In my two decades as a professional journalist, I’ve done a whole lot of reviewing. I’ve been a movie reviewer (one of my reviews ended up quoted on the back cover of the Terminator 3 DVD) written a weekly TV column and reviewed books, CDs, plays and, most recently, beer.
So I’ve got quite a bit of experience in the field. And here are a few things I’ve learned when it comes to reviewing – things that are just as relevant for a blog, website or podcast as they are in the “traditional” media.
Be honest: By this I don’t mean letting the reader know that you got the thing you’re reviewing for free. While that practice certainly doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t concern me. As a journalist I’ve gotten stacks of stuff for free – movie tickets, CDs, books, bottles of beer – and never did I pull my punches just because they sent me something. I’ve been doing that so long that it’s second nature to me, so I guess I assume everyone else is the same.
No, the honesty I’m talking about is being truthful about what you think of something, regardless of how it makes you seem. So, if you’re stridently opposed to supermarkets making craft beer and you taste a beer from Steamrail that is really good, then you have to say so. You HAVE to.
You can’t wuss out because you’re concerned that you might lose cool points with the super-hip beer geek crowd. This honesty pays dividends in the long run because it shows the reader you’ll give them a truthful appraisal, regardless of where the chips fall. So when you go and review a craft beer and praise it heavily, they know they can trust you.
Stay within the genre: You wouldn’t criticise an Adam Sandler film for not being a French arthouse film, nor would you give the thumbs down to the new Lourdes CD because it’s doesn’t have enough heavy metal guitar on it. Well the same goes for beer.
Yet I see and hear plenty of beer geeks writing off something like a mainstream lager because it’s bland and boring compared to other beers they like. Well, of course it is. Because you’re not limiting yourself to comparing it to other beers in the same category. So, if you’re reviewing a macro lager the only thing that matters is how it stands up against other macro lagers.
Lose your preconceptions: When I was reviewing films I loved going into the cinema knowing nothing about the film I was about to see. It didn’t happen very often but when it did, it allowed me to watch the film without any preconceived ideas of what would happen.
Preconceived ideas are dangerous; they can lead you to disliking something because it didn’t live up to your expectations. Those ideas are not the fault of the thing you’re reviewing, they’re your fault. YOU created them yourself.
So when you’re reviewing, say, a beer, the best way to lose the preconceptions is to do a blind tasting. It’s also the least practical, at least in the real world (my wife would quickly grow tired of me asking her to pour these beers into different glasses and not tell me which was which. “Jesus, can’t you just drink beer like a normal person?”, I imagine she might say).
This means you have to see what you’re reviewing and that easily leads to making assumptions about what it will taste like even before you’ve drunk it. What you need to do is clear your mind of those expectations – both good and bad. Instead, just smell and drink the beer and think about what it is, not what you were expecting it to be.
The same goes with hype. This can make you expect more from a beer than is fair. Again, the hype is not (usualy) the fault of the beer, it’s your fault. Don’t downgrade a beer because it doesn’t live up to the hype.
Fact versus opinion: In an age where people claim to be “citizen journalists” it’s more important than ever to distinguish between fact and opinion. In the case of “citizen journalists” so often what they’re writing has nothing to do with fact, instead they’re taking a news story that an actual journalist has written and then writing up their two cents worth. Which is called “opinion” – if you’re telling others what you think, then it’s opinion. Okay, my rant is over.
In the blogging world fact and opinion are both valid, as long as you keep in mind the difference. And the big difference is that your opinion isn’t undeniable proof of something. Just because you think a beer is crap doesn’t mean it actually is crap. It just means you think it is. Someone else might like it a great deal.
Take those awful Rogue beers in the pink bottle. I hate them and, after buying the first two, I won’t ever buy any more. Because, to me, they are shit. Now, I know other people like them. So who’s right and who’s wrong? Nobody, because it’s just an opinion. When I was a movie reviewer I gave a film a bad review I’d occasionally get a phone call from an irate moviegoer who loved the film. Which was fine with me, until they started insisting I was wrong and they were right. Nope, I’d have to point out. No-one’s right, we just have different opinions. That seldom worked because the person on the other end of the phone didn’t get the difference between fact and opinion.
There’s probably more I could talk about but I reckon I’ve already banged on far too long.