On Criticism: The 7 Deadly Sins of Reviewing

One of the sad truths about cranking out weekly reviews: sometimes your reviews suck. I’ve written my share of clunkers over the last three-and-a-half years, from reviews that consisted entirely of summary (“And then this happened… and then Yumiko did this…”) to reviews so overblown and self-important they’re almost funny. (Almost.) I say this not out of false modesty, but out of a desire to share what I’ve learned from those cringe-worthy reviews. Below are some of the most egregious mistakes I’ve made — and continue to make, I might add — as well as some suggestions for avoiding similar pitfalls in your own writing. Behold: the Seven Deadly Sins of Reviewing!


Remember book reports? Your third grade teacher asked you to describe the plot of Freckle Juice or Ramona the Pest, right up until the big denouement which, of course, you weren’t permitted to discuss. You were then expected to wrap things up with a few sentences praising the book — “I liked the part when Ramona bugged Beezus” — and maybe a statement urging curious readers to pick up their own copy. Alas, some reviewers don’t seem to have moved far beyond Miss Applebaum’s book-appraisal formula; they summarize books in exhaustive detail without really critiquing them. As a consumer, I find these kind of reviews maddening because they don’t tell me anything I couldn’t have gleaned from the back cover, though they do give away details and plot twists that I’d rather experience for myself.

Quick fix: I shy away from proscriptive formulas about the ratio of summary to analysis, but a good rule of thumb is that your summary shouldn’t be disproportionately longer or more detailed than your critique of the book’s strengths and weaknesses.


How many times have you read a review in which the critic called a book “fantastic” or “original” without justifying those assessments? Stating, “The art is brilliant in Children of the Sea,” means nothing if you don’t provide context for your praise, whether it’s comparing the book to something that’s widely acknowledged to be good, describing your own aesthetic preferences, or explaining what, exactly, moved you about the artwork.

Quick fix: Be specific! You don’t need a fancy technical vocabulary to discuss artwork, narrative, or characterization, just a willingness to substantiate your opinions with evidence from the book, e.g. “The art in Children of the Sea is photorealistic in its beauty,” or “Daisuke Igarashi draws sharks and whales in precise detail, right down to the way the light reflects off their skin,” or “The underwater scenes in Children of the Sea look like something out of a Jacques Cousteau special.” Notice I didn’t say anything about perspective, screentone, or Photoshop filters; even a reader who knows nothing about manga or cartooning could guess why I think the art in Children of the Sea is fantastic.


Do you know why I don’t rely on Jeffrey Lyons or Michael Medved’s movie reviews? Both have a bad habit of waxing hyperbolic, throwing around empty phrases like “instant classic” or “Oscar-worthy” whenever a movie rises above the merely good benchmark. Go to that well too many times, as Lyons and Medved have done, and those phrases lose their descriptive power; can AKIRA, Fruits Basket, Lucky Star, Miyuki-chan in Wonderland, Old Boy, Pluto and The Times of Botchan be equally “Eisner-worthy”?

Quick fix: If you’re tempted to call something an “instant classic,” scan your last ten positive reviews. If you haven’t declared anything “brilliant” or “timeless” within recent memory, fire away; if you’ve already deemed six books “the best manga of 2010,” look for another way to express your enthusiasm.


Whoo, boy, here’s a commandment I’ve violated more times than I care to admit: namely, any time I’ve read a book that’s filled with needless panty shots or dippy, dithering heroines who can’t seem to get it together. The problem with statements like, “Only a horny teenage boy could possibly like this,” or “My inner feminist is appalled that any woman would enjoy Black Bird,” however, is that you needlessly antagonize readers whose taste differs from yours. (The same goes for positive assessments in the vein of “Only someone with a hole in their soul could hate this manga,” or “You’re not a real manga fan unless you like Neon Genesis Evangelion: Shinji Ikari Raising Project.” Says who?) Identifying a series’ potential audience is one thing; dissing that audience in the process of saying, “Hey, this book’s for you,” is another — unless, of course, you’re looking to manufacture controversy.

Quick fix: Steer clear of sweeping pronouncements about who will (or should) like a particular series.


Fail: a review that reads like a hastily composed freshman English paper. And no, I’m not talking a typo here or there, or the occasional, WTF-does-that-mean sentence; we’re all guilty of those, sometimes on a weekly basis. I’m talking about the kind of reviews that are so poorly written I instinctively reach for my stash of red pens because I want to fix them.

Quick fix: Learn the difference between it’s and its. Split run-ons into two or three shorter sentences. Ask a friend or partner to proofread your work. Visit sites like Copyblogger and Grammar Girl for the skinny on “bad” versus “badly.” And consider downloading After the Deadline, an open source application that offers more intelligent editorial suggestions than Word’s pre-installed Spell- and GrammarChecks. (Hat tip to Alex Woolfson for introducing me to After the Deadline.)


There’s a style of writing about comics — call it Fanboy Expert, for want of a better term — that’s all over the internet. Its best practitioners make it look seductively easy, as if all an aspiring reviewer need do is coin a few catchy phrases, drop references to Cool Stuff (read: indie bands that no one’s heard of, obscure comics from the 1960s, Derrida), and voila! a funny, insightful essay is born. By focusing so much on the performative aspects of reviewing, however, many Fanboy Experts neglect the equally important tasks of critiquing and contextualizing the comic at hand. The result: a review that sounds snarky and derivative and tells me more about the writer’s interest in Bang Bang Eche than his knowledge of the comics medium.

Long-term fix: If you can’t blow like Charlie Parker, develop your own sound; not every review needs to be a dazzling display of verbal virtuosity.


In a recent think-piece on the state of movie criticism, Andrew O’Hehir offered this helpful analogy:

…reviewing movies is a lot more like performing stand-up comedy than like delivering a philosophy lecture. None of those grand ideas even begin to matter if you’re boring and you can’t write.

O’Hehir doesn’t knock the importance of knowing the medium’s history, or discussing movies in the greater context of politics, literature, and art, but he does challenge the idea that good criticism is inherently high-minded. And he has a point: it’s easy to get carried away with the idea of being a tastemaker, educator, or — God forbid — truth-teller at the expense of having something worthwhile to say. I’m all for a post-Marcusian analysis of desire in shojo manga, but only if said analysis really sheds light on a hidden aspect of the text; otherwise, I’d rather read a blisteringly funny takedown of Hot Gimmick! Why? Because that takedown might be more insightful and true to the source material than ten paragraphs of theoretical rumination.

Quick fix: Before invoking Adorno, Darwin, Durkheim, Foucault, Freud, Horkheimer, Jung, Levi-Strauss, Marx, Said, Saussure, or any of their proteges, ask yourself this: is my critique of Naruto enhanced by a reference to post-colonialist discourse, or would the text be better served with a straight-up review assessing the characters’ ninja prowess?

29 thoughts on “On Criticism: The 7 Deadly Sins of Reviewing”

  1. david brothers says:

    What helped me in my writing, other than aggressive and unfairly brutal self-introspection (there are about six things I’ve written before, say, 01/2010, that I can stand to read today), was my (also brutal, but scarily good) 12th grade English teacher telling me that 1) I was good at writing and 2) to stop talking about what the book is about and to talk about the book instead. I think I agree with your first point most of all, due to that advice. Too much summary is boring and stifling. If I want to know what a book is about, I’ll check wikipedia or ask someone. A review should tell me how good it is, or how well it succeeds at doing what it is trying to do.

    I was talking about this in an email with a friend, and I’ve really grown to love personal reactions in addition to judgments in reviews. If a book kicked you in your butt after reading it, to where you had to sit down and let it digest for a minute, tell me! That sort of thing is fascinating. There’s a fine line to walk between having a review about you and being about the book, and sometimes tilting hard in one direction can be super fascinating. There are a few books I can’t stand to read on public transit because I end up with watery eyes and trying to blink them away and looking like a crazy person. We3, Pluto 8, one issue of Stray Bullets… that sort of thing is valuable information. “Do Not Read In Public.”

    Another suggestion is to be unafraid of experimenting and trust in your own writing. If, while mulling over a book, you happen upon something off-kilter or relatively minor, but that you have a lot to say about, go for it! You may have some great insight.

    Advice I will one day learn to practice: learn to write and release. Don’t spend an hour noodling over a review and “fixing” things.

  2. Katherine Dacey says:

    All great points, David! I particularly like your suggestion about trusting your own writing. Some of the reviews I’m most proud of started from a single, “what if I tried this?” sentence that grew into a full-blown critique (e.g. treating Apollo’s Song as the Weirdest Sex Ed Manual Ever Written). I never follow a template for my own reviews, because I find them too constricting: do I really want to talk about sound effects, cover art, and “extras” for every series I read? (Come to think of it, I almost never discuss those things unless they have a significant impact on my reading experience.) But I definitely see the value in them, especially for folks whose thought process is more orderly and linear than mine.

    And, too, your comment about “write and release.” I have a very bad habit of tinkering with reviews, to diminishing returns. Only I care if I use “bare” instead of “reveal.”

  3. Erica says:

    I stand guilty of every single one of these except insulting people who disagree with me – the fact that I disagree with them is insult enough for most) and praise your good sense and simple fixes. I’m probably not going to change much, I’ve established my cough/style/cough over 8 years of blogging, but I do *try* to avoid repeating any one error too often. 🙂

    Panels, lectures, blogs – they really all are stand-up comedy. I do my best to entertain.



    Hungry for Yuri? Have some Okazu!

  4. Michelle Smith says:

    David wrote: “I’ve really grown to love personal reactions in addition to judgments in reviews.”

    I agree 100%. Personal reactions help one to achieve a unique voice and avoid book report syndrome in one swell foop! At Manga Recon, I’ve occasionally had to deter someone from seeking a path of pure objectivity and encourage them to go more personal; after all, a review is only an opinion. It can never be right or perfect; it will only be yours. Might as well make it fully so!

  5. moritheil says:

    Number seven is a little too narrow.

    Simply put, O’Hehir is right, for what he wants to do. But that doesn’t mean that he’s right for all possible reviewers of all possible styles and purposes.

    Whether or not you want to apply academic rigor to an article depends on the audience you write for. If you want to appeal to the people O’Hehir has in mind, certainly, you should take his advice. If you are, say, Superfani, and your readership is composed overwhelmingly of English grad students, there’s no need to restrain yourself from whatever improbable literary references come to mind.

  6. Katherine Dacey says:

    @Erica: I cheerfully cop to violating all of these rules at various times, too! I’ve been guilty of summarizing too much, praising books with really tired adjectives, and worst of all, sounding like Jeffrey Lyons in my efforts to say something’s really good.

    @Michelle: I’m all for including more personal responses to a book, too, though it isn’t something I’m particularly good at. Those can be very effective if the critic uses ’em sparingly. (I’d be suspicious of anyone who wept at everything!)

    @Moritheil: You’re right, there are audiences who would appreciate a Marxist critique of, say, economics in Spice and Wolf, and more power to someone who can really apply literary/critical theory to a manga and write an entertaining, insightful essay.

    My main point is that you should ONLY be choosing these theoretical tools if they serve a genuine analytical purpose that couldn’t be accomplished by other, less lofty means. I sometimes get the feeling that folks are throwing around Durkheim and Saussure’s names because it puts a fig leaf of respectability on what they’re doing. I know of what I speak: I’m finishing a doctoral dissertation and used to edit an academic journal, and have wrestled with this issue for years. You can’t preach the gospel if you haven’t sinned yourself!

  7. Jan says:

    Another set of excellent tips — I’ve really been enjoying all your articles on writing good criticism!

    On the subject of personal responses, one of my biggest pet peeves is when writers fumble around with awkward “one” constructions for the sake of not using the word “I” in a review. It doesn’t disguise personal opinions, but it does make sentences that much harder to read! (#7 is definitely high up on my list, too, in those cases when you get the feeling that the reviewer just got out of their Literary Criticism 101 course and has to name-drop everyone everywhere.)

    When I start to write a piece for the internet, I try to do it as if I’m having a conversation with my audience, which always involves overblown but unhelpful subjective reactions that I have to tame. I usually start by thinking about what I’d gush or complain about to people (e.g. “The background art is gorgeous!” or “The pacing in this book is driving me nuts!”), then figure out how to say that more academically. Sometimes I don’t quite manage to strike that balance between gushing/ranting and useful criticism; I am soooo guilty of #2 and 3.

    …Of all of them, admittedly, but I try. 🙂

  8. Katherine Dacey says:

    Thanks, Jan! I struggled with the “one”/”I” thing for years before deciding that “one” was confusing and made me sound pompous. I sometimes fall off that wagon, but I really try not to!

    I’ve never found your reviews full of empty praise, BTW. I love the fact that you write in a conversational, erudite style; you always point out some aspect of the text that I hadn’t considered, but do so in a matter-of-fact way that doesn’t sound like academic overreach. That’s one of the reasons I’m one of your regular readers: your reviews are always entertaining, but they’re also thoughtful and thought-provoking without being precious.

  9. Jan says:

    Aw, I’m blushing! I definitely have a lot of older reviews that I didn’t cross-post to my new blog, though, and most of them are of the “I had better agree with other critics and gush a lot about the good titles” variety. (Actually, striving to go along with critical trends is probably one of the slightly less deadly reviewing sins. To use a recent example, I’m very fond of Natsume Ono and she’s receiving a lot of critical acclaim, but I enjoy reading dissenting opinions. Many of the less forgiving responses to not simple and Ristorante Paradiso have been very insightful.)

  10. Jade says:

    Critical analysis is also an important learning tool to help people shape better tastes and help creators develop. Along those lines, I think at least one detraction in a review should be coupled with a suggestion of an improvement or just a different direction it could have gone. An overly gushy review can also draw comparisons to similar films or books that don’t work as well.

    That’s really what separates a knowledgeable, insightful review from someone just talking about their opinions and possibly tossing doctorates or experiences around like a monkey.

    Actually, a recent article by Roger Ebert comes to mind in which he, again, bashes the capacity for artistic merit in video games. I could care less if one person doesn’t like a whole swath of media out of bumbling stubbornness, but if a reviewer can’t see nor communicate a potential or pitfall in any given idea, they’re a failure as a critique.

  11. Liz @ OtakuZone says:

    Good points, all! I’ll forward this post to OtakuZone’s reviewers, eventhough we take great pains to ensure that our reviews are not all summary (a major sin in my department 😉 and their points clear.

    I think the biggest sin is insulting your readers. Oh Lord. ;P And my editor frowns on telling people if you should buy a book or not. That should always be left to the reader, she says.

  12. Liz @ OtakuZone says:

    PS: I really enjoy your reviews!

  13. Katherine Dacey says:

    @Jade: I get frustrated with Ebert, too—he likes to tee off on comic book fans whenever he reviews a movie like Kick-Ass or Iron Man. I wish he’d lay off the sweeping pronouncements, because I usually like his writing!

    As for your comment about balance, I think that’s a great point: it’s easy to tear something down, but harder to say how it could be better, or what its actual strengths are. (Makes note to self to try harder in this area…)

    @Liz: Thanks for the feedback, Liz! I’ve always been on the fence about whether or not to say, “Buy the book”—I even considered a rating system that had three levels: “Buy,” “Borrow,” or “Don’t Bother,” before I decided it was kind of.. cheesy? lame? a cop-out? I don’t know. Sounds like your editor had that epiphany a lot sooner than I did. Great tip and very cute avatar!

  14. Khursten says:

    Quick fix: Before invoking Adorno, Darwin, Durkheim, Foucault, Freud, Horkheimer, Jung, Levi-Strauss, Marx, Said, Saussure, or any of their proteges, ask yourself this: is my critique of Naruto enhanced by my reference to post-colonialist discourse, or would the text be better served with a straight-up review assessing the characters’ ninja prowess?

    Had a good laugh with this. I think there’s a middle ground when using critical theory when reading manga. And I think as reviewers, it isn’t necessary to bring out these names but apply the theories they say without really… confusing people with terms like ‘culture industry’ and ‘hyperrealism’ lol.

    Sorry, it’s such a laugh since I’m taking classes now steeped in Adorno, Horkheimer, Bhabha, Butler, and all these smart guys who might not have even read mangas in their lives. XD

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      Glad you laughed, Khursten — I’m sure I angered a few of our fellow grad school brethren with this comment. I’m not opposed to intelligent application of critical theory, but I agree that busting out terms like “culture industry” and “false consciousness” probably isn’t the most productive strategy for analyzing, say, Black Butler, even when the basic concepts apply. And for the life of me, I can’t imagine Adorno reading manga — this was someone who thought Stravinsky was a hack! What would have made of La Corda d’Oro?! The mind boggles.

  15. saranga says:

    “Describing a series as an instant classic”

    Hah, I am so guilty of doing this. Maybe not in those exact words, but it’s not really a good idea to describe everything as awesome, fantastic, great, hilarious or whatever. Less effusive compliments can quite often mean a lot more.

    *will bookmark this post to keep me in check*

  16. Katherine Dacey says:

    Oh, me too, saranga. I still cringe when I read some of my first reviews at PopCultureShock. I liked everything, and was over-the-top in my praise for titles that, in retrospect, didn’t merit such effusive comments. I mean, an “A” for Banya the Explosive Delivery Man? Yikes!

  17. Zack Davisson says:

    Nice work Katherine!

    Summary is a tough one for me. Sometimes I feel like the available summary is too short, and often misleading about what kind of book it is, which leads to false expectations on the part of the buyer. In those cases, I probably add more summary than is recommended.

    I also struggle with review length. Sometimes I get a bit too wordy, and I think I lose my readers. A short, punch review is often more popular/more read than a book-length in-depth analysis.

  18. Michelle Smith says:

    I can’t decide whether I’m missing out because I have absolutely no idea about critical theory or if I’m better served not knowing any of it! 🙂

  19. Katherine Dacey says:

    @Zack: I agree about summaries — I generally prefer to read the reviewer’s description of the who, what, and why in a book than the editor’s, as it gives me a better sense of the book’s tone. I don’t know if you picked up Bunny Drop when it was released earlier this year, but I found the back-cover blurb made it sound like a wacky, can-a-bachelor-deal-with-bed-wetting comedy when it is, in fact, a pretty serious drama leavened with true-to-life humor.

    As for length, I can never predict what will interest readers and what will turn them off. It’s always a little heartbreaking to invest a lot of time and energy on a detailed analysis that only a handful of folks read!

    @Michelle: For reviewing manga? Not very helpful. Being attentive to detail serves a critic a lot better than owning a dog-eared copy of The Archaelogy of Knowledge. I’ve seen a few folks do interesting things with sociological or literary theory in their manga reviews, but I generally agree with Frederick Schodt about the value of such approaches:

    How far are we going to devolve into Foucault and fetishization, gender roles, and so forth? That stuff is fine, but my tolerance for that is limited. It’s fine in and of it’s own, but ultimately it all comes back to how much people enjoy the material. Personally, I would like to see more people do more studies on the history of manga, and use it as a way to learn more about Japanese history and world history. That would be my own personal inclination. Rather than deconstructing a work, I like to look at it as a vehicle to understanding something larger.

    The rest of that interview is here: http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/interview/2009-10-27/interview-fred-schodt.

  20. Manga Therapy says:

    I do admit that there are a lot of cases where I am guilty in doing those habits that you just described. Sometimes, I’m trying to figure out how not to repeat certain words over and over when I write. Also, I think it’s also important that you add pictures and bullet points so your review doesn’t seem like a huge wall of text.

  21. Michelle Smith says:

    Interesting quote there. 🙂

    To me, this is kind of like music. My husband is completely unfettered by rules of music theory, and has a phenomenal natural ear. Whereas I, when trying to work out the chords to a popular song I like, am burdened by knowledge like “that chord is supposed to go there.” He just hears it, whereas I think too much.

    In terms of criticism, I know no official rules. And maybe that’s why it remains fun for me. 🙂

    1. Katherine Dacey says:

      @Manga Therapy: I run into the same problem when I’m trying not to repeat myself: I’ll say the art is “great,” “attractive,” and “nice to look at” all in the same paragraph! That’s one of the reasons I seldom draft and post articles on the same day. I have a much better chance of catching those kind of small style problems if I set my reviews aside.

      Your point about pictures and bullet points is very well-taken, BTW! A lot of people forget how taxing it is to read a long, undifferentiated block of text online. Even the very best writers’ work is well-served by a few headers or cover images to break up the text and make it look more inviting.

      @Michelle: That’s a great analogy! No one would go to concerts with me for years because I couldn’t stop talking about what I was hearing: the oboe was out of tune, the balance was wrong for a Mozart symphony (90 strings? c’mon!), the brass section was lagging. I have a feeling I’d be the world’s crankiest music critic, so it’s probably best for me to stick to a field where my desire to have fun outstrips my theoretical knowledge.

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