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Writing Great Reviews: Film

In this series we ask professional critics for their guide to writing, editing, and pitching reviews. First up - writing about film and television.

Helen O’Hara is a freelance film journalist for titles like The I and Grazia, is Editor-at-Large of Empire Magazine, and also co-hosts the Empire podcast. She’s also written three books on film: the newest is called Women vs Hollywood:

What do you keep in mind while you’re experiencing the film you’ll be writing about?

Personally I think the best way to review anything is to not think too much about the review while you're watching what you're watching. You want to be aware, of course, and paying close attention, but at the same time you want to be able to focus on what's happening and your immediate reaction to it. The ideal situation is that you respond to a piece of art entirely as yourself and then analyse that response later, rather than taking it apart in the moment and not really experiencing it as a normal audience does.

The only exceptions to this, for me, are when I know I have a lengthy review to write quickly, in which case I might take notes about things that particularly jump out at me so I have a sort of safety net. I usually don't end up looking at these as I write, but it makes me feel more confident. Other people do prefer to take notes every time, so you might have to see what works for you. The main thing is to keep focused on the film and not fret about what you're going to say too early.

How do you get started writing your review?

Ideally at the start, with a fabulous and attention-grabbing opener, but that doesn't always happen. In fact, I often start sort of ‘in the middle’ with a bit of plot synopsis or explanation, because that's pretty automatic to write and you're unlikely to get stuck on it. Thinking about the story in order to do that tends to spark ways to express my opinion about the film overall, because now I already have something on paper. I am no longer staring at a blank page wondering what I thought of the film, or if I've even ever seen a film at all.

All those writing books that tell you it's best to write something bad first and make it good later are 100% correct, in my experience. Get some words on the screen or the page, then worry about making them good. Good writing is often rewriting; you have to be prepared for that.

What’s the best way to structure a review?

I think the introduction to the review - whether that is a paragraph; or a couple of lines; or a massive chunk in a very long piece - is the bit that has to work hardest. It's where I try to spend most time. Your introduction should ideally do three things. It should give the reader an idea what kind of film this is; it should give them an idea what you think about it; and it should hook their attention so they want to read more. That's the idea, anyway! The rest of the review then simply becomes about elaborating on what kind of film it is, explaining and justifying why you feel the way that you do, and hopefully being so well-written (and funny, and clever, and erudite) that it holds their attention.

It may help to think of a review as a sort of argument; like you're summing up in court for a trial judge. You have to convince the judge and jury (your reader) that this film is good, or bad, or indifferent, and that your opinion of the film is factually correct because of ‘evidence’ like the performances, the cinematography, the editing - whatever you want to discuss. You might want to compare it to similar films that did the same thing better or worse, or you might want to acknowledge historical books or art that it's drawing ideas from. But whatever you do should be about explaining where your opinion comes from.

What are your top tips for new critics? Or is there anything they should try and avoid?

First of all, watch lots of your chosen medium. Read other criticism, lots of it. Read (and watch, and listen) far more widely in the culture so you know the touchstones that filmmakers (or playwrights or whoever) are referencing. There is no such thing as knowing too much and having too much context. It's all useful. Get one of those best-films-ever lists and start off watching those; get some of those best-directors-ever lists and start watching more of their stuff too (be aware lots of these lists tilt towards white men, so make a real effort to also learn about female filmmakers and non-white filmmakers).

Second, practice writing. Don't just pepper your work with words from the thesaurus if you are not 100% sure you understand them; it's far better to use plain English well than to throw in fancy words in an attempt to impress. Something that really helped me was writing to a short word count: realistically, early in your career, you're going to be given the reviews of 150 words, not the double-page spreads. If you can sum up the film and your opinion and do so in an entertaining or elegant manner in 150 words, you're a good writer. If it takes 600, you need more practice. Either way, practicing short reviews will force you to assess every word choice and consider everything you say, and those are good habits to have going forward.

Make sure your spelling, grammar and punctuation are flawless or very, very close to it. Books like Eats, Shoots And Leaves are helpful and really quite fun to read. If you're dyslexic allowances will be made, of course (and you should mention that in your application, or recruit a buddy who's always going to check your work), but most editors are chronically overworked and don't have time to correct dozens of basic spelling and punctuation errors, so your application or your review is likely to go straight in the bin if you make lots of mistakes.

Third, if you're applying for jobs, internships, whatever, make the effort to tailor your application and examples of your writing to that publication's house style. At Empire, I used to get sample reviews with lots of phrases like "I think" and "it seems to me" - and Empire never uses the first person, so that told me they weren't trying to write in the Empire style and had just sent us some old thing. Given that these are very competitive jobs, it's best to take the time to tailor 10 applications to 10 places than to send out 100 generic ones. Of course you want to send samples of existing, published work, and no one expects you to rewrite those, but if you are asked for a new sample review, make sure it's in the house style.

Fourth, don't pitch yourself just as a reviewer. It's the easiest thing for most publications to find. What's more difficult is someone who can come up with good ideas for sidebars, listicles, interesting angles on existing films, fresh takes on a classic, etc etc. If you can pitch those ideas to an editor, you're more likely to stand out and more likely to then have some reviews thrown your way as well. That said, don't apply by announcing that you want to be sent to interview, say, Christopher Nolan on the set of his next film. So does everyone, and no one gets to do that on their first day. Be optimistic but also realistic enough to know that your editor will have to learn to trust you before they send you out to meet the A-list.

Fifth, if you get your foot in the door and get a work placement, internship or staff job (congratulations!) do be willing to help out around the place. Even making tea often allows you to chat with more senior people, but tasks like transcribing and editing interviews can be really helpful in teaching you how to interview - and how to edit. You may be impatient to get out to Cannes and start living the high life (note: not that glamorous when you're working it) but while I'm not saying that you should EVER put up with abuse or exploitation, you will have to put up with grunt work and more boring tasks while you prove yourself. Just trust that if you do that work well, and work well with others, the opportunities will come.