Wikipedia:Copyediting reception sections

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Reception sections in articles on books, films, TV shows, and video games often have a section summarizing critical and reviewer comments. These sections, which often simply list reviewer comments with little organization, make for clunky writing and dull reading. To improve them, try the following steps. Below this summary is a detailed example, showing the text before and after, and explaining the steps.

  1. Organize the section by thematic element. Group reviewer sentiment by theme to improve its flow and avoid haphazardly juxtaposed ideas. For example, video game articles will have separate paragraphs on gameplay and technical audiovisuals. Television articles may similarly divide commentary into paragraphs on performance, plot, and production. Look to similar featured or good articles for a model.
    • Consider adding a hidden comment (<!-- like so -->) at the start of each reception paragraph to indicate the section's organization to later editors.
  2. Signpost each paragraph with a topic statement. This helps the reader know what to expect. Think of how you would explain the paragraph's essence to another editor, and use that summary as an introduction. These are usually simple statements (see the examples below). Be vigilant to avoid original research in these sentences, such as "Praised by most reviewers" when you can't be sure you've seen a representative sample of all the reviews. Remember to revisit the topic sentences at the end of your copyediting session to ensure that they still accurately summarize the material.
  3. Within the paragraph, look for ways to use the statements to make an argument supporting the paragraph's goal. Think of this step as a design process, not just as an assembly process – you're not just determining the order in which you should list the reviewer comments; you're deciding which bits of which comments support the statement the paragraph is making. Some specific things to look out for:
    • Avoid "A said B". This refers to successive sentences such as:

      John Smith said, "It's a great TV show; I loved it". Juana Pérez of Reliable Blog claimed it was "dry and boring" and lacked focus.

      These quickly get dull. You can't avoid them completely, but when you're copyediting, look for examples, and try to find ways to rephrase them. Variants include "A of B said C" and "A said that B".
    • Don't rely on varying "said" verbs: Simply replacing strong, neutral verbs, such as "said" or "wrote", with words of similar meaning, such as "elaborated" and "opined", is not the solution, and can be distracting or misleading (see WP:SAID and WP:ELEVAR).
    • Vary sentence rhythm. Sentences of a similar length, or with a similar structure, are monotonous. Reception sections are very prone to this. Read other reception sections for examples of how to do it, but the basic two goals are: vary sentence length, and vary between direct, indirect and summarized comments.
    • Consolidate details. If six reviewers say X, you should report that X was a widespread opinion, but there's no need to quote or name all six.
    • Don't overuse direct quotations. Paraphrase whenever you can. Use quotes only for illustration, not because you can't think of an alternative. Idiosyncratic turns of phrase make for nice magazine pull quotes, but here are subordinate to your need to impart the review's essence and tighten the flow between sentences. Consider whether each word serves the paragraph's point. Reception sections that use too many quotes may be treated as copyright violations.
    • Don't make subjective claims in Wikipedia's voice. This is easy to do by mistake. For example, Many critics disliked the poor special effects presupposes that the special effects were poor, hence the criticism; rewrite as Many critics felt the special effects were poor, making it clear that this is in the opinion of the critics, not Wikipedia. Remember that the verb "note" should only be used to describe facts, not opinions: Smith noted that the frame rate is higher on Xbox is fine, but Smith noted that the game is better on Xbox is not.

Examples

Below is a worked example, showing the steps above applied to a reception section. Please add additional examples if you find them -- either of well-done paragraphs from reception sections, or of before-and-after cases showing improvements. More examples from different genres (video games, books, films, etc.) are useful illustrations for editors looking for models for their own articles.

Example 1: The Left Hand of Darkness

Here are four paragraphs from the reception section for The Left Hand of Darkness, written by a good writer, just to show that even good writers have trouble with these sections:

The Left Hand of Darkness received overwhelmingly positive critical responses when it was published. It won both the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and the Hugo Award, determined by science fiction fans. In 1987, Locus ranked it number two among "All-Time Best SF Novels", based on a poll of subscribers. By 2014, the novel had sold more than a million copies in English alone. The Paris Review stated that "No single work did more to upend the genre's conventions than The Left Hand of Darkness."

Algis Budrys praised the novel as "a narrative so fully realized, so compellingly told, so masterfully executed." He found the book "a novel written by a magnificent writer, a totally compelling tale of human peril and striving under circumstances in which human love, and a number of other human qualities, can be depicted in a fresh context." Budrys would later describe Left Hand as an influence upon his own writing. Darko Suvin, one of the first academics to study science fiction, wrote that Left Hand was the "most memorable novel of the year."

Harold Bloom listed The Left Hand of Darkness in The Western Canon (1994) as one of the books in his conception of artistic works that been important and influential in influencing Western culture, saying that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time". Bloom said in 1987 that Left Hand was Le Guin's "finest work to date," and that critics had generally undervalued the book. Charlotte Spivack stated that Left Hand established Le Guin's status as a major science-fiction writer.

Suzanne Reid wrote that at the time the novel was written, Le Guin's ideas of androgyny were unique not only to science fiction, but to literature in general. Donna White stated that Left Hand was one of the seminal works of science fiction, as important as Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, which is often described as the very first science fiction novel. Left Hand has been a focus of literary critique of Le Guin's work, along with her Earthsea fiction and utopian fiction. The novel was also a personal milestone for Le Guin, with critics calling it her "first contribution to feminism." It was one of her most popular books for many years after its publication.

Here we have several instances of the "A said B" problem: "The Paris Review stated... Algis Budrys praised... Harold Bloom listed... Bloom said... Charlotte Spivack stated... Suzanne Reid wrote... Donna White stated..." This makes it extremely difficult to avoid repetition, both in vocabulary and rhythm.

Step one: look for natural groupings of the comments -- do some of them seem to be similar in some way? Reading through the above, there's a fairly natural breakdown into three categories:

Category list

  • Success -- awards won, number of copies sold
  • Praise -- quotes and reported quotes praising the book
  • Influence -- the influence the book has had on others

Grouping the quotes in paragraphs based on this breakdown isn't enough, though. If you want the reader to feel as though you're communicating with them, and not just passing the quotes to them on a tray for them to assess, you need to give each paragraph a position in the narrative. Here the basic narrative is:

Narrative

  • The book was very successful, won awards, and sold lots of copies.
  • People said nice things about it.
  • It influenced a lot of other writers.

The narrative is not at all the same as the category list above it. The category list is just a list of nouns and definitions; the narrative is a series of assertions about the book; and even at this short length it feels like a narrative of the reception, rather than a list. Within each item more can be done to make the narrative flow, though. For the second point, the praise section, here are the sentences I think should be included:

  1. The Left Hand of Darkness received overwhelmingly positive critical responses when it was published.
  2. Algis Budrys praised the novel as "a narrative so fully realized, so compellingly told, so masterfully executed." He found the book "a novel written by a magnificent writer, a totally compelling tale of human peril and striving under circumstances in which human love, and a number of other human qualities, can be depicted in a fresh context."
  3. Darko Suvin, one of the first academics to study science fiction, wrote that Left Hand was the "most memorable novel of the year."
  4. Harold Bloom listed The Left Hand of Darkness in The Western Canon (1994) as one of the books in his conception of artistic works that been important and influential in influencing Western culture. saying that "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time". Bloom said in 1987 that Left Hand was Le Guin's "finest work to date," and that critics had generally undervalued the book.
  5. Charlotte Spivack stated that Left Hand established Le Guin's status as a major science-fiction writer.

Step 2: What's the argument of this paragraph? It's a list of statements that praise the book. (1) is a strong opening sentence and it could work well where the original writer had it, at the top of the whole section. It can serve as the introduction to the "success" paragraph just as well as to the "praise" paragraph. That means we'll need a new opening sentence -- perhaps "The book has been widely praised". That will do for an initial pass; we can revisit after organizing the remaining material.

Step 3: Design the paragraph's internal structure. If we look at the candidate sentences, one of the critics is different from the others: Budrys is primarily known as an sf writer; the others are academic critics. Let's make that a point of comparison: we can give Budry's opinion first, pointing out that it's that of a fellow writer, and then move on to the critics. The Suvin and Spivack quotes are pretty straightforward. The Bloom quotes are quite substantial but are given in reverse chronological order, but if that can be fixed the Bloom quotes would be a good conclusion to the paragraph. That puts Suvin and Spivack in the middle. Then for the Bloom, if we start with "In 1987 Bloom said" we can go on with "he followed this by saying Y and Z", which provides a little more connective tissue; here "followed this" is just a way to smoothly transport the reader to carry from one sentence to the next; there's really not much necessary connection between the content of Bloom's later and earlier sayings.

We also want to avoid the "A said B" problem. It can't be completely eliminated, but one way around it is to vary the verbs -- particularly avoiding "stated", which is overused and never sounds natural. These are generally opinions and assertions from academics and reviewers so we should use verbs that help convey that -- "considered", "argued", "regarded", "asserted" and "makes the claim" are examples. Verbs like "stated", "said", "wrote", and "declared" have no such connotations and give less traction to the narrative of the paragraph, which is the accumulation of like-minded opinions; it's often necessary to include verbs like that just for variety but they should not be the first choice.

Joining sentences together to vary the rhythm and help the flow also helps avoid the "A said B" problem. Here we can do that with the Suvin and Spivack statements; this also gives the sense of one statement reinforcing the previous one, which helps maintain the reader's interest.

Now let's revisit the opening sentence: "The book has been widely praised". To prefigure the structure of the paragraph, we can expand this with "...by genre commentators, academic critics, and literary reviewers"; then we should characterize Budrys as "fellow sf writer" so that the reader sees the structure of the first sentence is being followed. That sentence will carry him through the remaining comments, and the reader now sees these comments as supplying evidence for, and examples of, the critics and reviewers mentioned.

Rather than provide a similar analysis of the other two narrative paragraphs, here's the rewrite of all three. As usual, this is not "final" in any sense, and further improvements were immediately made by the primary editor of the article in question, but rather than claim this process can produce perfect prose I've left the paragraphs below as they were proposed on the article talk page.

The Left Hand of Darkness received overwhelmingly positive critical responses when it was published. It won both the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction Writers of America, and the Hugo Award, determined by science fiction fans. In 1987, Locus ranked it number two among "All-Time Best SF Novels", based on a poll of subscribers. The novel was also a personal milestone for Le Guin, with critics calling it her "first contribution to feminism." It was one of her most popular books for many years after its publication. By 2014, the novel had sold more than a million copies in English alone.

The book has been widely praised by genre commentators, academic critics, and literary reviewers.  Fellow science fiction writer Algis Budrys praised the novel as "a narrative so fully realized, so compellingly told, so masterfully executed." He found the book "a novel written by a magnificent writer, a totally compelling tale of human peril and striving under circumstances in which human love, and a number of other human qualities, can be depicted in a fresh context."  Darko Suvin, one of the first academics to study science fiction, considered Left Hand the "most memorable novel of the year", and Charlotte Spivak regards the book as having established Le Guin's status as a major science-fiction writer. In 1987 Harold Bloom described The Left Hand of Darkness as Le Guin's "finest work to date", and argued that critics have generally undervalued it; Bloom followed this up by listing the book in his The Western Canon (1994) as one of the books in Bloom's conception of artistic works that have been important and influential in influencing Western culture.  In Bloom's opinion, "Le Guin, more than Tolkien, has raised fantasy into high literature, for our time".

Critics have also commented on the broad influence of the book. Writers such as Budrys have cited it as an influence upon their own writing, but more generally it has been asserted that the work has been widely influential in the science fiction field, with the Paris Review claiming that "No single work did more to upend the genre's conventions than The Left Hand of Darkness", and Donna White, in her study of the critical literature on Le Guin, arguing that Left Hand was one of the seminal works of science fiction, as important as Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, which is often described as the very first science fiction novel.

Example 2: True Detective (season 1)

Another example, this time without the working details, from True Detective (season 1).

Before:

The American press considered True Detective to be among the best television shows of 2014. On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, the first season holds an 87% rating based on 65 reviews, with an average rating of 8.5 out of 10. The site's critical consensus says, "In True Detective, performances by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey reel the viewer in, while the style, vision and direction make it hard to turn away." Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, reported that the show received "universal acclaim", with an average rating of 87 based on 41 reviews.

The Daily Telegraph critic Chris Harvey regarded True Detective as the most ambitious TV project in a long time, a sentiment echoed by Andrew Romano from The Daily Beast and The Atlantic's Christopher Orr in their reviews for the show. Tim Goodman, in his piece for The Hollywood Reporter, identified the acting, dialogue, and sleek production as its most satisfying attributes. HitFix's Alan Sepinwall agreed and argued that these qualities not only "speak to the value of the hybrid anthology format Pizzolatto is using here", but "points to a potentially fascinating shift in dramatic series television." Vanity Fair's Richard Lawson believed the season successfully marries Fukunaga's sensibilities with Pizzolatto's script, resulting in "a captivating and offbeat tweak of a well-worn genre".

The ensemble performances, chiefly those of McConaughey and Harrelson, were frequently praised by critics. Robert Bianco in USA Today claimed that the pair met, and occasionally exceeded, the performance expectations of the so-called "golden age" of TV acting. David Wiegand of San Francisco Chronicle thought the two men were the standouts amongst a cast of actors that develop their characters "with incredible depth and detail". Los Angeles Times journalist Robert Lloyd felt their work was of "a very high order". The Boston Globe singled out Monaghan for her work on the show, as did Todd VanDerWerff from The A.V. Club, who wrote, "while her role is more thankless, she invests it with spirit". Variety's Brian Lowry said the True Detective cast consisted of "fine players on the periphery". RedEye, The Independent, and The Guardian also praised the ensemble performances.

Not all reviews were enthusiastic about the season. The New York Times journalist Mike Hale and Chris Cabin at Slant Magazine believed the script too readily deferred to religion as its narrative backbone. Gerald Peary of The Arts Fuse cited the writing as the show's main flaw, so too did Michael Starr from the New York Post, whose opinion was that it at times progressed at a notably sluggish pace. Hank Steuver of The Washington Post said True Detective failed to realize its own ambition, and Grantland's Andy Greenwald said the narrative was not up to form. On the other hand, Emily Nussbaum from The New Yorker commended the show's fluid style but condemned its portrayal of women, which she claimed revels in "macho nonsense". James Poniewozik of Time felt that, sans for Cohle and Hart, the show's characters were flat and lackluster.

After:

The American press considered True Detective to be among the best television shows of 2014. Many critics complimented the work of both lead actors, often singling out McConaughey for additional praise, with his work described as "jaw-droppingly great" and "simply magnetic". Some reviewers singled out simple conversational scenes, often in claustrophobic interiors, as some of the best acting in the series. The characterization received mixed reviews: Cohle's speeches, described by HuffPost as "mesmerizing monologues", and by Vanity Fair as dense and interesting material, were criticized by the New York Post as "'70s-era psycho-babble" which slowed down the story. Several critics viewed the portrayals of women as stereotypical: "either angry or aroused", though Michele Monaghan was praised for her performance in a "thankless role".

Pizzolatto and Fukunaga, as sole writer and director of the entire series, were able to exercise much stronger control over the show than is usual for a TV series, which let the show take risks: the pacing, dialogue, and cinematography all departed at times from the expectations for a television drama. Pizzolatto's scripts drew occasional criticism as "self-consciously literary" and overwritten, and several journalists attributed mistakes in the script to Pizzolatto's inexperience in writing TV drama. Despite the criticism, the Daily Telegraph and Uproxx described the season as "ambitious" and "dense with event and meaning". The flashback structure also divided critics: it was described as "impressively seamless", and "a major asset", but the fragmented approach to storytelling was considered a flaw by others. Uproxx praised Fukunaga's atmospheric and "hauntingly beautiful" cinematography, and The Boston Globe complimented the "spare, hollow, percussive" soundtrack, with Uproxx crediting the creative control the two men wielded for the quality of the result.

The story of two mismatched detectives working on a case was described by several critics as a cliché, though many reviewers felt this was made into a strength: The Daily Beast, for example, described the narrative as having "the potential to be revolutionary", and the Grantland reviewer felt that "the form is truly radical and forward-thinking", though they added that "the content is anything but". Emily Nussbaum, writing for The New Yorker, was also critical, considering the real story to be "a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses"; she described the philosophical monologues as "dorm room deep talk" and argued that the show had "fallen for its own sales pitch". Other reviewers were more positive: comments ranged from "as frighteningly nervy and furious in its delivery and intent as prime David Lynch", to "one of the most riveting and provocative series I've ever seen".