The Jaguar on “How to Review Stuff”

I often hear people say they feel weird about reviewing things they like because they don’t know what to say. This came up in the Discord chat the other day, and after our discussion someone said, “Hey, you should write this up because it is helpful!” So here’s a brief run-down on how I review things (with examples!). You might choose to review differently…! This is just my methodology

Decide Why You’re Reviewing

This is the number one thing you have to figure out before reviewing anything: why are you doing this? Some folks review in order to put things in a cultural or historical context (think of Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, and how he used them to educate people on the lineage of film tropes and narrative/directorial techniques). Some folks review to warn people off of things.

My time is limited, so I choose to review only to tell people about awesome stuff I want to share. I’d rather not waste my time thinking about things that didn’t work for me or that I don’t want to have more publicity. So my goal, when I review, is matching a particular thing up with the people who will enjoy it most.

How do I do this? I imagine myself responding to friends who’ve said things like, “I wish more stories had good sibling relationships in them, as well as romantic ones.” Or “I’m so tired of billionaire romances that ignore class issues.” Or “I love “found family” stories!” That leads me to step 2:

Figure Out What’s Cool or Unusual About What You’re Reviewing

I tend to make a list of all the things about what I’m reviewing that strike me as really neat or worth commentary.

  • “This story’s theme was ‘kindness is rewarded.’ You don’t see that much anymore.”
  • “This story has giant cats in it. Win.”
  • “This story has interesting portrayals of particular subcultures in it.”
  • “Hey, they go into detail on how to sail ships of the line! That’s neat!”
  • “I feel like they really did their research on this one. It feels authentic.”
  • “I liked the tone of this story. It was upbeat without feeling naive.”
  • “The writing on this one was really tight. I never felt like the author wandered into corners and got lost.”
  • “So many descriptions of delicious food in this story. NOM.”

So, for instance, if I was recommending the original Star Trek to someone, I’d go with: ‘it’s multicultural (and multi-species! It’s got aliens!); it’s optimistic, and assumes that humanity is going to survive to spread out into space and make friends everywhere; and the Kirk/Spock/McCoy bromance triad is really neat… it’s nice to see that dynamic.’

Add Warnings, if Applicable

As with my own fiction, I don’t want to attract people to something I think is cool who will have trouble with it. So if a story is difficult, I always warn people. “This TV series is brutal because…” “This movie has these triggers, but I think it’s worth watching anyway because it’s not gratuitous/deals with the issues well…” “This author likes to kill characters you like, so be prepared…”

You want to make sure people know what they’re getting into, because few people like unpleasant surprises and (as I said for myself), my goal is to connect cool stuff with people who’ll like it. Not to rec stuff to people who will get angry at it/feel betrayed/be traumatized by it!

Finally, Give a Sense of What Kind of Experience It Is

Is it a Saturday afternoon popcorn read? Something relaxing and fun and fluffy? Is it epic, intense, and liable to keep you up until 3 AM biting your nails? Is it deep and thoughtful and poignant, inspiring important questions? Is it gentle and affirming? The goal of this part of the review is to give people the chance to decide where they’ll fit it into their schedules. If someone isn’t really big into nailbiting epics, or if they don’t have time for them, they should know that first. But if someone’s looking for that, well… then they’ll know this is it!

This is also a good time to mention how long the thing is, how much time/brainpower it uses up to experience it, and whether you’re going to need time to get over a story hangover afterwards.

Reviews Don’t Have to Be Long to Be Useful

If you follow the steps above, you might end up with a review of several paragraphs (like the one I did for Rowyn’s A Rational Arrangement: Or it might be really short, like the one I did for Blair McGregor’s Sand of Bone:

Length is not the best metric for measuring the usefulness of a review, so don’t feel like you need to pad a review to make it count. Consider my “review” of the original Star Trek. Here’s how it would play if I finished it up: “I love this TV series because it is fun, and portrays an optimistic future for humanity, one that’s multicultural both in its human characters and aliens. The three central characters have an awesome bromance thing going on. The series sometimes tackles difficult topics, but always with an inspiring message that humanity can overcome its obstacles…. Nevertheless, it never takes itself too seriously. The episodes don’t have to be watched in any particular order, because they each stand alone. You will feel excited about the future after watching these shows. Also, you will end up on Team Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, and that will give you something to debate with your friends.”

One paragraph. You could probably fit a review into a sentence or two if you wanted: “I like Star Trek because it’s optimistic science fiction that’s also multicultural, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Plus, Vulcans.”

But Does This Work For Things Besides Stories??

“I love maple water because it’s got the mouthfeel of water but with a hint of complex sweetness, like a memory of maple syrup. It’s got a ton of manganese in it, though, so you don’t want to OD on it because you’ll hit your RDA really, really fast. But it’s great if you want a drink with just a touch of flavor, but not too many calories: think ‘light and refreshing and good for cooling off in the sun’ (like coconut water) and not ‘warm and heavy and comforting’ (like hot chocolate).

Also, it’s literally tree sap. How cool is that??”


Anyway. That’s how the jaguar reviews things. Maybe it’ll help you figure out how you want to review things, so you can connect the stuff you really like with other people who might want to discuss it with you endlessly and happily because they thought it was awesome too. <3

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