome…My teacher gave us some general tips to review writing though that mixed with your ten really make a fantastic review: Use an informal tone, humour, adress your reader, descriptive language, opinions, a summary and analysis.

    Another point is to always read back through your work and iron out any typos, you’re a lot less likely to trust someone who makes a simple spelling mistake – it’s sad but true.

    But the most important thing is to stick to the topic though there are one to many people who end up talking about something as off topic as what they ate for lunch…

    Thanks a million for the post :)


    March 27, 2010 at 7:57 pm

  34. This article was creatively insightful and overwhelmingly helpful to the vast number of emerging amateur writers hoping to write that great review and perchance have their voice heard in the rapidly expanding blogosphere.

    The only question I have, being a fledgling blogger myself, is what would be a typical length for a review blog? One that would be considered concise yet thorough?

    Thanks for the great ideas, I found this very helpful for a recent review I wrote of Dinosaur Park by Hayford Peirce on my blog.



    March 31, 2010 at 2:35 am

  35. I would like to thank you for these tips. After reading through, I now have a clearer picture on how to stay concise and precise about articles that I wish to write on.

    I never had the opportunity to learn writing academically in school. Therefore, I resort to self-teaching by picking up tips and pointers from articles like these as I go along. Thanks again for sharing!


    April 18, 2010 at 3:57 pm

  36. this article made me feel like the biggest blogging tool. I highlighted all my sins…so far I am on 6.

    Im writing a new review for a Friday night gig at the moment but I have lost all my confidence as a writer, I need an outside opinion (good or bad).
    I want to become a reviewer people can trust and have some blogs that are ‘bait-able’

    so, all in all i would appreciate you to give one of my articles a read through and a crit.
    super awesome if you do

    (p.s) your post was a relative blog saver. depending on what angle you look at it from…


    August 28, 2010 at 6:11 pm

  37. Excellent post. It helped me lot. Thanks.


    August 30, 2010 at 9:19 am

  38. You’re a life saver! Thanks a million. I’ve got one due tomorrow of 1000 words – my first one.

    erica rushton

    September 29, 2010 at 11:26 am

  39. This is exactly what I need. I’m writing a review about my recent hotel experience and I’m at a lost on how I would attack it. I have an idea now – thanks for sharing your expertise!!!


    March 6, 2011 at 11:21 am

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