Now That's How to Write a Review!

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criticsIt seems that when it comes to reviewing, the food blogging community is more interested in promotion rather than in a balanced critique. I can’t tell you how many bloggers have said, in comments on this blog, they only do positive reviews because “the reader’s time is short” or “I’m only going to write about it if I love it.”

Why? Rave reviews are boring. Totally negative reviews are rare and difficult to do well. How about going for middle ground, where the review is mostly positive, but acknowledges the cons?

Finally, I can point to a few examples from people who do this form of food writing well:

1. David Lebovitz’s review of the Actifry. Not only does he lay out why he wanted to review it and how he got the machine, he lists the pros and cons. Classy job.

2. The book reviews on Food 52. The idea was to have 16 cookbooks vie for the title as if it was the Super Bowl, playing two books at a time off each other. Sometimes the pairings are a little odd, but there is honest-to-goodness criticism here, perhaps because the judges are forced to compare. In the culmination review, Ephron has issues with the Canal House book, but she’s polite about it, and she tempers her criticisms with humor.

Here’s a concluding paragraph from David Kamp, another esteemed judge, of the specific reasons why he chose Seven Fires over Momofoku: “But because I’d rather pay for Chang’s food than try to recreate it, and because Mallmann’s book abounds with appealing recipes that I know I can handle, and because I can take only so much cussing in a cookbook, for fuck’s sake, and because I’m a sucker for any food preparation that makes my home smell like a smithy’s shop, I’m going with Seven Fires.”

See? He has a good time, doesn’t take himself too seriously, but knows how to make his call.

I don’t think the readers of David’s review or of Food 52 wasted their time by reading balanced reviews. Why  is criticism so difficult for most bloggers?


  1. says

    It sounds like you’re suggesting that bloggers have some sort of ethical obligation to write traditional reviews, rather than (if they so choose) to simply highlight products/books they might like. Why do we all have to fit a single standard? So long as we’re clear with our readers, I see no harm done.

    Think of Florence Fabricant’s column in the NYT dining section — she usually just highlights food products she recommends. There’s room for both balanced criticism and enthusiastic endorsement in the media, and bloggers should be free to critique, or to simply recommend, as they see fit, no?

    • diannejacob says

      Hi Cheryl, I just knew you were going to take me to task on this! Thank you.

      I’ve seen plenty of recommendations and endorsement on blogs. I haven’t seen any reviews. Why are they missing?

    • says

      Wait, that didn’t come out right. I think you know what I mean.

      On the new blog I’m trying to have reviewers stay unbiased to some degree, but I don’t want to lose their enthusiasm. If they love a book, then great. If they hate a book, then great. I want the passion behind the review to shine through, regardless of what direction it’s moving.

      Also, we’ve got a 3/3/3 policy – three recipes, three good points about the book, and three bad points. Hopefully this will keep the reviews balanced, though it’s a work in progress.

      Actually, I would LOVE to see a book review from you – show us how it’s done, Mistress Food Journalist! :)

      • diannejacob says

        Oh, I didn’t realize that you have guest reviewers. I like the instructions about the three and three.

        You want me to do a review? Bring it. How much you paying? Let me guess the answer.

        • says

          Ha. 😉 Would love for you to do a review on the site, but as I can’t pay at the moment (well, maybe a small amount that wouldn’t be worth your time), I was thinking that a sample review here would be helpful to show everyone what your idea of a good review is. If you’re interested in guesting at GTR, I certainly won’t turn it down, though.

          • diannejacob says

            Yeah, I thought so. Heh, as you would say.

            Did you read the samples in the links? They are written by people more skilled than I.

  2. says

    Till now, I published some reviews of books that I loved and one book-review under request. The difficult part was in balancing comments without revealing all book content. Then was to provide an objective comment. I agree that a review should be somehow ethical and more complete as possible. It’s necessary to think to all potential readers, state clearly what’s good and what’s not, what’s missing…Any golden formula to reach such objectivity, complete coverage and, at the same time, respect of the fact that you receive a free copy?!
    I think that transparency helps to balance all these factor.

    Great post and topic.

    • diannejacob says

      Good point, Rosella, that you can’t give it all away. I think you’ve covered the main points. Your main job is to think about the reader and what they’d like to know, while being entertaining and informative.

  3. says

    Thank you for this, these are interesting pieces.

    I never guarantee a positive review, but don’t believe in slander either. In general, some people will like the product or book at hand, otherwise it wouldn’t have made it to market.

    Whether I like the product or not, I like to take a pro / con approach on reviews, to help people judge for themselves if this is something for them. I also try to be detailed in terms of why I did or did not like it, as I think this also helps people to judge for themselves. For example, if I discover a product was rich with cilantro (but we can’t stand cilantro) I note this. I think the only problems I really have are in testing cookbooks where the recipes simply don’t work as written (happens far more than it should!). It is hard to put a positive spin on “you will have to modify most of the recipes to get them to work.”

    Unfortunately, because I try to be thorough, I no longer have much time for reviews!

    • diannejacob says

      Well fine, but why are there only the two extremes — positive or slander? There’s lots of room for middle ground.

      Very good to be detailed on why you did or did not like it. Re the cilantro, that is your personal bias, and should be noted as such. Is that what you mean? Because many people love cilantro so it would not be considered a minus.

      When the recipes don’t work, you should say so, as Nora Ephron did. She was very specific about why. You don’t have to tell people how to modify the recipes, just that they did not work for you.

  4. says

    I see this all the time – it seems that online, the word “review” has become very blurred with “enthusiastic and sometimes sponsored endorsement”, especially in the blogging world. I think we need better nomenclature for those types of “reviews”. I wonder if people are afraid about any libel issues by posting negative reviews about a product and so decide that no review is better than one with an unfavorable tone? I don’t know.

    • diannejacob says

      Yes, certainly just writing about a product is not a review, as Cheryl mentioned.

      Would love to know from people who only write endorsements whether they are afraid that something bad will happen if they write a review that contains pros and cons. Good question, Jenn.

  5. says

    My new favorite quote comes from food journalist/cookbook author, who said at a talk this week that “the voice of eating should be a happy one.” Yes, we can and should be unbiased in our reviews, but I don’t see the point in writing about something on our site if we’re not going to note the positive aspects of the subject – whether it be a restaurant, book, movie, piece of kitchen equipment, or ingredient.

    As you well know, we can bring the snark, and we’ll certainly point out flaws in the system (see Danielle’s review of the Jean-Georges prix fixe lunch), but you’re exactly right – balance is key.

    • diannejacob says

      Casey, I don’t know if I agree with her. There are lots of kinds of food writing, and happy eating is just one kind. There’s political writing and food history, for example, which are not about happy eating. Maybe the key word is passion, not happiness.

      Well, I don’t see the point of not noting the positive aspects either, and I’m not suggesting that.

      My, I’m feeling disagreeable. I think my cranky pants are on today!

  6. says

    Middle ground reviews (positive + cons) are indeed hard to do. It’s hard to find the right balance. Criticism is hard because you have to be careful to base it strictly on facts rather than your personal preferences. Also, it is terrifying to think you might get a letter from someone’s lawyer threatening you for slander.

    I think in the end, people want to know whether a product (or restaurant) is going to be a waste of their money or not, and they want the reviewer to have a clear opinion.

    Acknowledging the fact that a product can be both good and bad simultaneously, leaves the reader feeling a bit unsure. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but I think people prefer strong opinions (black and white) when it comes to reviews. It makes it easier to make a choice about that product in the future.

    Personally, I prefer reviews that list the pros and cons. I like making decisions based on both.

    • diannejacob says

      Criticism is opinion based on your observations of using a product. Sometimes facts are not relevant. For example, my Kitchen Aid has trouble mixing the ingredients at the bottom of the bowl, and I sometimes have to stop it and mix the bottom ingredients myself. That is a fact. That is the downside I experience when using the product. Stating that it’s annoying but I can work around it is an opinion

      There is nothing slanderous about either statement. You are the second person to refer to slander in the comments, so I would like to address it. Typically slander refers to damaging a person’s reputation. It is rarely used for a product. Suing someone for slander is the most extreme possible response to a review, and it rarely happens. Typically if there is an error in a review, a publication corrects it. There is no lawsuit.

      Where writers get into trouble is when they that state that the product doesn’t do something it claims to do — and they’re wrong — or when they make stuff up or attack a company. I would define “getting into trouble” as being contacted by the company in a complaint. That’s it. In extreme cases, there are “malicious falsehoods” leading to a defamation of a product, and that’s when lawsuits result.

      The best reviews are positive with a little bit of downside — like life, generally good but a little bit complicated.

      Maybe people are more nervous about an end to all the freebies, and that’s what it’s really about.

    • Owen Rubin says

      I write technology product reviews, and I disagree. People want information…

      First: Your opinion IS based on your personal feelings, and that is a big part of a review. Just don’t make stuff up, or attack the company, and you will not be sued. You can say, “… and I think you can find a better product than this one…” and that is OK, it is your opinion. You cannot say “… and company XYZ was just stupid to even make something like this …” because now you are attacking the company. Opinion based on experience with the product is just fine.

      BUT, you should state negative facts. No product is 100% perfect. It is your responsibility to tell your reader all they need to know to make an informed decision, good and bad. You will not get sued for that ( and truth is always a defense anyway.)

      If the reader is unsure, after reading your review, thenyou did the job. Let THEM decide if the product, service, or restaurant is right for them, and you do that by informing them as completely as possible.

      Think of the flip side: Let’s say you wrote an endorsement of a product. How would you feel about a reader blasting you for writing only the good? They buy the product, only to discover that it had problems you did not mention. They were not helped, and they may not trust you again. You job is to review and be critical, not to be the PR arm for the product or company and ignore the bad.

      • diannejacob says

        Hey, thanks for participating, Owen. It’s good to read the perspective of a working reviewer.

  7. says

    My friend Mike just posted a review of a hawker stall that I think strikes a good balance between negative and not too serious.

    Perhaps it takes someone with a developed sense of humor to have the ability to do this. It’s easy to write something positive and glowing. We see too much of it in advertising. Trying to talk down about something without being overly snarky is harder, because we have less good examples of it.

    • diannejacob says

      Kinda reads in a stream-of-consciousness way. Yes, it’s a nice change. Thanks for sharing it.