Fiction narratives have been my passion for most of my life, and that’s exactly what made me accidentally become a journalist in school.

When I came to Illinois Wesleyan University as a freshman, I learned that the university newspaper, The Argus, gives people money to write movie reviews, and that was all I ever needed to hear. One year later, with about ten or so pieces featuring my name in the byline, I was offered a position as Managing Editor. A year after that, I was Editor-in-Chief.

Writing reviews has since been a thing of the past for me. While I was Chief, my Managing Editor and I had to keep the paper’s news section floating by desperately scrounging the 2000-student campus for anything to write about, and, since then, I’ve only had my long-term magazine internship/assistantship working with the editorial team on researching and proofreading and fact-checking.

Now I’m finally coming back to reviews. Soon I’ll have my very first book review published on the Yes! Magazine website, and I also plan to take on a couple of reviews here for some respite after all that abstracted theory and analysis. But before getting into that, I think it’s worth talking about review writing itself and the methods I have used and plan to use.

When I was Editor-in-Chief, we had a few enthusiastic freshmen eager to get into review writing themselves, but I noticed unfortunate trends in their styles. Lots of summary leading each review, insistence on organized list-checking when going through things to evaluate, disregard for the piece’s greater context, and all sorts of other things that make for mediocre reviewing. Thankfully, we had a music reviewer who killed it every time, but my heart was aching for those movies that didn’t get much of a chance.

Of course, I’m not Roger Ebert or anything, but I wrote up a list of pointers for the youngsters who I thought had potential. I told them:

1. Lead the review with the most interesting thing you can think of. Does the author/screenwriter/director/whoever have a mysterious and sorted past? Is there some actor breaking their typecasting in this movie? Is this game ignoring the conventions of its genre in order to mix mechanics? A truly good review is as much about being entertaining itself as it is about entertainment, and it does so by grabbing a reader’s interest.

2. Three sentences of summary maximum. People read reviews in order to know whether or not to consume whatever media you’re describing, not have it spoiled for them. If the media is worth consuming and you do your job right, they’ll go ahead and find out what happens in the story for themselves, and if it’s not worth it, you’ll need to convince them that they don’t need to know what happens anyway.  Keep your summary brief, and focus on the story’s premise rather than what happens in the narrative. As a most basic rule of thumb, don’t summarize anything beyond what’s revealed in trailers or through major media outlets; that way, at the very least, you’re just being courteous to the creators.

3. Don’t evaluate every piece of the thing you’re reviewing; just focus on the juicy bits. With books, this is pretty easy since there aren’t many separately defined aspects to judge, but movies, and especially video games, can be a deadly trap for this. If you ever write something like, “The music was fine,” and don’t say much else, take it out. Ignore the music entirely and move on to something more intriguing, like how the film uses especially long cuts for its action scenes in a way that maintains the viewer’s kinaesthesia and spacial awareness of the scene’s intensely realistic battles.

4. Possibly most important of all: Evaluate a piece based on what it is trying to be and on what audience it is trying to appease. This is what takes a lot of experience with a wide variety of genres, styles, moods, settings, and everything to figure out, but you’ve got to do it if you want to be a worthwhile reviewer. Evaluating based on your own tastes is only useful to people who share your tastes, and it can be terribly unfair to a piece that’s quite good but was never trying to be good for you specifically. Of course, it’s not easy to step back and discern what a piece is trying to do, nor is it easy to put yourself in the place of the person for whom the piece is meant. So don’t be afraid to admit a lack of perspective when you find yourself facing something you’re not sure you understand, certainly don’t dismiss it because you don’t understand it’s appeal for other tastes, and always be willing to talk about it with friends and acquaintances who have a more appropriate perspective. They’ll help you out a lot–both in understanding a variety of pieces and expanding your tastes, which makes this sort of thing a lot more fun overall.

Now that I’ve given a whole lot of advice  no one asked for, I’ll explain what I want to do with reviews here.

I definitely want to follow all my rules for the sake of being entertaining. Only a handful of people read this a week, but I owe it to the friends and family and employers I invite to read this blog to make it at least somewhat fun. Experimenting with leads (called ledes in the journalism world, for clarity) and exploring all the interesting bits of trivia around a piece is a fun challenge for making a better writer out of yourself. But this blog is primarily about analyzing narrative from a more scholarly perspective, and from the perspective of someone who wants to work in the publishing business as an editor. To that end, evaluation will be kind of secondary, or, at least, it won’t be the end goal of any reviews. The end goal instead will be understanding, as a creator and refiner, how to make books, movies, and video games better and more meaningful in general, using specific pieces as examples. There will still be lots of evaluation, of course. It’s just that convincing anyone whether or not it’s worth their time to read/watch/play the thing will just be a side effect. I’m much more interested in us learning something about how to make things worth reading/watching/playing.

Can this still be fun? That’s exactly the challenge I want to take on with this. So, hopefully it will be fun. I’ll try my best.