Reviews contain opinions, and yours might be different!

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Some people take umbrage at the way critics write their reviews in such authoritative tones — and that umbrage is entirely misplaced.

I was reminded of this by a comment someone posted here recently:

The issue I have with MOST of the reviews is the same I have with nearly every review ever penned, stating ones opinion as fact, and that IS pompous.

It’s a familiar sentiment, echoed all over the Internet:

I never listen to critics or take them seriously. They like to pass their opinions as fact. Not everyone has the same taste/opinion, ergo their point sort of becomes moot. (Comment on a video-gaming site.)

(In other words, since many readers will have opinions different from the reviewer’s, the reviewer might as well not even bother writing his.)

Notice how rarely critics use words suggestive of how purely subjective their observations are. In fact, pop music critics typically write in the opposite way, stating opinion as presumptive fact whenever possible: “This album has several failings,” “He has never been more inspired,” etc. (Unsigned article, “14 Arguments for the Elimination of Pop Music Critics.”)

And I don’t like movie critics all that much. Mainly because many people treat their opinions as fact. (Someone’s blog.)

(That’s a particularly interesting one. Note that she doesn’t dislike critics for anything they’ve done — it’s people’s reaction to them that makes her not like them.)

From what I gather, the above-quoted people would be pacified if critics would just say “I think” or “in my opinion” more often in their reviews. The one about pop music critics says it specifically: The lack of those signal phrases suggests, to that reader, that the critic is trying to pass his opinions off as facts.

This sentiment indicates a failure to understand a basic element of good opinion-writing: If you keep saying “I think” or “in my opinion,” it makes your writing sound dull and amateurish. It makes it sound like a junior high school book report: “I thought it was a good book. In my opinion, the characters were very interesting.” Blah blah blah. Stating definitively, “The movie is a beautiful piece of work” as opposed to “I think the movie is a beautiful piece of work” isn’t pompous. It’s just GOOD WRITING. If your ninth-grade English teacher didn’t tell you that, she should have.

How could a critic possibly think his opinions are facts? That would require a fundamental misunderstanding of what the words “opinions” and “facts” mean. The very fact that a movie review is a “review” means, by definition, that it is someone’s opinion. That’s what a review is. If it weren’t composed primarily of opinions, it wouldn’t be a review. How is this unclear?

I think part of the problem is that movie critics (and critics of other media) often have official platforms from which to speak, while the ordinary moviegoer does not. The Internet has changed that somewhat, but there’s still a kind of separation between “official critics” (i.e., those who write for newspapers, magazines, or websites) and “ordinary people” (i.e., those who are confined to their blogs or Internet forums to state their opinions). In some people’s minds, the fact that a critic gets to publish his reviews in the New York Times somehow suggests that the critic is trying to pass his opinions off as incontrovertible facts — after all, the New York Times is a news-gathering source. But in truth, the critic is doing nothing of the kind. Yeah, more people will read his opinions than yours, and yeah, maybe that’s not fair. But they are still just opinions, and I assure you, the critic knows that. He writes authoritatively because that’s how good writers write, not because he believes it would be impossible to disagree with him.

It might help if you do a little mental exercise. As you read a review, mentally insert the phrase “in my opinion” before each sentence. It’s already there by implication — the fact that it’s labeled a “review” MEANS that it’s the reviewer’s opinion — but maybe it will go down more smoothly if you pretend the critic has actually spelled it out.

(P.S. Some critics are pompous, but it’s for other reasons.)

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