Reviews Are Weird

by Stephen Hackett on November 26, 2012

While Randy is on hiatus recovering from a writing-induced ailment, some friends are taking up the slack. Today’s post is by Stephen Hackett.

I’m writing this on my 15-inch MacBook Pro, outside on my patio. I’ve got a cold beer open, and my fire pit is roaring, burning wood I picked up in my yard.

Sitting here, I’m enjoying the weather, the good beer and the warmth (and smell) of the fire. I like that my laptop is comfortable to type on, super fast and runs for hours and hours on its battery.

So, what’s the point of me detailing my surroundings? It’s to show that I have opinions about them. In fact, we all have opinions about everything.

Opinions are what form the backbone of well-written product reviews. Yes, information like technical specs, price and release date are all vital, too, but the writer’s view and feelings of the product are what people show up to read.

Good reviewers can compile their impressions, experiences and the facts to paint a photo of what a product is like and what it is like to use.

As someone with a journalism degree, I’ve always struggled with reviews. I love writing them, and have published quite a few, but writing subjectively — and passing judgement on the topic — flies in the face of what I was taught to do in school.

Reporting a story for a news outlet is supposed to be balanced, fair and objective. Journalism schools teach students to share all sides of a story, double-check the facts and leave their personal views and opinions out of things.

As mentioned above, a good product review combines the elements of a traditional story and infuses them with opinion and impressions. It’s really quite weird.

And it’s difficult at times. When writing a review of a new iPad or iPhone, it’s easy to be critical of something because you know your voice really doesn’t have that big of an impact on it. If I dislike the fact that my iPhone 5 scratches easily, I can include that in my review, but it won’t make the slightest dent in Apple’s bottom line.

However, if I destroy an app developed by a single guy or small company, that carries much more weight. My site is well-read, and I think my readers care about what I say, and if I say an app is junk, they might not download it.

This is even more complicated in our ever-connected world. Developers send writers promo codes for their apps all the time, and it’s up to the writer for that not to sway their review, in my opinion. That said, if someone gives me a promo code, and I write a negative review of their app, I’m likely to hear from the developer. Some might take my criticism to heart, but others might be upset, thinking that their promo code was accepted as some sort of payment for positive coverage.

This is a huge gray area, and one in which writers can really screw up. While reviews are subjective, writers’ practices should be objective, with clear lines between their business and their writing.

I try to be clear when I accept promo codes that they are in no way a guarantee of a positive review, or a review at all. Setting proper expectations on the front end keep me out of trouble, and keep developers from getting upset.

Like most things worth doing, reviews are hard. Insightful writing takes time, and forming well-founded opinions take time, too. Each writer brings their own experience to each of their pieces, but sharing them is worthwhile, no matter how weird it might be.

Reviews Are Weird by Stephen Hackett, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lee Thomas November 26, 2012 at 8:15 am

“…impressions, experiences and the facts to paint a photo of [...] a product.”

Now this is a good rule of thumb.

I’ve been writing SEO articles and press releases and am hoping to branch out into writing reviews. It’s not easy however, especially for someone without formal journalistic training like me, to find a solid set of guidelines on how to write a decent review, one that is up to publication standard.

Thank you for sharing this.

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Michael Clark November 26, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Keep in mind that when writing online, the Federal Trade Commission requires that the writer disclose if they were given the review item, or it was paid for. http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/10/endortest.shtm

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