The Review Writing Process

FacebookIconWhen one is a blogger, it’s natural that from time to time one blogs about blogging. I’m fairly sure any writer periodically thinks about the writing process itself. And being a blogger leads to being part of blogging communities, which in turn leads to discussions about blogging. It’s all very circular.

As I am mostly a movie blogger, and read movie blogs, one of the questions I see come up often is how we all go about writing our reviews. I’ve generally just given a few short lines, but I thought I’d do a full post on my process here. People might find it interesting, and other bloggers might find it useful — or have suggestions that I’ll find useful. Either is good.

Selection & Viewing

TangoAndCashPosterObviously the first thing to do when reviewing a movie is to select a movie to watch and review. Sometimes this is easier said than done, of course. Obviously, like anybody else reviewing movies, I like to check out the latest releases. But truthfully my theatre budget is pretty small at the moment; other than The Hobbit (which was a 2012 film held over), I haven’t even managed to get to a theatre so far in 2013, and here it is, mid-May. Not good. But fortunately, there’s an abundance of alternative sources for somebody who watches and reviews classic and vintage films.

Hulu, Crackle, Amazon, the Internet Archive and recently DishAnywhere provide the bulk of my viewing, with TV, cheap DVDs and the occasional theatre trip filling out the rest. Like I said above, I try to watch a lot of the bigger recent releases, and I watch a lot of classic films. I’m also drawn to films of the 1980s, since that’s the era of my childhood — it sort of leaves a permanent mark on one’s sensibilities. I favor sci-fi, action, and 80s comedies. I tend to avoid rom-coms and documentaries, but otherwise most genres are fair game. Priority is given to major films or movies which are on my “need to see” list (currently 759 items long). I’ll usually give a quick look to a synopsis to see what a movie is about and who is in it before I decide to watch it. And if I’m short on time, I’ll also factor in how long the film will take.

If I’m watching a movie that’s new to me, it’ll almost certainly get a review. Short films I’ll occasionally “hang on to” to accumulate for a larger group post, though. When I’m doing a Favorite Films review, I’ll watch the film and possibly watch it again with the commentary on as well.

When it comes to actually watching the films, I prefer to watch them late at night, with the lights off. This allows for a minimum of distractions. I’ll occasionally watch a film during the daytime, but it’s more likely to be an old short film in those cases — there are simply too many things that can interrupt a person during the day, as well as too many things to do.

Images

Most of the time, my reviews have anywhere between 1 and 4 images, depending on the length of the review. Favorite Films reviews will have a lot more. These are mostly there to help break up the “wall of text” effect, and also to give me a chance to make smart aleck remarks (whether the jokes actually work or not is variable.) For movies I watch on TV or in the theatre, I usually just grab promotional images that the studio has put out. It’s a limited selection, but what can you do? For movies on my computer, however, I take screen captures.

When I first started doing that, I did it the hard way. If I was watching a DVD (using PowerDVD), I pressed the screen capture button when I thought it was a good time to do so. If I was streaming a film, I pressed the button to accumulate images in a small (and rather limited) clipboard program I had downloaded. Either way, it wasn’t all that great. I had a limit of about 20 images in the clipboard program before I had to do some manual shuffling, and regardless, pushing a key is distracting. I don’t want to think “Screenshot Now” when watching a movie, I just want to watch the movie.

Fortunately, I’m a programmer. Coming up with arbitrarily complex computed solutions to minor problems is practically my job description. I wrote a couple Java programs to take care of things for me. One for the DVD films simulates a keypress on the C key, which PowerDVD uses for screen captures. The other, for streaming and downloads, takes a screenshot, saves it to a folder, and labels it with the prefix I’ve selected and a number. The first time I did this was with Desperado, and I had a mental glitch while writing the code, which is why the numeric suffix on those images have a lot of zeroes…. The programs run off a config file which tells the stream screencap bot where to save and what prefix to use, and tells each bot how long to run and how frequently to activate. I usually have them set to fire every 5 seconds. This allows me to sit back and watch the movie without worrying about getting screenshots. Sure, there’s a chance that some great screenshot will be missed… but it’s a relatively small chance, and odds are something else great will be gotten.

ScreencapBotSample

And to be frank, I wind up with plenty of choices.

As to which comes first, the quip or the chosen screenshot, sometimes it’s one, sometimes it’s the other.

Writing & Posting

Ah, yes, writing. I think that was related to the topic here, wasn’t it?

Generally after I watch a movie, since I watch them late at night, I fiddle around with other stuff for a little while and then go to bed. Yes, I literally “sleep on it”. There are a few reasons for this. One, just for the sake of clear writing; I know by that point I may not be at my best when it comes to writing. Two, waiting allows me to think more on the film and to evaluate whether it was good or I just got “caught up in the moment” from a few good scenes (such as with Superman Returns, which I really liked after I saw it, and then had a gradually lowering opinion with each subsequent day.) It also lets me think on different things I want to talk about, and to reevaluate whether my mood at the time was affecting my enjoyment of the film. And third, in the case of the Halloween Haunters, this gives the films the chance to give me nightmares. None of them have actually succeeded yet, but should any do so, I want to be able to note it properly in a review.

I generally write my reviews (and other articles) somewhere between mid-afternoon and late evening, when I’m at my most alert. I load up IMDb for cast info, grab the poster, and get started. I don’t take any notes during the movie; I keep it all mental. I’ll still usually have an idea of what points I want to hit, though. The beginning is usually the toughest part, for some reason. Once I figure out an intro, the rest generally comes fairly smoothly. I’ll usually try to give a summary at the end as well. I rate movies on a 5-star scale based almost entirely on how I feel about them from — how entertained I was, how much I enjoyed it, and how well done it was. Historical context is seldom a factor. I generally decide on the rating before I start writing the review, but occasionally I’ll find that by the time I’ve finished writing, I’ve talked myself into raising or lowering the score by a star.

Once the review is written, it’s scheduled for the next available day. Thus the way it works out (when the buffer is at its usual levels) is if I watch a film on Sunday, I write the review Monday, and post it on Tuesday. Favorite Films reviews have a longer lag time between viewing and posting — both because there’s research involved, and because they take me longer to write. A typical review is the work of between 30 and 60 minutes. A Favorite Films review takes several hours.

Favorite Films- Ghostbusters  Morgan on Media

And you thought these things took a long time to read.

I typically schedule the posts to go up at 5:30 am Pacific Time. This makes it an early morning post for people on the East Coast of the U.S., and still not super-likely to be lost in the shuffle by the the time West Coast folks get up. This is to help it be visible in WordPress’s feed, to attract new readers. Not sure how well it works though.

The posts are automatically publicized through Facebook and Twitter. I’m subscribed to my own blog, so I also get an email when the post goes up. I’ve rigged Thunderbird to highlight it in red so I can remember to take care of a few last minute things. I post a brief review on Letterboxd with a link to the full review, and I also add it to the external reviews section of the film’s page on IMDb. These don’t bring in a lot of traffic, but it’s enough to justify a moment’s effort. And finally, I add the link to the review to my review indices. And after that, then I start reading and replying to comments.

And that’s pretty much the (very) long and (not so very) short of it. Fellow bloggers, what do you do?

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
This entry was posted in Ramblings and Musings and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Review Writing Process

  1. 1. Go to work.
    2. Try to think of a movie to write about.
    3. Think of movie, try to decide format (Reel Quick, Haiku Review, True or False Trivia, etc.)
    4. Procrastinate
    5. Write it with about 30 minutes left in workday.

  2. Bubbawheat says:

    My review process is pretty similar. I never take notes, watch almost entirely streaming – though I tend to take breaks and have no qualms about either rewinding the movie or going back through the movie later to get just the right screenshot, and I write my review the next day, sometimes later, occasionally right after watching the movie. I’ve gotten into the habit of mostly posting as I write them, occasionally I will schedule for the next day if I write two posts in a row. Both to give them some breathing room, and to vary the time of day my review/article posts. I think actually posting at different times for each post helps bring in a wider variety of readers. Always interesting to read how others handle things.

  3. ckckred says:

    I tend to outline my thoughts after seeing a movie, then look up the actors and crew, and then write up my thoughts. After publishing my review, I always try to check others’.

    • Yeah, I also hold off on checking other peoples’ reviews of a movie until after writing my own (if it’s a new movie, anyway; doesn’t really apply otherwise). I check them out once I’m done writing, even if I haven’t published mine yet.

  4. le0pard13 says:

    Y’know, it’s great to read a blogger’s workflow on such things. It’s the differences I note with how I wrestle with this chore…er, labor of love. Of course, I envy the organization others weave into their preparation and work. I’m afraid I get too obsessed with it, feeling the need to power through it all. Sometimes, not enjoying ‘the process’. Wonderful article, Morgan.

    • Oh, believe me, there are times when I’m definitely not “feeling it”. It’s part of the reason I have a couple “light” days in the weekly schedule; it helps give me a breather on the big stuff.

  5. Spikor says:

    I try to review any media I consume, be it old, new, first time or repeat exposure. Very rarely do I not review something… If the words come easily, it gets a full review, usually within 24 hours of watching/finishing/beating it, but not necessarily. If they don’t, they end up in a Review Grab Bag at some point. If I can’t even put together enough words for a RGB… well, it was pretty forgettable anyway.

    I don’t take notes, with the exception of the Evil Dead Trilogy, which I took notes during only because I was actually trying to work on a schedule. I grab screenshots if I can, and pilfer one or two images off the web for the ones I can’t. I try to stick to obvious promo stills, but I have been known to be pretty shameless about my Google Image result grabs.

    Probably the most interesting (used loosely) tactic I have for posts is that many of them come directly from comments I don’t post on other people’s blogs. I’ll write a 3-5 paragraph comment on someone’s blog (like this one), realize there’s some good stuff in there, cut and paste it into a new draft, and work it into something over the course of a few months. (Who’s that FGWG? started this way, along with almost every story-based FDWG, and a few reviews) I don’t schedule posts unless I’m particularly inspired, and write 3 or 4 articles in a weekend–hasn’t happened in years–but I’ve always got at least 3 drafts that I can tinker with whenever inspiration/desire actually strikes.

    • The Grab Bag approach seems like a good way to handle it for those tough, terse reviews.

      I’ve only done the “comment into post” thing once or twice, but I can relate to the temptation (or the realization that it’s better served that way, whichever). I’ve had more than my share of long-winded moments on other peoples’ blogs.

      Having multiple drafts in progress might be nice… I’m usually only working with one, occasionally two.

  6. Nostra says:

    That’s a very detailed description of your process and I really enjoyed reading it. My process is a bit different, sometimes writing a review more than a week after I have seen something. I also pick which movies I’ll review as in general I watch a lot more than what I actually write about. I often think about my process as well and lately have been wondering if I should start approaching it a bit different to keep it interesting for myself. Still have not found what that different approach will be though 😉

    • Yeah, sometimes it’s helpful to change things up a bit. This past month I’ve had a bit more lead time between watching a film and reviewing it, simply because the only way I could get 31 straight reviews up was to get a hard start by watching some of the movies in September. (Plus this meant I had a few days at the end of the month to just relax and watch old Halloween specials. 🙂 )

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