7 Tips for Writing a Film Review

By Mark Nichol

When I wrote for my college newspaper, one of the assignments I enjoyed most was writing film reviews. And I was terrible at it, as I soon realized. Why? I was writing the equivalent of book reports: movie reports.

Fortunately, I came to my senses and realized that evaluating films and plays and the like (and, yes, books) is more complicated, yet more satisfying, that that. Here are some tips — not necessarily in the order in which they would be applied in your writing — for crafting movie reviews (which are more or less applicable for reviewing other types of composition, or even products like software or gadgets):

1. If circumstances permit, view the film more than once. It’s easy to miss key elements, or even the whole point, after just a single viewing.

2. Express your opinion of the film, but support your criticism. If you are offended or disappointed or embarrassed, provide a valid reason, even if you think it is obvious. A film review that comes across as a personal attack on an actor, director, or screenwriter or a diatribe about a genre is a failed review.

3. Adjust the style of your review for the readership. If you’re pitching reviews to a traditional publication, you’re expected to be fairly evenhanded (though even mainstream film critics are permitted — nay, expected — to gently mock particularly inept filmmaking). If your target audience is fanboys (and fangirls) on a movie-geek Web site, though, feel free to take the gloves off. Either way, though, support your criticism with valid observations; hurling invective is not the same thing as evaluation.

4. Avoid spoilers. One of the most pernicious fairly recent developments in the review genre is the careless, thoughtless revelation of key plot points. It’s a sign of professionalism to refrain from giving such information away. Exception: Reviews of previously released films don’t necessarily adhere to this rule, though it’s still considered sporting to warn readers or site visitors to skip to the next paragraph if they don’t want to read something. Some classy sites actually code spoilers to be invisible unless the visitor scrolls over the blank area to highlight that passage in the review.

5. Judge the story. Are the character’s actions justified, and are their motives plausible? Is there an internal consistency to the way each person behaves, or do some words, thoughts, or actions ring false? Does the plot make sense? Is the story line logical? Is the narrative arc well shaped, with an economy of form, or is it flabby or drawn out, with time-killing pointlessness?

6. Rate the actors. Do they meet the expectations dictated by the plot and other story elements? If not, is it their own thespian shortcomings, are they hampered by a poor script, or is there something about their performances that makes you believe the director is at fault? What could the performers, the screenwriters, or the filmmaker have done differently to make the movie work better?

7. Evaluate the technical elements. How do the cinematography, editing, lighting, sound, and other components support or detract from the film? Is music appropriate and effectively employed? You needn’t know film-technology jargon to share your thoughts about how these elements contributed to or detracted from the whole.

Writing film reviews is in one way a thankless task: Often, readers will disagree with you, and many people will go to see movies without your wise guidance. How to avoid frustration? Writing about movies, like writing about just about anything else, should be primarily an exercise in enjoyment: You do it because you like doing it. If anybody else out there enjoys the result of your exercise in self-entertainment, so much the better — but you’re your own primary audience (and your worst critic).

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8 Responses to “7 Tips for Writing a Film Review”

  • Nonoy

    I want to add one tip for writing movie reviews: always write in present tense. I got this advice from William Strunk Jr. of the little book Elements of Style.

  • Don

    #4 should be #1. Spoilers should also be outlawed for older films; reviewers should not presume that just because a film is old that everyone knows the plot. That’s not true.

    Film reviews (and book reviews) are critiques and should never be a synopsis. A synopsis is the essence of a 7th grade book report, not a professional review.

  • The Nerdy Nurse

    Writing reviews/opinions on anything is often a thankless task. However, the few that express their gratitude make it all worthwhile. If your words can assist just one person then you have made a difference in their life and that’s all that matters!

  • Tammi Kibler | Write More. Write Fast. Write Now.

    Nice list of useful tips. It’s so important to get past, “I didn’t like when A did this” and explain whether an action was consistent with the character and the story.

  • shirley in berkeley

    I especially appreciate your admonishment in 4. I am at the point where I never read reviews of a movie or a book I think I might want to see or read until after I’ve seen or read it. Everywhere from our local paper to The New Yorker, reviewers seem to think it’s okay to give a blow by blow plot summary if they just don’t reveal the ending. Writers carefully construct plots, leading a reader or a viewer step-by-step through a story. I don’t want the reviewer’s take on this, I want to let authors, auteurs, or whatever work their magic. Bravo, Mark. Keep up the good work.

  • Jean in Seattle

    Can you provide some examples of movie reviews that you think are well-done?

  • Christian Toto

    You’d be surprised how many veteran critics break the ‘Spoiler’ rule. It shows contempt for the audience and sheer laziness.

    And it’s a great point about knowing your audience before writing your review. Years ago most critics toiled for newspapers or magazines and had to play it more or less straight. Today, they could be working for a liberal news mag, a fanboy site or even a blog aimed at parents.

    Here’s another bullet point to add to your list – don’t be mean. Mocking an actress for getting older, or an actor for losing his hair, isn’t being critical. It’s being cruel and adds nothing to the review.

  • Round One

    I recommend going to Rotten Tomatoes and reading some of the reviews there. You will get both good and bad examples of all seven of the above listed items.

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