By Deb Aoki
As the manga guide / editor for About.com, I get to read and write about a lot of Japanese (and not Japanese) comics. Along the way, I've learned a few things about the in's and out's of writing manga reviews. I originally tweeted these tips (and got a few additional suggestions from the Twitter-sphere), but was encouraged to explain these comments in greater detail to share them with other online writers and reviewers. I don't claim to be the best manga reviewer ever, but here are 10 writing tips that have worked well for me.
This is pretty basic journalism, but with many bloggers subscribing to the "stream of consciousness" school of writing, this principle does get forgotten sometimes.
Remember, no one, NO ONE is required to read your review from the first sentence to the last. This is especially true when you write for the Web. Web readers tend to skim and click away if your article isn't interesting, meanders or takes forever to get to the point.
Your first paragraphs should provide me the title of the book, the author, give me a hint of what kind of story it is (e.g. literary genre, audience-specific genre, the overall mood/type of story this is), and give me some idea of what you'll be talking about for the next 8-10 paragraphs.
I enjoy reading reviews by writers who inject some personality, unique point of view (POV) in their prose. Is there a reason why this book resonated with you? Do you have a life experience or some special reason why you can especially relate to the story, the characters or the themes presented in this book?
Don't over-share to the point of being awkward – but if it's relevant to points that you're making in the review, explain who you are, and why this book touched a nerve or touched your heart in a special way. This can make your review unique, and can help your "voice" stand out from the crowd.
A summary of the book is an essential part of a review – but it shouldn't be most of your review. The summary provides context for your comments, and should include the essential elements of the story. It should not include every plot twist, and it should definitely not include spoilers.
If you include a disclaimer that says "this review may contain spoilers," then I will immediately STOP reading and wait to read your review AFTER I've read the book myself. It takes a little more effort to summarize a story and avoid spoilers, but it's good practice and shows respect for your readers.
My general rule of thumb is that the summary of the story should be no more than 2 paragraphs, or for longer reviews, no more than ¼ of the review.
Readers should have some idea whether a book is worth buying or not after reading your review. For gosh sake, don't be wishy-washy or vague in your reviews -- either you liked it or you didn't. If it bored you, that's an opinion. If you're saying that some generic reader with lower standards than you might like it, you're avoiding your responsibility as a reviewer. A review is an opinion piece, not a straight news story – you don't have to be "objective" or "neutral."
Most creators appreciate constructive criticism. Note the key word here is "constructive" – if you say something negative, provide specific examples why you didn't like the book. Just saying "I didn't like it" and not explaining why is weak.
A conflict of interest is when you have a personal or business relationship related to a title, comics creator or publisher. It also applies if you might have a bias (for or against) a particular manga that would compromise your ability to write a fair review.
After giving the issue much thought, I now avoid reviewing manga if 1) I'm close friends with the creator; 2) I've interviewed the creator; 3) I have a business relationship with the publisher (e.g. if I do paid/unpaid consulting work like editing, translating, copywriting that is not related to my work at About.com). Books that fall in these categories are assigned to guest reviewers. This makes my life (and my reviewing) a lot easier and a lot less awkward.
As a manga critic, it's a good idea to expose yourself to all kinds of manga. However, nothing kills a critic's credibility faster than a review that mislabels or misunderstands the story, the genre and its intended audience in both in Japan and in the English-speaking world.
For example, if you don't "get" the hows, whys and established tropes of boys love manga, don't review it until you do. Yaoi manga fans are not shy about calling you out on your lack of knowledge and appropriate appreciation of their favorite genre of manga.
If you don't understand or don't like a given genre of manga, consider assigning the review to another writer. There's a difference between offering a fresh point of view and sounding ignorant.
Besides learning how to "read backwards," a reader who is new to manga will also be confronted with a variety of Japanese (and non-Japanese) terminology. You may have been reading manga and watching anime for years and may know how to speak and read Japanese, but remember that some of your readers might not.
You don't have to "talk down" to your audience by explaining every manga-specific word or phrase, especially if your blog is geared to the "elite fan in the know." Generally speaking, it's a good practice is to explain any foreign word or acronym upon first mention. If you use a word your reader doesn't understand, they may well surf away from your site to look up the meaning elsewhere.
One interesting challenge of reviewing manga is that many popular stories are not single books, but multi-volume series. When a critic reads and reviews a first volume of a manga series, he/she can only assess their first impressions, not the overall merits or flaws of an entire story.
There are also many manga that suffer from extremely mediocre first volumes, only to improve / pick up steam later in the series.
If your first impression of a series is "meh," then consider picking up the second, or even third volume before writing your review. You might find that seeing the story progress over a few volumes may change your mind, or help clarify your reasons why you don't like it.
Some reviewers HATE standardized scores (e.g. numbers / grades / stars / percentages / rotten tomatoes), but many readers appreciate scores, because they provide a quick summary of the review to come.
I use a 5-star rating system, with 5 stars saved for excellent, ground-breaking work, 0 stars for totally abysmal manga and 3 stars being the "average" rating for a manga that most readers can buy/borrow, read and enjoy. I'm generally pretty stingy about my "5-star" ratings, because I want to save that accolade for truly outstanding books.
Whether you use a rating system and how you manage it are up to you, but if you give everything a high grade, you’ve rendered your grading system meaningless.
Manga is fun to read, so why give readers a dull article about a fun subject? Don't be afraid to inject some humor or irreverence into your review. Or evoke the mood of the book you're reviewing – if it's a funny book, then a witty review might be appropriate. If a manga irritated you with its mediocrity, then let it rip with the insults -- it'll be fun to write and fun to read. Creativity should not trump clarity, but as long as you're incorporating Manga Reviewing Tip #4 (have a clear opinion), it should be fine.
If you find that your writing feels uninspired, consider getting someone else to read your review and ask for suggestions on how you can improve. Need more help and inspiration? Take a creative writing or journalism class.
Writing is a "craft," not a science. The best ways to improve are to write regularly, read a lot, and get help when you need it.
Read other kinds of reviews – book reviews, movie reviews, and restaurant reviews. See if this inspires you to approach manga reviewing in a different way.
Brush up on your grammar or pick up a style guide. Strunk and White's Elements of Style, Eats Shoots and Leaves by Lynne Truss, or A Short Guide to Writing About Art by Sylvan Barnet are all excellent places to start.
Take advantage of the collective wisdom of the comics/manga writing community and the writing community at large. Check out some useful articles by other manga/comics bloggers in the "Elsewhere on the Web" sections below: