‘Don’t Be Boring’: Reviewing Dos and Don’ts

The Wheeler Centre’s senior writer Jo Case stumbled on a goldmine of reviewing advice after she put a question to Twitter. Here, she shares her booty.

Don’t let anyone tell you Twitter can’t be a useful educational tool. I found this out when I decided, on a whim, to launch a last-minute appeal for wisdom into the Twitterverse, on my way to give a reviewing workshop to the next generation of critics (for the University of Melbourne’s student publication, Farrago).

I asked, ‘Anyone have pet hates or absolute loves when it comes to reviewing? Tweet me if so …’

Twenty minutes later, I checked into my Twitter account and found it full of 140-character gems, many of them from writers, editors and reviewers.

Here’s some reviewing advice worth following – or at least, debating. Please feel free to add your own thoughts in our comments!

Michelle Griffin, national editor, the Age, former Age deputy editor overseeing arts and entertainment

A critic should be interested in why something worked/didn’t work, rather than what they liked/didn’t like or approved/disapproved.

Don’t be boring. This is a piece of writing angling to keep readers who don’t have to read it. DON’T WRITE FOR THE AUTHOR.

Sybil Nolan, freelance writer and editor

Pet hate: Reviewers who start their review with the ‘I’ word. Yes, it’s all about them!

Reviewers should not assume the book’s editor has failed to spot and fix errors and style flaws: some authors reject/overrule advice.

Claire Corbett, author, When We Have Wings

Hate hate hate plot summaries. Reviews so short these days plot ends up taking up half the review. LAZY. HATE spoilers.

James Tierney, freelance writer

Find your own voice as a reviewer. There’s an impersonal ‘reviewerese’ that is hard to read, let alone remember.

Charlotte Wood, author, Animal People

Pet hate: Reviews that just tell the plot or events of a book, and don’t come out with an opinion.

Damon Young philosopher and author, Distraction

The bad: Snark without reason and eye for language. Snark without achievement. The good: Reviews that exemplify what they praise.

Helpful to distinguish between book written and book reviewer wants written. Not fair to judge using imaginary ideal.

Geordie Williamson, chief literary critic, the Australian

Neat selective quotation helps clinch points. [It’s important to have] the ability to read well at sentence level without losing a sense of larger context.

Jennifer Mills, author, Gone

Participate in the conversation the book is starting; don’t insult the editor; check your gender/cultural privilege.

Fiona Hardy, bookseller, freelance reviewer

Reviewing isn’t a place to show off your knowledge of long words and obscure references.

Ben Pobjie, television columnist, the Age

Make sure you’re informative about the book, rather than pure opinion; so people with different tastes will get a sense of it.

Tim Sterne

I like it when you can see the reviewer has made a real effort to meet the book on its own terms, while also bringing to bear his/her intelligence and breadth/depth of reading.

It annoys me when reviewers give no consideration of a novel’s stylistic qualities and focus solely on what the novel is about.

Patrick Cullen, author, What Came Between

As a reader of reviews, I’m almost always underwhelmed by the passage quoted as an example of the work. So, how to pick a good line? Basically, most quotes out of context don’t hold up. They’re not necessarily great sentences.

Peter Taggart, freelance film and theatre writer

I think reviews still have to be entertaining. Slamming work for being dull is hypocritical when the review is torturously boring. That’s probably really obvious, but the reviews I read follow the same structure.

On genre reviewing:

Emily Maguire, author, Smoke in the Room, Princesses and Pornstars

Hate it when the reviewer obviously has no knowledge of, or worse, contempt for, the genre of the book being reviewed.

P.M. Newton, crime writer, Old School

Yes. Famililarity with genre doesn’t mean giving it an easy pass. Particularly genre reviews that give plot summaries but don’t engage with ideas, or place the work within the range of the genre.

Kylie Ladd, author, After the Fall

Pet hate: When reviewer gets the genre wrong. My latest novel has some cricket in it but is contemporary fiction. One reviewer reviewed it in the same review as a non-fiction review collection of articles on rugby.

On film reviewing:

Rochelle Siemonowicz, publications manager, Australian Film Institute and film editor, the Big Issue

Dos and don’ts? Do stay until the end of the credits. Don’t eat in the cinema.

Do write beautifully and spell names correctly. Do place the film in context.

Do expend precious space pointing towards the best films instead of viciously ‘clubbing baby seals’!

Anthony Morris, DVD editor, the Big Issue, freelance film reviewer

Um, try to describe accurately what you’ve seen without giving away plot twists/spoilers? And not talk about yourself AT ALL?

Ben Hibbs

Determining if work achieved what it intended is important, including intended audience. No point reviewing blockbuster like arthouse.

The Wheeler Centre’s Long View series of luxuriously long review essays on Australian writers and writing gives some of Australia’s best critics the room to stretch out – and leap into the kinds of conversations about our literature they’ve always longed to have.

A new Long View essay will be published on our website every second Friday, from now until mid-July. The current essay is ‘Our Common Ground’, Geordie Williamson’s defence of Australian rural writing. Next fortnight, Toni Jordan will look at humour in Australian writing.

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