Friday, May 13, 2016

Reviewer Offers Final Reflection on the Unfamiliar Genre Project

by Chi-Nhan Vo

Editor's Note: MAS Journalism has also published Chi-Nhan's restaurant review.

I chose to work on a food review as an unfamiliar genre primarily because it sounded fun to do, even as a class assignment: combining writing, food, and meticulous analysis into one package is a dream come true for me. Even my sister used to poke fun at me when we’d try new foods, calling me “Gordon Ramsay” as I tried to use important-sounding words to describe a meal, but despite this predisposition to the assignment I’ve never formally done a written review of anything. The UGP sounded like a perfect opportunity for me to try something new.

On starting my research, my enthusiasm only grew. More and more these days, user-driven aggregators like Yelp or Google Reviews are the big players in the game, where people always turn to in deciding on a restaurant. It makes sense, really: professional reviews don’t have the advantage of providing an averaged opinion of a place, and are susceptible to bias or even bribery in extreme cases. Most damning is the fact that they’re unavoidably longer: when someone’s deciding on this place or that, what they need is the down and dirty, as quickly as possible.

This trend in restaurant reviews makes for a great opportunity for me to do a traditional one. Looking at all the different reviews I could find, I found that there was a lot more variety in tone, style, organization and focus than the image of the traditional point-by-point breakdown that I had pictured. These days, an in-depth review has to have something unique about it to draw people in.

My own review ended up being structured fairly basically, not too far from that uninspired point-by-point formula; considering that this is my first time with reviewing, I suppose that’s to be expected, although it doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. At the very least, I hoped to mitigate the tedium with vivid detail in all five senses, as well as with personal detail about the restaurant, emphases which I borrowed from my collected reviews.

Sitting down for an extended, professional interview was probably the highlight of the research process. I didn’t find anything particularly different about researching the writing process of a food review from any other academic problem, but conducting an interview, looking someone face-to-face, is a whole different sort of problem that can’t simply be researched. Thankfully I’d had brief experience asking single questions to people on the hilltop in my work for the journalism blog, but that didn’t stop my nerves during the interview. It wasn’t unpleasant in the end, though, and I think I could do it much more easily if it ever comes up again. The quotes I got ended up being a great help in writing my review as well. I’m sure there will be a next time, so when it comes I want to have more interaction: rather than simply moving from question to question as written, I could have done a better job of drawing out more information in a natural, conversation-like manner from the interviewee’s responses.

There was also an issue of integrity in the writing process. After all, one bad review can wreck a business in extreme cases, and I certainly didn’t want to do that to people that I’d met face-to-face. But on the other hand, I couldn’t cover up any flaws in good journalistic conscience. My solution was to be honest, but phrased gently. Thankfully this wasn’t a huge issue seeing as how I genuinely enjoy the restaurant, but in one particular case regarding the restrooms my word choice was pointed out to be unfairly inaccurate. By simply using honest, concrete descriptions, I was able to balance my interests as well as improve the quality of the writing itself, as I exemplified when I spoke on the bathrooms: rather than simply calling them “filthy,” I described them as being “dim, cramped and scarred with discoloration” to paint a much more accurate picture.

I quite enjoyed writing this restaurant review as part of the Unfamiliar Genre Project. I didn’t experience any major bumps along the way, and by working continually with Sr. Hilda I could continually refine my project into something worthwhile. I was able to practice research skills and descriptive writing, and I also was able to get new experience in conducting an interview and professional courtesy. My bank account doesn’t share my satisfaction, of course, but my very happy taste buds provide some needed balance.

I would recommend this project highly to any seminarian, for the simple fact that it allows ample room to tackle something interesting while still pushing the bounds of comfort. Not only did it provide an opportunity to practice writing skills, it forced me into learning interviewing skills, both of which are highly useful to a student. Moreover, the hands-on nature of the project breaks up the tedium of lecture classes.  It was a great experience for sure.

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