Writing Thoughts

How to Write Better Book, Movie, and Music Reviews

Evocative imagery and keen insights may impress, but they are merely the icing on a well-written review. Its substance comes from understanding who will be reading your review and why. Generally, your readers are looking to you to help them make a decision. They want to know whether it’s worthwhile to read a book, go to a movie, or buy a CD.

Above all else, your review should contain enough information to help your readers make their decision. It can include your commentary, but should also leave room for other interpretations.

Explain your opinions
Emphatic statements, like “This rocks!” or “Don’t waste your money!”, show your strong reaction to whatever you’re reviewing. Yet, on their own, they add little else. Give examples of what drove your reaction. You may think the seventeen minute drum solo during a band’s cover of In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida is a mini-trip to heaven, but it may make someone else trash their CD.
When you back up your opinions with explanations, your review will meet its goal of informing your readers, even if they don’t share your taste. Remember, they don’t have to agree with your review to find it useful.
Include the pros and cons
Chances are the book, movie, or music you are reviewing will not be all bad or all good. Any art is subjective and your overall opinion of it is only a starting place. As a reviewer, your job is to pay close attention to the details and offer up as much information as you can without giving away the plot.
Regardless of your overall opinion, look for strengths and weaknesses within the work. A more critical look may turn up some interesting nuances that were masked by your initial reaction.
Make comparisons
Making comparisons can help your reader form a clearer picture of the book, movie or music you are reviewing. Consider the various elements of the work. Does it remind you of the style of another author, musician or director? Is this work similar to the creator’s own earlier style or a departure into something new?

Finally, think about what you like about other writer’s reviews. Do you prefer writing that is colorful or concise? Emotional or unbiased? Stick to your own style when writing your reviews, but keep in mind that the goal is to inform. By putting your audience ahead of your own opinions, you increase the chances that your readers will find value in your reviews and come back to read more.  

Thinking Places for Writers

A.A. Milne was onto something when he gave Winnie the Pooh his “thotful spot.” A quiet place to think, think, think. But you don’t have to visit the Hundred Acre Woods to find your best ideas. You may not even need a quiet place.

For writers, thinking places are personal finds. They may be indoors or outdoors, tranquil or busy, empty or full of other people. They are any place where anxiety washes away and thoughts come more easily.

When deadlines are rapidly approaching, or your brain is overworked, taking a short break in a “thotful spot” can be the best way to get back on track.

Here are some of my favorite thinking places:

1. City streets — Bustling energy, towering buildings, people going about their day. There’s something about being in the presence of other people, without interacting, that sparks my imagination. When I can’t get to a city, a coffee shop can be a good substitute.

2. Parks or walking trails — Birds flying overhead, small animals scurrying across the ground, bees buzzing around flowers and the wind rustling through tree branches. Getting back to nature has a way of simplifying things. Even sitting on the terrace on a sunny day can have a similar effect.

3. My comfy chair — There’s a leather chair next to my desk that is not too big, not too small, and reclines at just the right angle. The leather is soft and cool, while a chenille throw makes it cozy. It’s safe and homey and ideal for rainy, drowsy days.

4. The shower — From the warm water, sleek tile and fresh scents of soap and shampoo, everything about the shower relaxes and invigorates. It’s a private place. A safe place. A perfect place for letting your thoughts run free.

Where are your thinking places?

Book Review: Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing

I’ll just come out and say it: I love Grammar Girl. If you haven’t been to her website, it’s a great place to have fun learning about grammar and usage. Yes, that’s right: I just used the words “fun” and “grammar” in the same sentence.

Grammar Girl, a.k.a. Mignon Fogarty, has a regular podcast discussing grammar and usage, and she also posts articles for those of us who prefer to read her tips. Her book is more of the same (in fact, I recognized some of it from the website) but all in one handy, well-designed package.

There are many things to love about Grammar Girl’s approach to grammar and usage. First, there is her sense of humor. There are honest laugh-out-loud moments when reading her book or website. (At least for me–and probably for others who don’t share my notion that it’s fun to diagram sentences.)

Grammar Girl’s personality shines through whether she is tackling punctuation, untangling grammar or defining the origins and modern usage of an unusual word. Her little personal asides keep her writing tips fresh, like this quick confession that pops up in the midst of her definition of a “canard”:

I’m afraid of ducks. Pat likes to feed them, and I get edgy when they are surrounding us with their hungry, zombie like determination and quacking. I’m certain that if they worked together, they could take us down.

While Grammar Girl’s articles are fun to read, their true value comes in what they are able to teach. With each subject, she gives a complete explanation in a concise manner, which includes plenty of examples to clarify her points. But she also frequently has a “quick and dirty tip” to make it easier to remember the correct choice for those who don’t care so much about the nitty-gritty grammar rules.

She also does a great job of showing the difference between grammar rules and preferences. For example, one of her most popular posts takes on the notion that it is incorrect to end a sentence with a preposition. Grammar Girl points out that there are cases when it is perfectly fine to end with a preposition, and she clearly explains why. But she also explains that many people think you should never end a sentence with a preposition so she suggests you avoid the practice in formal situations–even if you know it is grammatically correct.

For practical grammar and usage advice that is fun to read and easy to remember, Grammar Girl is my go-to source. Her book also includes additional tips for writers, such as how to find inspiration and ways to cope with writer’s block. It’s a great (and inexpensive) resource for students, journalists, novelists and all types of writers.