Friday, 27 January 2012

On Writing: The Death of the Review

As a music record review writer I have found the form itself has been cheapened considerably over the last couple of years. Of course the fact that anyone can start up a blogspot and write about music makes the writing landscape so varied and interesting and colourful, but it also means there’s no filtration device. The degree of quality writing in reviews has cooled significantly.

I believe a review has it’s own art form; the writing has to be informative of the subject that you are reviewing, but it must also be entertaining and persuasive. Pure information is a pamphlet. A well-reasoned and thought-provoking discussion is a review.

This is not only restricted to digital media, which is a common misconception, printed media too have been on this slippery slope and continue to flail in their shallow puddles of vocabulary. To appeal to mass audiences does not mean the writing has to be dumbed down to the bare-essentials: clichés and a formula.

In the Music and indeed the Art industry, nothing else is as important as having your work be quality and unique, so why should it be different when you’re writing about those industries?

Here I break it down where I think the quality of reviewing is going awry, and follow with how I think a review should be.

What Makes a Bad Review

- Being Overly Descriptive Of The Music. The writer makes sure to write about every change of pace, melody, solo, tremolo picking, drum kick, the way they strum the guitar… Everything. This is just unneeded, in this instantaneous lifestyle we live, a reader can easily download the record in a matter of seconds and listen to it themselves, they do not need a literal transcription of the music.

- Shallow Vocabulary. Vocabulary is one of the major tools in writing and all writing should make use of a broad and well informed vocabulary and reading is really the best way to expand your vocabulary. It is easy to spot those who do not read regularly.

- Then there’s the other direction: Excessive Adjectives. Some writers have a great vocabulary which is integral, but in many cases they don’t know how to use it and saturate their writing with adjectives making it saccharine. Adjectives are the writer’s sprinkles on their cupcake, too many and it looks stupid and tastes awful.

- A Scary Amount of Clichés. I believe this is an obvious one. They’re dull, colourless and ambiguous. Everyone should always, always avoid clichés like the plague.

- Overly Long Reviews. I believe a review should be no longer than five hundred words. If you can not write what you want to say in five hundred words then you have to consider if you’ve really utilised those first five hundred well enough. In many cases, writers ramble about unnecessary arbitrary thoughts which makes the writing drag. From a reader’s point of view, I believe the audience for a thousand word review is half of a five hundred word review audience. Many people just aren’t prepared to invest the time to read a reviewer’s analysis for a thousand words when the same amount of time could be spent downloading the record and listening to it. Less than five hundred words forces the writer to be concise with their thoughts and invokes specificity in to their language.

- A Vacant Voice. This is the most damning aspect of much review writing. It is essential for every writer to have their own unique voice that sets them apart from everyone else. When the writing is simplistic and provides no thought-provoking content and there’s no injected style then there’s no sense of the writer behind the review. It may as well be a robot because there’s no originality to the writing. Considering the thousands of music reviewers on the Internet, the writer’s unique voice is all they have to make them worth reading.

- No Point. If the review does not invite discussion or provoke thought, what’s the point? A review is meant to be the well-orchestrated and well-reasoned presentation of the writer’s opinion and in that process the text must interact and engage with the audience, to make them think and consider what the writer is saying. If the review does not put forward a point of discussion and is passive then there is nothing for the reader to engage with.

- Too Narrow. Many reviews lean too heavily on citing influences and where a work of music originated from. Music relates to everything and anything and so it is short-sighted and narrow-minded to just focus entirely on influencing parties.

- Formulated To An Inch Of It’s Life. Framing a review around a formula reminds me of the gross process of taxidermy. A cold and dead formula stuffed with the necessary details of the music being reviewed. Once you’ve read one, you’ve read all of them. A writer shouldn’t be producing their writing to be a stuffed boar’s head on the wall, it should be alive and goring in the forest somewhere. Variety is king.

What A Review Should Do

- Inject Variety. To quickly follow on from the last point, it is important to avoid a ‘formula’ as they get tiresome to read very quickly. Audiences are fickle, bore them once, they may never return. The writer must ensure to vary how they review, by taking approaches towards the writing, it shows off diversity as a writer and keeps things fresh.

- You can only really write a review by: Being An Expert. A review should be the result of an expert of their field and their personal opinion on the piece of music. An expert is someone who understands: the origins and it’s future, the ‘scenes’, the themes, the sonic hallmark, the mainstream and the underground, and is a mass consumer of the specific genre the record they’re reviewing is categorised. Without a well-rounded and vast amount of knowledge on the subject the writer limits themselves on what can be discussed due to their lack of research. Being short-sighted and fatuous gets a writer nowhere.

- Metaphors. A well crafted and succinct metaphor reinforces a statement ten-fold. It also gives the writer lee-way to be creative with their content, it’s not all shackles and chains, by being bold and explorative in how far you can push your metaphors and allegories lends a playful element. They’re an essential tool in reviewing and can very much entertain without devolving into clichés.

- Put Forward An Idea About The Music. A writer should strive to make their readers think and so broadening what you write about is indispensable. Music relates to everything and so draw on the other arts, everyday life, philosophy, history, literature, current events, abstract concepts, cultures, observations, human behaviour, dreams, etc. If there is a direct link then it makes the comparison or bridge stronger. Be thought-provoking and don’t narrow the writing to just straight music talk.

- Never Be Afraid To Do Something Against The Grain. I believe formulas sprout via writers observing how other writers do their reviews and then copy them. And also laziness. But who’s to say there’s no allowance for innovation with how to review a record, just because no one else is reviewing like it doesn’t mean doing it differently is wrong. There’s no ‘correct’ formula because all formulas are bullshit. Writers should always try to push the envelop of how they are reviewing. Innovate or die.

- Have A Well-Reasoned Argument. Never include points in a review that can not be backed up with well-reasoned and substantiated arguments. It’s just a given. Always be well informed. Also, do not be afraid to contradict the general consensus, the writer’s opinion is the focus in a review, not other people’s opinions.

- Discuss The Music. Of course the music at hand must be discussed thoroughly but concisely, a review is not a recount of note-for-note of the music, that’s pointless and wastes the reader’s time. The music itself is a unique phenomenon that no one else could have made but those musicians so the writing should be the same. The writer should focus on how the music makes them personally feel and describe their distinctive experience and relationship with the record.

- Established Voice. The writer’s voice is essential in it’s accessibility, perceptibility and aesthetic. This is the reason why a reader will return to read further reviews and so the focus is on phrasing, rhythm, tone, attitude, inflection, structuring, vocabulary and most importantly to me, personality. Perfecting all of these in to your own takes a huge process of refinement however, once developed and established it is the voice that will be remembered.

A How To; Some Basic, Common Sense Advice

- Read. A writer must already be doing this compulsively, but to reiterate, there should never be a moment of time when a writer is not in the middle of reading a book, or piece of writing. Never.

- Read Other Reviews. Know how other writers are writing and observe their styles and voices and pick them apart to discover how they execute both. This deconstruction allows you to examine how they achieve at what they are doing. It’s amazing the number of writers who do not pay attention to their fellow writers, to me it’s like a novelist never reading novels. That’s crazy.

- Follow. Keep on top of the scene of music you specialise in, be at the forefront of all new movements and sounds emerging in that particular area. Specialist blogs and websites are the best source as printed media and larger websites move slowly and play catch up.

- Most obviously, Write Reviews. A writer will never be good immediately, like an artist will never paint a masterpiece immediately or like a musician picking up a guitar the first time won‘t play an entire song, these things take time and practise to master. A writer must write, and keep on writing to succeed. Eventually you will see all the elements mentioned fuse with your personality and meld into that crucial distinctive voice.

I am not the greatest practitioner of what I say I will wholly concede, I always look back on what I’ve written and think it needs improving, that’s the nature of the beast.

Reviewing records is what I like doing and I like reading them. I view them as an art form, pretentious I know, but to write a good review is hard, ask anyone who’s written one or tried to write one.

I hope these handfuls of ideas help anyone who’s interested in writing a review and now know what it entails.

--Sean Thomas

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