When writing a review, your key objective is to engage the reader. To do this, you have to accomplish two things:
- Your writing must flow effortlessly from the first paragraph to the last
- You must keep the reader reading your words, and dissuaded from flicking across to other web pages
To achieve this, you need to keep the interest of the reader at the front of your mind at all times. The primary purpose of the review is to help the reader decide whether to see another similar performance - it might be another performance in the run (if it’s an opera or ballet), or simply a future performance of the same works or featuring the same performers. At Bachtrack, we hope that reviews are there to enthuse readers about the music; we generally don’t publish reviews that are overwhelmingly negative, preferring to stay discreetly silent.
The reader wants to know your opinions about what you heard, but wants to feel he can trust you: to gain that trust, you will need to back up your opinions with a certain amount of factual information. The more you have immersed yourself in the performers, the works and their composers (and you have many sources available to you, not least the Internet and the concert’s programme notes), the more likely you are to be credible and to come up with interesting sidelines that will engage your readers.
Beware, however: too much factual information can appear dry and mechanical, and you must pay attention to the style and the flow of what you write. A simple laundry list of each performer in turn and whether you thought they were any good will have your readers abandoning the page within moments.
Your review will probably contain three different kinds of material; it can be helpful to think about these explicitly and ensure that you include all three:
- Description - essential information about the composer and performers
- Interpretation - use of your background knowledge to place the performance in context for the reader
- Evaluation - your assessment as to whether the performance was good, bad or indifferent.
Here are a number of tips that may help:
- Be prompt: Write the review as soon as you can after the concert, while your impressions are fresh. It’s up to you whether to take notes: you can either take the view that you don’t want to miss anything, or the opposite view that if you can’t remember it the next morning, it probably wasn’t worth bothering the readers with.
- Find your angle: Before putting pen to paper, it's best to know what are the key features around which you will structure your review. These could be anything: something about the composer, the performers, the sound or even some piece of historical trivia about the music which caught your interest.
- Stay off the hyperbole, and cut down on your number of adjectives. The sentence “The horn section was exceptionally loud and horribly out of tune” doesn’t communicate a great deal more than “The horn section was loud and out of tune”. If every sentence is packed with adjectives, you will lose credibility. It's also good to avoid "weasel words" such as 'some people say that', 'I have to say that', 'It is probable that' which serve only to reduce the value of what you've written.
- Keep clear of the jargon: Bachtrack has a mixed readership and not everyone will understand technical terms such as tessitura or recapitulation. If you can use plain English, do so; if the jargon is essential to the point you're making, explain it in as clear, concise and unpatronising a way as you can.
- Arrange favourable and adverse comments carefully: it’s kinder to put the positive comments first, and a bad idea to flip frequently between the two, which confuses the reader.
- When writing adverse comments, do so respectfully and clearly. A gratuitous rant based on your prejudices is not interesting to your readers, who will in any case have a well-founded suspicion that the performers know more about the music than you do. On the other hand, a lucid statement of what you didn’t like and why will let readers decide whether their opinion is likely to be the same as yours.
Finally, develop your own style. By all means, read and analyse the work of other writers that you admire, but the real way to engage the reader is to be vivid, colourful, and perhaps unexpected or quirky: enthuse your readers with the things that enthuse you.
29th November 2010
With thanks to Dr. Carl Vincent, Lecturer in Journalism at Leeds College of Music, who provided the notes underpinning this article.