May 13th, 2013, 9:36 am

Making Art Better: How to Write Reviews

So does anyone here have a favorite bad movie? Here's a few of mine: "Dreamcatcher", "Gigl" and "Batman & Robin".

Now all of these movies have one thing in common - they were done by very acclaimed writers and directors. "Gigli"? That's Martin Brest, director of "Scent of a Woman", "Midnight Run" and "Beverly Hills Cop". "Batman & Robin"? That's Akiva Goldsman, writer of "A Beautiful Mind", "Cinderella Man" and "The Client". "Dreamcatcher"? That's based on a novel by Stephen King. It's directed and written by Lawrence Kasdan, who did some of my favorite movies, including "Empire Strikes Back", "Raiders of the Lost Ark" and "Mumford". And it's co-written by William Goldman, who did "The Princess Bride" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid".

These are ultimately the kinds of movies I like to review, not so I can make fun of them (although sometimes I do), but because I get ask the question . . . what went wrong? How did these extremely talented people make such a movie? I have only one reason for being a critic. It's not to launch a career. It's not to see my name in print. It's to learn from the victories and mistakes of others . . . and try to be a better writer for it.

I started writing reviews when I was in high school for the school paper. I'm sure one time or another, I saw "Siskel and Ebert" on TV and thought that looks pretty cool. So I started writing reviews, first for my high school paper in Byron, Illinois, and then for a small local paper in Byron called The Sentinel. Eventually, I started writing reviews for the Valley Forge at Rock Valley College, and from there, I went to the Northern Star at NIU. In addition to writing reviews, I also learned how to manage deadlines, how to write with a journalistic voice and how to research and write regular articles for the paper.

Upon graduation, I was surprised to learn there were no immediate openings for film critics for the New York Times. So I turned my attention to the next best thing - the blogosphere. While contending with a long and tedious post-graduation job hunt, I wrote a variety of reviews for blogs including Screenhead and Broken Frontier. During this time, I also joined the Rockford Writers Guild and came to write for the Rockford Review. Eventually i found employment as a moderator at FatWallet.com, but my reviewing didn't stop there. For a time, I wrote reviews for FatWallet's blog as part of the B-List Bargain Bin. Nowadays, my reviews are generally limited to my webcomic's website at Blue Yonder, although I still sneak a few into the very short TV picks I write for the Rockford Register Star.

Now, don't let anyone - including myself - tell you there is a right way to write reviews. Different writers review movies differently. My reviews tend to more methodical, play-by-play, but if you look at the late Roger Ebert's reviews, they are more personal, almost like memoirs. So please don't look at the template I'm about to introduce as a how-to, but rather, as something to keep in mind.

Like any good story, I open with a good hook. Something to get the reader's attention. Always pretend your reader had made up their mind on this movie, to see it or not see it. How can you change their mind, one way or the other?

I follow it up with a synopsis of the story. This is where a lot of first-time critics get hung up - over-describing the plot. You don't need to tell the readers everything. This isn't where you make the case for or against the movie. This is only where you lay the groundwork. Be sure to name the players whose performances you think are pivotal to the movie's success or failure. I try to keep everything in designated sections, so I don't have to introduce a character in a paragraph about special effects or musical score or whatever. Remember one of the golden rules of writing also applies to writing reviews: keep it simple stupid.

I usually start by categorically unwrapping what I liked by the film versus what I didn't like. Maybe I liked the performances but I didn't like the special effects. Or maybe I liked the characters but didn't like the editing. I try to consider the proportion of what I liked against what I didn't when writing a review. Regardless, I'm always trying to put myself in the place of the screenwriter or director, if only in the back of my mind. Why did they make these decisions? What would I have done differently?

Lastly, every review has its own final markings. Some do stars. Some do numbers. I even listen to one website which grades by slices of meat-loafs. It's really up to you or your editor. Just be consistent whatever you use. Keep in mind grading out of four or five stars might look more professional, but leave less room for a gray area (under the right circumstances, a 2 1/2 star movie might be a mediocre movie, an okay move or a good, not great movie). But ultimately, it's what you - or your editor - are most comfortable with.

Since I mentioned editors, I might as well get to the business of writing reviews. Let's start with one common misconception - writing reviews generally doesn't pay that much. I was paid by the column inch when I wrote the Northern Star, but I think it translated to roughly $15 a review or so. I made a little more when I freelanced on the blogs - about $100 a month, roughly enough to start repaying my student loans.

Some jobs don't even pay for reviews. As any freelancer will tell you, be wary of anyone offering "exposure". I wouldn't go so far as to call these jobs worthless though. It all depends on what you intend to get out of them. I reviewed webcomics for Broken Frontier for free because I gave me the opportunity to review webcomic, interview creators and have a valuable reference for comic book writing opportunities. I still provide TV tips to the Rockford Register Star, giving me contacts within the paper. Also, during my time blogging, I received several freebies from networks while reviewing properties for Showtime.

Keep in mind working with a structured operation - like a newspaper - will have its rules. Having an editor saves a lot of time. You have an extra set of eyes to lock over your work, cutting down on the time it takes to do revisions. There are a few disadvantages. An editor will most likely assign you movies to review, so you won't always get a choice of what you watch or not. Also, most newspapers don't let you keep freebies so as not to look bias when writing reviews (which is a valid point).

So here's a few things no one tells you about being critic. First among them, it's a tremendous time-suck. How many of you have lots and lots of time on your hands for writing? Now subtract at least 90 minutes to watch a movie. And then at least an hour to put a review into words. You're now down two and a half hours, not counting the time for research or revisions.

Here's another thing. Why do we go to movies? Why do we read books? To entertain ourselves. To escape. But that becomes increasingly harder when you have to do it for work. I'm not saying its hard work, but it is still work, and it's very easy to get burned out. Why do you think romantic comedies get panned by critics a lot of times? It's not necessarily because they are bad, but because critics have to watch them over and over again. I gotta tell you, as a man, the idea of watching that many Katherine Heigl movies terrifies me.

I think it can happen with any genre, even a genre you like. You see the same thing over and over again. And even if its a good movie, the longer it is the more time it is taking from your writing. You'll also have to become an expert in the field you're writing, so you probably should track down seminal works, even if you aren't being paid to review them, in order to educate yourself.

So all and all, burnout is a big problem. This is why I decided to only write reviews when I really feel passionate about the subject matter, because I made the decision I want to be a writer first, critic second. I'm not bashing critics, it's just what I want to do with my life. I want to use my reviews to benefit my art, not the other way around.

I think I've spent enough time talking about the reviewers, so now it's time to start talking about the reviewed. Getting a review is always exciting, no matter what is says. Getting a review provides much-need feedback, but more importantly, it can provide exposure, especially if the review is good.

I've received some question about what I think about this reviewer or that reviewer. I don't think that's the right question. It's not about what reviewer is good or bad - it's about what reviewer is right for you.

Let me give you an example. We really wanted our webcomic to be review, so we googled "Webcomic Reviews" and sent out e-mails to first few results which came up. Now, you might surprised to know most webcomics aren't about superheroes - mostly they are about video games, anime, board games and other facets of Internet culture. So the first review we received was rather mediocre - because the critic didn't know much about superheroes. But the second review we received was very positive, drawing comparisons to Jack Kirby and Silver Age artwork while providing some very helpful feedback.

It's not enough to reach out to people who review your medium or even your sub-genre. You have to find people who read the kind of thing you are writing. I think you need to select where you send your work to be reviewed as carefully as you select an agent or an editor.

So how can being a critic make you a stronger a writer? I think it gives you a reason to really dissect films to their most basic level: the script. No matter what your reviewing, you have to boil the work down the basics and ask what you would do differently.

Sometimes I mull over this question over and over again in my head. The conclusion I've reached is there are no right answers, and its okay to change your mind. This is why I love special features on Blu-rays and DVD's - because the featurettes and commentaries give us insight into the creative process. Currently I find myself thinking about "Dark Knight Rises" a lot. I like how I agree with a lot of what the directors, writers and producers say about Batman, but I'm surprised how little of that is reflected by the film, which is overwhelmed by other ideas which are just as strong but not always as relevant.

I find the ultimate question is . . . how I do l apply this to my writing? Where am I making similar mistakes? In the case of "Dark Knight Rises", am I wondering off-topic, getting overwhelmed by other ideas and not focusing on thesis of my writing? Whatever you are reviewing - books, movies, music, TV - it's not about proving who is better. It's about making art better, for both for you and the world.

(That's it for this rant. Check out a new Blue Yonder later this week!)

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