How to Write An Online Review: Guiding Your Students

Is writing an online review any different from writing an offline one? Probably the biggest difference is the (usual) restriction on word count. Most good website articles weigh in at around 500 words. Occasionally -- very occasionally -- I expand beyond that, but a good rule of thumb is that anything over 1,000 words or so could probably benefit from being split into two or more posts.

Strange that, when you come to think of it. You'd think that, given what is effectively an infinite amount of space, a website could cope with a few essays now and again.

Of course, the key factor is not the amount of room you have, but the supposed antipathy of readers towards scrolling. "Keep it above the line!", advertisers demand. That is, make sure the viewer doesn't have to scroll down in order to see it. So the same goes, or so the common wisdom has it, for any copy appearing on a computer screen.

In fact, restricting your prose to above the line (or fold, as it's also known) is not only an impossible exercise (how do you know how big your readers' screens will be, or how large they like their text?) but a pointless one. As Jacob Neilsen points out, people are quite happy to scroll down these days, although given people's relatively short attention span when reading text on a screen, it's probably better to err on the short side, given a choice.

Now, the reason that I've gone into some detail on this apparently minor point is that I think it's important to give people reasons for doing something, or not doing it, and this is where I think How to Write an Online Review falls down. It gives short, sharp advice, without really explaining the reasoning behind it, or leaving any room for discussion.

And there is room for discussion. You might want to question not only the scrolling argument, but even the attention span argument. For example, if I invite you to write a review of a software application, which would cost a school several hundred dollars to implement, I'd expect more than a cursory 500 words, unless the product is such a pig that it's not worth wasting any words on it. (I'm reminded of Dorothy Parker's review of a book: "This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.") More importantly, my readers would want you to go into some depth. After all, if they think it's too long they'll vote with their mice; but you ought to give them that choice.

So the "rule" about keeping the review to "500 words or less" -- it should actually be "fewer": why does a video about writing contain such an error? -- is not a rule at all. It is a point to be discussed with an editor (which may be yourself, if you're writing for your own website or blog), taking into account the nature of your audience.

If you don't know how your readers feel about long articles, then you need to ask them, or find out in some other way. In other words, you need to do research, and act accordingly. Where will you do your research? Well, apart from reading articles on the subject, you could also analyse your web statistics. How long are people spending on your website? How long are they spending on each page, on average? Which posts are the most popular? How are they different from the rest? (Google Analytics is a great tool for answering the quantitative questions.)

Already, we have taken this apparently simple task of writing a review from a kind of painting-by-numbers approach which, frankly, has no, if any value, as far as the ICT curriculum is concerned, to one that starts to address Levels 4 or 5 (audience), and even nudge up to the higher levels (customer feedback). The temptation to use a video like this straight off the bat without really thinking about it is great indeed. But that's like buying something in a supermarket because it's on special offer, not because you will actually use it.

There's another curious bit of advice in the video: use strong verbs and nouns. What's a strong noun? What's a strong verb, come to that? Surely it would be better to use the most appropriate word? I may be wrong, but without having been given an explanation of the word "strong" in this context, how can I know?

One useful piece of advice is to use the active rather than the passive tense. This is always the right thing to do unless you are writing an academic article or your objective is to bore the reader into a stupor. Saying something like, "I drew the picture and then coloured it in using the Fill tool" is much more dynamic, and therefore engaging, than the passive (almost supine) "The picture was drawn by the reviewer ,etc etc".

What about the advice that was left out? For example:

  • Discussing with the website editor or blog owner exactly what his or her requirements are.
  • Should screenshots be included?
  • What rights are you giving away?
  • Must the review be brand new, or is it OK to recycle one you wrote before?
  • If you live in the UK, such are our libel laws that it's probably a good idea to be on the safe side and make sure you include the magic mantra, "In my opinion" in the review if you've decided to pan it.

Incidentally, everything I've written here is only my opinion, which I formed whilst watching and reflecting on the Howcast video (see below).

So am I saying this video is a waste of time and that you shouldn't show it? Not at all. By all means, use it as a starting point for discussion with your class, and use it (or its best points) as an aide-memoir once you've covered the topic.

In fact, once you've decided to not use it straight out of the box, but to encourage discussion and questioning around it, you'll probably conclude that it's not really a bad piece of video at all.




We Don't Need No Rules of Grammar

Steve Wheeler (@timbuckteeth)has posted a useful article reminding students that when it comes to succeeding academically, accuracy in using the language still counts.He lists a set of rules which humorously make the point, such as "Avoid clichés like the plague." My question is: do the same rules apply to bloggers?

Is it forbidden to break the rules? (Photo by Elaine Freedman)I think there are two main issues. Firstly, it's fine for bloggers or creative writers of any kind to bend or even break the rules of grammar, if that is done in a purposeful way. For example, I might wish to write a sentence consisting of just two or three words, or even a single word, for emphasis, which breaks Rule 10: "No sentence fragments.", as in:

You would think installing this application would have dire effects on your system. Not so.

Secondly, I disagree with some of the rules anyway. To be specific:

Prepositions are not words to end sentences with

As one of the commenters on Steve's post says, this isn't a rule as such, just someone's invention. Trying to obey it can lead to all sorts of grammatical gymnastics. I think Sir Winston Churchill said it best:

This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.

And don't start a sentence with a conjunction

It sounds like sound advice, yet doing so can often be used to good effect, for example:

But there was no way of knowing that.

Starting the sentence with the conjunction 'but' gives it an immediacy and impact that the acceptable alternative, "However," lacks. Indeed, the comma itself, which is grammatically correct in this context, induces a pause, as it is supposed to, thereby slowing down the pace. In my opinion, pace is just as important in non-fiction writing as in fiction or poetry. Would you not agree?

It is wrong to ever split an infinitive

Well, possibly the most famous split infinitive in the English language, "to boldly go etc", from Star Trek, is not improved by rendering it as "Boldly to go" or "To go boldly". Perhaps that's because of its familiarity, but there are lots of examples in everyday life where to not split an infinitive would come across as forced, unnatural. Usually the distinction is drawn between written and spoken language. A blog, surely, can be both.

Avoid clichés like the plague

Good advice, but hard to abide by. After all, clichés became clichés because they were deemed to be so apposite.  You could try to coin your own analogies and metaphors rather than use a cliche, but in the wrong hands that can come across as self-satisfaction at one's own cleverness. Much better to write naturally and plainly. After all, if the image conveyed by the metaphor distracts from the subject of the writing itself, the whole point of communication has been lost. Therefore a far more useful piece of advice would be to avoid metaphors and similes unless they are truly necessary. They rarely are.

No sentence fragments

Why not? Sometimes these can be used to great effect. I wrote an article in which I not only used sentence fragments, but placed each fragment on a line of its own. I thought that was quite effective in conveying the style in which I would have said the same thing had I been having a conversation with the person I was referring to. In any case, for the sake of balance, these rules ought to include one which forbids writing long, complex, sentences. See, for example, my review of The Making of a Digital World, which contains such gems as:

This process is nested in the process in what Modelski terms the active zone process, defined as the spatial locus of innovation the world system, representing the political process driving the world system evolution, and unfolding over a period of roughly two thousand years (again separated into four phases).

Don't use no double negatives

Hmm. Well I can see that doing so might not be a guarantee of examination success, but certainly in other contexts the use of a double negative can be rather effective. For example:

Badges? We ain't got no badges. We don't need no badges!


You'd have a hard job trumping Elvis Presley's triple negative in the song Hard Knocks:

Nobody never gave nothing to me.


The point is that you want to communicate not only clearly, so that you end up saying exactly what you mean, but engagingly. No disrespect to academics, but I have the impression that engaging the reader is usually seen as very much an optional extra. Depending on the nature of what you're writing about, and your target readership, the rules of grammar in the traditional sense may or may not apply. Audience and context are key.

Of course, all this assumes that you know the rules of grammar and good writing to start with. If you don't, those quoted by Steve would be good ones to print out and stick on your wall.

Another good source of information is the Grammar Girl podcast. This is surprisingly useful — surprisingly because, as we all know, rules of grammar and syntax differ between the USA and the UK. As George Bernard Shaw observed, "England and America are two countries divided by a common language."

However, Mignon Fogarty, the 'grammar girl', makes a point of highlighting the correct versions for a British audience and for an American one, where there is a difference.

Finally, the much-maligned grammar checker in Word and other wordprocessors does a reasonable job. You don't have to accept all the suggestions, but surely it's better to have the choice than to remain ignorant to the fact that you may have got it wrong?