My Biggest Weakness: Grading Reviews


What’s the first thing your eye goes toward when you click on a media review? A lot of people would say the overall rating—and a lot of reviews are designed to display it prominently.

Whether it takes the form of “out of five stars” or X out of 10 or a letter grade, the review grade is the ultimate TL;DR of a review. I’m not denying that this is extremely helpful to readers who are pressed for time. But as a reviewer, I find it almost impossible to condense my myriad impressions about a piece of media into just. one. letter.

For sixteen weeks, I have been reviewing Ushio & Tora. I write at least 500 words every week, which means that so far, there are about 8,000 words total containing my feelings on Ushio & Tora. But how many people have only read 16 of those letters: the letter grade I assign at the end of each review? The thought worries me. Not just because I put 99% of the work into the actual review, but because I’m admittedly terrible at giving grades.

When I write week-to-week episodic reviews, my brain is like a sieve. I’m pretty good at recalling what happened in the last five or so weeks, but not the nuances of Episode 4 back in July. Each grade refers only to this week’s episode and how effective I found it. So even if I’d give Ushio & Tora an A overall as a show (and I really would), I gave last week’s episode a B-. It was poorly paced, started and ended in media res, and introduced too many new characters.

And yet, I ran that review on Anime News Network side-by-side with my first impressions of a so-so new show I’m watching, Attack on Titan Junior High. Titan is OK, I guess. I thought the strong second episode deserved a B+, even. Think about that. I rated my favorite show airing right now lower than a newcomer I’m not even sure about. If you just took a look at my reviews this week with no context, you’d think Ushio & Tora is the show I like less.

My stance on reviews is always evolving. Previous thoughts include How to write anime reviews people actually want to read and Want to write a helpful anime review? Answer these 7 questions first. Both times, I suggested starting from a grade and writing from there. You can call me a hypocrite for changing my mind, but I think it’s a natural result of giving lots of reviews. So I decided to ask some fellow anime bloggers what they thought.

Mike Ferreira of Anime Herald has stopped giving them entirely. “Grades on reviews are a distraction, pure and simple. They allow people to look at something, make an immediate judgment, and ignore the nuances or reasoning that led to the grade,” he said.

L.B. Bryant of Otaku Review feels the opposite. “Including a final letter grade helps me as a reviewer. It helps me truly give something my stamp of approval or disapproval. If my readers just scroll down to see what letter grade I give it, at the very least they are seeing just how strongly I feel about something in either direction,” he said.

One thing we can all agree on: review grades are not going away. Just about every media outlet that publishes reviews includes grades—from the Washington Post to the A.V. Club. This is not a post about doing away with them, but getting more comfortable with them (and just a teensy bit about getting more slack from my readers about the grades I choose). As long as Anime News Network allows me to review for them, I’ll be getting more comfortable with grades out of necessity. Here are some of the ways I plan to do that:

Grade first. And then consider, “Why does this arbitrary letter immediately come to mind?” A good review presents an opinion, and then backs it up. A well-chosen grade does that, too.

Re-read old reviews. I don’t have time to re-watch all 16 episodes, but I can do something as quick as reading old reviews before writing new ones. This will keep me from grading something down that I praised in an earlier review, and other lapses of memory.

Avoid the forums. I used to force myself to read the comments on my reviews because I thought it’d give me a thicker skin and force me to embrace my shortcomings as a reviewer. But no matter how much I backed up my opinions with examples from the show, there’s always somebody who isn’t happy. Now I realize that unhappy fans does not mean the review is poorly written—it just means that differing opinions exist. It’s time to stop worrying about pleasing everybody.

How do you feel about review grades? Do they make or break your decision to watch a show/read a book/buy a product? How do you grade reviews yourself?