We all form opinions, and more or less continuously. You finish reading a book and ask yourself, would I recommend it, and why? Perhaps you began to realise early on in which direction such thoughts were heading. On the other hand, maybe you got part way through and were later surprised at having to revise your first impressions.
And once others know that you have read a particular book, heard a CD, or been to a show, a few will be bound to ask what you thought about it. Was it good, bad or indifferent? You’d better have made up your mind.
Even when you haven’t been asked, you may well feel the urge to tell. If you had the chance to do so for a reward beyond the personal satisfaction of airing your opinion, where would you begin?
There are important principles to observe when writing reviews, and very useful techniques to employ. These need not be scary at all. For one, I suggest to anyone struggling with how to start that they kick off with a simple and yet very productive trick.
Rather than open a blank document on your computer or turn to an empty page and wonder what to write, imagine you are sitting down for a coffee with a friend and the topic of a book you have just read comes up. You tell her, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve just read it’, and she replies, ‘So, what did you think? Should I read it?’ You have two minutes of casual talk to convey your main reactions, without divulging spoilers. The emphasis is on natural conversation rather than formal or researched argument; nothing forced.
Apart from the issue of whether you would edit your answer to cater for the peculiarities of your friend’s tastes, this should identify major elements for a review. You can (and should) always edit how you frame these later, but it allows you to begin in a more relaxed way.
Other advice? Read reviews. There is a good reason for would-be writers of any kind being told to read a lot, and no less so with reviewing. See who writes in a manner you like, and analyse why. You’re reviewing the reviews. But where should you be going to do that?
Writing reviews as a form of critiquing involves another valuable dimension. It means that you are part of a community that shares ideas and opinions about what is possible and desirable in the arts. If you gain a profile as a contributor to that debate in the process it can be a stimulating activity, and if you get to see movies, read books, hear music, and attend stage shows for free, all the better.
For other tips and hands-on practice, why not be attend my workshop, ‘Writing Short Reviews’ on 10th November?
Steve Evans is a regular reviewer of a wide range of classical, pop and rock performances, both live and recorded, and of books in poetry, fiction and nonfiction genres. He teaches Creative Writing and Literature at Flinders University, conducts writing workshops, is a mentor in poetry and prose (from short fiction to novels, and nonfiction), edits texts of various genres, is the author and editor of 11 books, and has won numerous prizes including the Barbara Hanrahan Fellowship.