Gear Reviews: Why being thoughtfully critical is what the rest of us need

gear reviewsHoly Gear Reviews, Batman! As Dwight and I have been narrowing down gear, preparing to upgrade his GPS watch, and buy a new headlamp, we’ve read and watched hundreds of reviews. And we’ve found a problem.

Reviewing is big in every industry where the major producers are looking for athletes, purveyors, or consumers to endorse their products. The recommendation economy is alive and well in the world of running, and in particular marathon training, racing, and ultrarunning.

But, on the whole, many of the gear reviews we’ve encountered are shallow at best and function as advertisements for the product.

What do we want? Thoughtful and reflective critique.

That’s it.

Maybe it is because I’m an academic and i’ve written hundreds of reviews of literary and artistic works, but it could also be that we really want to read or watch balanced reviews, before we drop hundreds of dollars of our hard earned money. It seems to us that sometimes receiving a product to review results in a lazy and superficial review.

I firmly believe (philosophically and theologically) that the role of the reviewer is to seek to encourage that which is good and beautiful. To encourage works of excellence. Yes, I have a theological and philosophical basis for reviewing running gear, but anyone who claims they don’t have a philosophical basis for their writing or reviews is either lying or not at all self-reflective.

I have three practical suggestions for being a truthful critic in reviewing running gear. Like in all areas of review, 1) study the medium and genre of the creation – in this case, the product – 2) be careful not to confuse aesthetics with taste (there is a difference), and 3) remember that the goal is to encourage good and beautiful work.

If you are sent a product that is truly a terrible example of its medium or genre, I would suggest initially directing your remarks to the company directly (not in print) if you are predominantly critical. If this isn’t an option, I would always suggest that either declining to review or suggesting to the publication that the product is not of sufficient quality, rather than simply feigning or avoiding the assignment.

If you do have to write a review that will be going to press, be honest and graceful but not sycophantic. If the product  is compelling in one area or aspect, say so, but if its need work in others maybe you could suggest areas for improvement and that you look forward to seeing aesthetic or practical issues worked out in the course of further iterations. Indicate positives, however slight alongside the negatives.

One of the reasons, I contend, for why most reviews are incredibly superficial is because they are rushed. In order to give good information to the rest of the running community, testing gear takes time and takes patience to use the product in a variety of conditions over time. Just because a company says a product does a certain thing or has a certain battery life does not make it so. Simply reiterating the claims of the company is really not doing any of your fellow runners any favors.

Two reviewers that we have come to appreciate are The Ginger Runner and DC Rainmaker. They offer balanced reviews that demonstrate use in a variety of conditions over time. The level of detail and the care they take with their reviews sets them apart. Most importantly, they are helpful in making decisions that work for our budget and our gear needs.

Finally, it is somewhat astonishing why reviews don’t seem to be honest and call it like it is. If we don’t put more work into reviewing products in real conditions, we are not telling the truth. It’s much more valuable to the running community to be constructively critical than simply reiterating advertising copy, and much more helpful to the creation of useful and well made gear to be constructive in your criticism. There is always room for improvement. There’s also room for honest, generous assessments. Please don’t be lazy, you are not doing anyone – least yourself – any favors.

Listening. Observing. Participating. Writing. Photographing. Reflecting.

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Anna Blanch_Gill Gamble_blogAnna Blanch Rabe is an Australian-born writer and photographer currently living in eastern New Mexico. She is an attorney (not licensed in New Mexico, and not your attorney) and was previously the Executive Director of a non profit. You can follow her adventure on Not A Pedestrian Life, or Facebook.

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