After Hanna Raskin’s restaurant critic position at the Seattle Weekly was eliminated in May, she quickly started on her next project, focusing on what many in the restaurant industry loathe: amateur online reviews. A friend’s father, who is an avid online reviewer, provided the inspiration and “hearing him talk about the process and how seriously he takes it, it really made me realize that the common stereotype of the person who reviews online is fairly inaccurate,” Raskin says. “There are plenty of people who do this for a hobby or because they want to help their fellow eaters and take it very seriously and just need some guidance in what they do.” During her time between jobs (she starts as a food writer at the Post & Courier in Charleston, S.C., on Aug. 12), Raskin quickly compiled a guide for amateur reviewers, “Yelp Help: How to Write Great Online Restaurant Reviews,” self-published earlier this month. But even if Yelp is known for snarky reviews, Raskin says this book is for those that want to give truly helpful feedback. “I know there’s plenty of funny stuff to be found on Yelp, but I just think that the more and more people rely on Yelp, the more important it becomes. I just think it’s worth taking seriously.”
Q. What mistakes are people making in online reviews?
A. Really egregious errors are probably being made intentionally, like the thing where you say, “I don’t like the way the waitress looks” or “That chili isn’t the way my wife makes it.” The people who are really trying, they just really have trouble filtering all of the information. So rather than thinking about the reader and what the reader needs, they just kind of tell you everything they learned, whether or not it pertains to their experience or more importantly, the experience you’re likely to have. So we talk about not writing reviews chronologically. I think another mistake people make is they become so egotistical in their reviews unintentionally that they very much are reviewing their own experience rather than the restaurants. So I really have been urging people to take a larger view and a broader perspective.
Q. Did you rely solely on your own experience as a food critic to write this or did you conduct research?
A. There was no research that was conducted specifically for this book. I would say that the community of food journalists is such that we sort of have these ongoing conversations all the time. I feel fortunate that other people’s experiences have informed what I know and what I do. I think the way that my experience has contributed to it is that I remember what it was like to do my very first professional review and having absolutely no idea how to go about it. And I don’t think it really matters whether you’re writing for pay or not for pay, for print or for digital, the principles are essentially the same and I remember thinking, “Gosh, I wish I had someone to show me” or “Maybe I’ll call up a critic and ask if I can accompany them on a review meal because I really don’t know what happens.” And so I was able to figure all that out on the job, but it would be great if other people don’t have to.
Q. What are readers picking up from the book?
A. I think a lot of people zeroed in on one tip or another because everyone has idiosyncratic styles. There’s one section of the book where I delineate eight of the most common errors. I’ve heard some people say, “Wow, that was the best plate of spaghetti or the worst carbonara,” and I talk about how you don’t want to throw those words around lightly. Small things like that seem to register with people. I talk to some professional critics and they feel it’s a pretty good guide to food writing overall and I’ve heard from folks outside the food industry that it’s a pretty good guide to reviewing overall, whether you’re reviewing a book or a TV show or a product on Amazon. I really try to stress fairness, balance, and those things tend to be applicable no matter what the product is.
Q. Do you believe that with a guide like this, we will eventually see the conversation improve on review sites like Yelp?
A. I think there needs to be recognition that criticism is an actual discipline and it takes some work and some thought like any other discipline. I think this is true whenever any technology is introduced. I’m sure that when they first put cars on the road, people couldn’t drive them very well and they probably hit a lot of things, which is why eventually they came up with driver’s education. Nobody intuitively understands the technology and there’s going to be mistakes at the outset. But now obviously you have drivers who drive very elegantly and millions of Americans get on the road every day and manage not to hit one another.
Interview was condensed and edited. Glenn Yoder can be reached at email@example.com.