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How To Write a Product Review
One of the best ways a person can get information about an astronomical product they are interested in is via
a well-written review by someone who actually owns that product and has used it over some time. However, to be
truly useful, a review must not just be a long version of "I loved it", or "I think its a pile of
junk!". It must be a *fair* well thought out in-depth discriptive discussion of what the product is, its intended
uses, and how well it works on the tasks it was designed for. One fairly good way to learn how to write reviews
is to just write them for a while in your local Astronomy club newsletter (or even on sci.astro.amateur), and take
note of any feedback you get. The basic rule in writing is: the more you write, the better you get at it, and this
goes for reviews as well. After writing reviews for a number of years, I have found a few helpful ways of insuring
that the review remain focused and beneficial. They are not intended as "rules" which must be followed
to the letter, but hopefully, some of these tips might be of use to those of you who decide to take the plunge
into critical writing.
Tip #1: Structure The Review
A review which has little or no structure can often end up as just a long rambling essay which is difficult to read and which fails to make the review's relevant points stand out. Putting an organized form to the review helps the author organize his/her thoughts, as well as making it a little easier for the reader to pick out the information of interest. Each author will undoubtedly have to develop their own style of organized form, but as an example, I will show my own review form. I usually divide my review articles into four distinct segments: the Preamble, Product Description/Features, Product Performance, and Summary remarks.
The PREAMBLE generally consists of the title (including product name, manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP), and an available outlet for purchasing) along with some brief introductory remarks. These remarks could eflect an experience you had which made you think about buying the product, or they could be just a quick summary of what the product is. Let's say I am going to review the XYZ Optics new product: THE WHIZ-BANG; an automatic telescope "setter-upper" (yea, right, I know, wishful thinking!). My preamble could go something like this:
*** XYZ Optics WHIZ-BANG ***
Automatic Telescope Assembly Device
MSRP $449.95 from Beagle Optics
(some assembly required)
"One of the more frustrating things for the amateur astronomer is setting up their scope in the middle of winter with cold gloved hands lifting heavy mirror boxes while fumbling to find the right Allen wrench without impaling the neighbor's dog with the truss tubes! Well folks, our troubles are over! The new XYZ Optics WHIZ-BANG automatic telescope assembler with the push of just one button takes much of the agony out of assembly, and some of the confusion out of collimation!"
The Preamble sets the tone for the rest of the article, and can drop a few hints as to how the reviewer feels about the product (obviously, this reviewer likes the Whiz-Bang). At the very least, it should act as a kind of "expanded title", to give the reader a rough idea of what the product actually is. It also should be *short*, so as not to keep the reader from having to wade through too much material to get to the meat of the article.
The next section is the PRODUCT DESCRIPTION/FEATURES. This section often is the 1st or 2nd longest one in the review, and should include the product's vital statistics and features (size, weight, aperture, appearance, accessories, ect.), as well as a complete description of exactly what the product actually does. However, extremely technical descriptions of function are not always necessary, unless a lack of such knowledge might severely impact the owner's purchase decision or future use of the product. The Product Description can include a few comments concerning how well things go together or opinions on design and setup, but most of the main review criticism should probably wait until the Performance section gets going..
The third section, PRODUCT PERFORMANCE, is the real meat of the article, and contains most of the information about how well the product worked. Its information should have a firm basis in actual use of the product, with accounts of *extensive* observations or first hand experience with the reviewed item. However, to keep this section from going too long, observation reports should probably be limited to those which show specific performance traits (ie: don't make it an overly-long unorganized "laundry list" of uncoordinated observations or objects which just look good in the scope). Keeping things down to an easily readable length should be kept in mind continuously when writing good product reviews.
The final segment is the SUMMARY REMARKS, which sort of "ties the ribbons" on the review. In it, the reviewer gives a brief one or two line summary of the article's highpoints. Again, as an example, here is the WHIZ-BANG summary:
"SUMMARY: The XYZ Optics WHIZ-BANG Automatic Telescope Assembler is a good way to avoid some of the headaches involved with the nightly setup routine. While not inexpensive, nor able to completely eliminate the setup process, it does provide a much simpler and less irritating way to get things up and running."
Hopefully, this style of review organization will give you at least some idea of how to proceed when writing
one yourself. You need not stick to exactly this kind of layout, but I have found this form to be a fairly useful
one. As far as to how long a review should be, it depends greatly on what the reviewed item is and what the style
of the writer develops into. However, remember that the faster you are able to convey the information to the reader,
the better the review will generally be.
Tip #2: Know Your Product
A review should be done *only* after the reviewer has had a *lot* of time to use the item. When I first reviewed Celestron's "Short Tube" 80mm f/5 scope, I had used it for only two weeks. However, after some more study (and some additional input from a friend of mine), some of my opinions and experiences changed significantly, requiring a partial rewrite of the performance section. I would probably recommend no less than a month or two's experience with the reviewed product before even attempting a first draft of the review. Also, when doing the initial observations, explore a wide variety of targets or techniques to fully determine what works with the product and what may or may not work well.
Tip #3: Do Comparisons If Possible
Comparing one scope to a similar one can really help the reader pin down their feelings about purchasing the scope. However, there are some potential pitfalls with this method. If the apertures are not the same or the viewing comparisons are done under differing conditions, performance differences can be seen which are not necessarily the fault of the reviewed instrument.
Quality differences due to vast differences in price can also lead to an undue slant to the review. To help avoid these problems, the items which are compared should be fairly equivalent to each other, and should be used under the same conditions. For telescopes and eyepieces, observations should be made at nearly the same magnfications and atmospheric conditions. If you can't easily do such comparisons, just state what your experences are with the reviewed item and try to avoid speculative comparisons or those done from some old memory about a scope you once used. One thing I have done for reviewing smaller aperture scopes is to use an off-axis stop on my ten inch to simulate a small scope's performance, thus allowing a comparison at equal apertures.
Tip #4: Use Your Observational "Tools"
For optical assessment, the star test is one of the better ways to judge performance, so you should become familiar with at least a simple form of this test. However, remember that to the critical well-trained eye, the star test is capable of revealing optical defects which have little or no impact in the final in-focus image, so don't be too critical. Double star tests, while interesting to mention in reviews, are not quite as useful for judging the contrast and quality of optics, since things like secondary obstruction and residual spherical aberration often don't impact the view of double stars as much as they do high power planetary detail. For telescope mountings, become familiar with the "tap" test on a variety of mounts, so you can accurately judge how steady a reviewed mount is. Damping times of 3 seconds or less at moderate powers can be considered good to excellent performance in a mount, depending on the exact power used and the telescope size being supported.
Tip #5: Write a Fair and Balanced Review
It can be hard for a person to put aside many personal beliefs and just put up the facts, but many times, that can be a good way to write a good review. The personal touch of opinion can be blended into the later parts of a review, but for the best results, the facts come first. The key is to be very aware of your biases and compensate accordingly. I like Newtonians, so if I review a refractor, that bias sometimes has to consciously acknowledged or even supressed a little in order to keep the review balanced. Quality and price issues are also a bias. For example, a small low-cost wide-field refractor like the 80mm f/5 "short tube" achromats cannot easily compete with the performance of an expensive 3 element Apochromat, nor should it be expected to. These inexpensive scopes don't generally perform as well at higher powers, but they were never designed to do so. To call them less than satisfactory just because they don't do well in one area, or against another much more expensive instrument might be a little unfair. Such performance problems can indeed be mentioned in a review, but this *must* be done in a carefully balanced manner which does not overshadow good performance in some other area. A review must look at all the areas of operation equally, with notable attention paid to what the item was actually designed for and to how "cost effective" the item is. Presenting the facts and BALANCE are the real keys to a great product review.
Writing a review has two notable benefits. It gets potentially useful information out to those who might need it, plus, it makes the reviewer *think* more about various issues, eventually making the writer an even better and more informed equipment purchaser. I encourage those who have specific experience with some item which might be useful to the amateurr Astronomer to consider writing a review about it. Now all of you can get out there and start banging away on those keys! :-). Clear skies to you.
David lives in southeastern Nebraska and has been observing the sun in H-alpha for nearly 15 years. He currently
owns 4 telescopes and has compiled the stunning article "Observing The Sun in H-Alpha" at the website
of the Prairie Astronomy Club: http://www.4w.com/pac
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