The Basics of Reviewing. Part One

By Barry Willis

Do you have a special interest? A sport, an art, a craft? Do you have an ongoing affair with technological devices such as cameras, bicycles, or cars?

If so, you may be a potential reviewer. You don’t need academic credentials to write for most publications, but you do need deep experience in the field you want to cover; a PhD in literature probably won’t help much if you want to review novels, but a lifetime of reading them certainly will. 

If you want to write about cars, you don’t need a degree in automotive engineering, but you do need an enormous volume of knowledge about cars and the automotive business—all the myriad details that enthusiasts absorb from every possible source and eagerly share with like-minded friends.

In reviewing a vehicle, you’ll need to convey how it performs compared against competitors, knowledge that can be gained only behind the wheel. Professional reviewers for publications such as Road and Track or Car and Driver evaluate vehicles loaned to them by manufacturers, while amateur reviewers try to gather as much information as they can by test-driving vehicles from dealers’ lots. 

A substantial niche of the publishing industry known as “enthusiast” titles, automotive magazines are excellent sources for learning how to write concise, comprehensive, and entertaining reviews. Every month, Road and Track and Car and Driver run multiple reviews of new cars—each piece describing the vehicle’s concept, place in the overall market, fit, finish, features, handling, price, and value. Directed toward a casual readership of people in the market for new vehicles, these reviews are usually breezy but exhaustive and tell potential buyers almost everything that they need to know in deciding on a new car—often in only one or two superbly crafted pages, with room for a couple of high-resolution photos. 

Readers of new product reviews may not be subscribers to auto journals but are simply trying to educate themselves before making a major purchase. Enthusiast publications also run longer, in-depth pieces directed toward their core readership—profiles of industry legends and famous drivers, tours of automotive museums, histories of rare vehicles, and sometimes even humorous pieces about cars that never went into production or whose production was halted after only a few months because of multiple mechanical problems or serious liability issues.

A real treat is the rare piece about a vehicle whose fundamental concept was so flawed that it became legendary for all the wrong reasons. The Trabant was one such car, produced in East Germany during the Cold War, from 1957 to 1990. Widely regarded as one of the worst cars ever made—a surprisingly large category—it was an object of ridicule in the West but an object of desire for East German workers, who had to wait ten years or longer to buy one. Dangerous, poorly designed, with little power and few comforts for passengers, the “Trabi” had body panels made of a blend of organic debris and resin that proved to be a good food source for hungry rodents. 

Wikipedia’s factual history of the car includes many unintentionally funny facts, the sort of details that are essential in writing fondly humorous pieces. 

Humor, of course, is not the same as the smarminess common to Yelpers and Facebook addicts, people who came of age immersed in irony and who think that nasty comments are both useful and entertaining. “A forty-minute wait and the worst service I have ever experienced” doesn’t provide much useful context nor does it establish credibility for the writer. 

To write authoritatively, reviewers and critics must have deep experience in their fields. Simply gushing “I love this car” or “I hate this car” isn’t a review—it’s an emotional response that must be included in a larger context of history, comparison, subjective reaction, and objective evaluation. Blending these elements in a flowing narrative is an aspirational high art for reviewers of all varieties: “The Zoom Buggy 552 is incredibly fun to drive, cheap to operate, and comes packed with enough technology to fill a NASA control center. We tell you how it handles long straightaways, narrow mountain switchbacks, and urban gridlock.” That’s something every car buyer would like to read.