chaostangent

How I write about anime

Or “Let me tell you how I went from watching 0 to 20 series, and so can you!”

I’m always loathe to write non-review posts because I feel that they’re like navel gazing: disconnected from actually enjoying anime. They also bring me out of my comfort zone of critical and analytical thinking, which can only be a good thing right?

Digression, must stop. As if a post about how I write about anime (which itself I’ve had to write) could get any more meta, evidence that I’ve tried and failed before to write about my “process” (air quotes) looms large. But in the same vein as something like The Setup, there’s a voyeuristic pleasure to be gained from peeking into the lives of how other people create.

So here it is, unadorned, how I go from watching to writing about anime. In that order.

Watching

The easy part is always going to be watching anime right? After... *stares off into the far distance* close to twenty years, I’ve found it anything but. It was when I first started with the exceedingly limited Manga Entertainment releases (my VHS copy of the Guyver series is still in a cupboard somewhere). Even my University anime club was comparatively stress-free because with two meetings a week, we could tackle longer series like Gundam Wing, while still getting introduced to barn-burners like Cowboy Bebop and Escaflowne (and Argento Soma, rose tinted spectacles off…). But then the internet and fansubs blossomed and suddenly choice was the main problem.

In my time blogging anime, I’ve probably burned out twice to a greater or lesser degree from trying to follow the releases of the latest season. Even though the majority of my 2009-2010 posts - my blog’s “golden age” - do exactly that, trying to keep up with everyone else be that bloggers, commenters or friends, is a losing battle. My last break from anime happened because I tried to watch Haganai which filled me with a deep sense of loathing towards anime that I don’t think I shed until I started actively watching again in late 2013.

It was then that I made a rule for myself: “no more than two episodes of a series per day.” In effect, a no marathoning rule. It was an attempt to combat the lack of retention from charging through a show in such a short space of time, for me this was no clearer than with A Certain Scientific Railgun. When it came to watching the second season, reading my review made me feel like someone else must have written it, I could remember that little of it.

The knock-on effect of that rule however was that if I wanted to spend any length of time watching anime, I needed to have a variety in store. As I’ve since found out, variety is supremely important to staying interested in anime. I try and have at least one of each of the major “food groups” on the go at any one time - light comedy, iyashkei, mecha, magical girl, art house, anything else. So if I don’t feel like watching teenagers beat the snot out of each other in giant robots, light comedy it is. Tired of magical girls? Offbeat art house sorts that out. Likewise picking shows from different seasons, different decades can provide a nice palette cleanser to whatever concept is in vogue at the moment.

More tangibly, making a place to watch anime that wasn’t in front of my computer (lord knows I spend enough time there) proved to be another key to staying “in” anime. I had watched everything on a mini-PC (Acer Revo R3610) hooked up to a 32 inch TV, but when fansubs moved to 10-bit colour depth, the little low-power-machine-that-could, now couldn’t.

Nowadays I have a room dedicated to anime. Well, to everyone else I call it a “cinema room”, but anime gets the most screentime. The projector is an Epson EH-TW6100, the screen a Duronic EPS119/169 (264cm x 147cm or 8.7ft by 4.8ft), the receiver is a Denon AVR-1910 with 5.1 Q-Acoustic 1010i speakers. The computer is a custom monstrosity, Intel i5 3470T in a Streacom FC8 EVO case.

Preparing

I used to not write anything about a series until I had finished it, my belief being that any thoughts I had about a single episode were about as useful as thoughts about a chapter in a book. Presently I tend to make notes in a Google Doc. These rarely comprise more than a few words, but if I come up with an especially astute title, that’s usually the time it arrives.

I pop anything I’ve finished into a “Watched” folder that doubles as a grab bag for what I can write about at any given time. When I committed to a schedule of two blog posts a week it had the side effect of divorcing me from the “must be first” timeliness trap that a lot of anime blogs seem to aim for, especially since Omni and his lightning fast posts departed Random Curiosity. That mentality probably burned me out just as much as my choice of seasonal anime, and moving away from it meant that I no longer felt discomfitted by posting about a show that wasn’t airing this season.

Writing

Not being the first to write about something means you can benefit from other people’s thoughts. Lately I’ve found, especially with popular series like Shingeki no Kyoujin, Kill La Kill and just recently Log Horizon, being able to read and indirectly respond to other people’s insights is enormously rewarding. Certainly not the tainting of my opinion that I once assumed reading other people’s reviews would incur.

Regardless, my process for writing has remained largely the same since I started:

  1. Generate screenshots of each episode: I usually go for 250 for 24 minutes, longer episodes (OVAs etc.) I multiply up from that
  2. Using IrfanView, go through each screenshot from each episode and delete any unusable ones. This is when I write the majority of my notes as it’s akin to rewatching the series (in my mind!). For a 12 episode show this usually takes a couple of hours and, depending on animation quality, results in between 100 and 140 usable screenshots per episode. If possible I’ll try and have the series’ soundtrack on the go as well for that extra sense of immersion
  3. Write. In the same Google Doc as I took notes in, I try and write as much as possible without stopping. By this point the structure of my review is usually fully formed: the points I want to touch on, how to flow from one to the next etc. When I naturally get stuck, taking a break helps - walking or something mundane away from a screen are the most effective
  4. Editing. I have become noticably lax with my editing as of late, especially so if I write and edit on the same day. Re-reading some of my posts the day after I post them often makes me wince a little with embarrassment. When you self-edit enough - effectively cage-fighting your prose - your subsequent writing naturally improves because of it
  5. Assets. Sorting through the screenshots for each episode, I pull out any that might work in a post. Depending on the visual quality of the anime, this can produce a shortlist of anywhere between 30 to 300 screenshots. From that shortlist I’ll select the final few - for a twelve episode series this is about 14 shots - and their presentation, be that slideshow, one or four thumbnails. Any other screenshots I find amusing or illustrate a point go in as well. I chronically misjudge how long this part takes which can be upward of several hours
  6. Final pass. The last chance to catch anything egregiously wrong with a post. My most common mistake is not re-reading an edited section and missing an obvious mistake
  7. Run away. I always have something to do after publishing a post, even if it’s just watching anime. My tendency to stew over things I’ve created is totally unhealthy, especially so with stat-porn like Google Analytics just a click away

Sometimes the process changes, such as if I have such an epiphany-level vision of how a review is going to read, I omit screenshot sorting and jump straight to writing. Other times there’s the excruciating period when I’ve finished writing, but haven’t included a - usually minor - point, and for the life of me, I just can’t find the place to splice it in.

Responding

Thanks to a limited audience, responses to my posts are few and far between, although when they do come they tend to be especially awesome. As with most social online interactions, I am rubbish at responding to any kind of comment so I either stay silent or self-consciously stumble over myself trying.

Final thoughts

I said it would be unadorned yet I still seemed to wander off on tangents throughout. I am aware that this may come off as self-aggrandising (look at all my shiny things!) or somehow preachy but fundamentally this is what works for me. Or at least seems to have worked for the past year. If there’s a final thought I would leave you with, it’s that when you have so much choice - more or less every anime ever produced ready to be downloaded, watched, dissected and stored - willpower is the strongest counter to the contempt and apathy that such indulgence and excess breeds.

I am genuinely interested in how other anime bloggers approach watching and writing about anime - so in a rare show of audience solicitation: let me know in the comments or in a post of your own how you go about this blogging malarkey.

P.S: omo has written a fascinating post about how he watches anime over on his blog.

Responses to “How I write about anime”

  1. Dawnstorm

    I'm not a blogger. I can do the writing, but I have absolutely no interest in the presentation. I'd feel like I'd have to have and use several browsers to test out the layout. I'd probably have to download anime for the screenshotting (I never download anything [except into the cache for streaming]), and I'd have to make screenshots, which sounds like a tedious task for me. I do most of my writing on a few select forums (rarely on blogs), where I usually don't even bother with an avatar.

    If I were blogging, I'd be a topic centered blogger. I doubt I'd do reviews. If there's some sort of epiphany I have, that might make it into writing. An example: I was watching the harem show Mashiroiro Symphony. In one of the last episodes' opening scene a character was showing her rare playful side by jumping onto an ice-puddle and cracking it. This scene reminded me of the opening scene of episode 10 of A Channel, whose theme was also cracking ice puddles, but which foregrounded this element much more. It made me realise, then, what A Channel had over other shows with the premise of cute girls doing cute things cutely, and it's the integration of setting in characterisation and the ability to use images and style changes to great effect. I do not have the technical vocabulary to talk about this properly, so I'd have made an experience report of it.

    So this is the sort of post you could expect from a theoretical blog of mine. Maybe seasonal summaries and year summeries, too, as those are fun (I like ranking stuff, even though rankings are rough estimates at best and meaningless at worst, but having a numbered list to look at helps me organise my thoughts). Mostly my blog would be a web-log of me trying to figure out why like one thing and not another similar thing. I'd probably try fail to keep my blog rant-free, because dwelling on predictable quibbles bores me, but I'd also deliberately and highly selectively fail to keep my blog rant-free, because I consider positioning myself on the taste-spectrum important to relativise what I'm saying. You'd know my triggers, but you'd also know they're my triggers.

    As for watching: since I'm not blogging anime, I have no real experience with watching a show with the intention to write about it. But from experience I can say that "one size doesn't fit all". Of the shows I enjoy, some are great at one episode per week. Some shows are great to marathon. And some rare shows need me to be in a certain mood (or not to be an a certain mood) to be effective. I'm still trying to find time to finish the excellent Hyougemono, a show about Sengoku Samurai Aesthets, for example. Actually, I'll probably start from the beginning, as the show is rather demanding on the level of historic detail, and it assumes a Japanese audience which is more familiar with the material in the first place than I am. Since I watch most of my anime to wind down after work, finding the time for a 39-episode show that demands high concentration and not too long breaks isn't easy.

    Finally, I'm not sure you'd need to worry about coming across as self-aggrandising when I'm the one answering a question about blogging when I don't even have a blog. Heh.
    1. chaostangent

      Given your past responses on my blog, I am surprised you don't have your own but can understand why not: it can be a daunting prospect. I'm somewhat lucky in that I enjoy the programming/backend gubbins almost as much as I do producing content.

      Topic centred blogging (I like that term much better than the usual "editorial" label) is really difficult but can be very rewarding - some of my most critically popular posts have been in that vein. I have trouble doing the pattern-matching required to come to larger conclusions though which, by the sounds of it, isn't something you have issue with! As for rants - what's a blog without some personality to it? As long as you have evidence or the resolve to back yourself up, I can find myself wooed by that approach (tamerlane used to keep a phenemonal blog that did yearly summaries but I've since lost the link to it, bother).

      From the shows you mention it sounds like you have eclectic tastes in anime - I'm only a few steps removed from the "popular" shows, but one of the other rules I've laid down for myself is to never watch a show just to write about it, or conversely, never write about a show just because I've watched it. This means I have a panoply of anime in my watched folder that I have nothing to say about. It's why I was glad when the Tamako Market movie came out. I can appreciate anime's ability to help unwind though, adding a blogging on top of that might just taint your otherwise unfettered enjoyment of it!

      Loved reading your thoughts, even if you don't blog it's good to hear a different outlook!
  2. lpf

    Commenting on the blogs of better writers makes me too self-conscious. -sigh-

    I'm one of the many who gave up on producing content regularly, eh. That said, I've written a fair bit on a few failures of personal blogs, in MAL reviews and forums, so I do have some thoughts about my approach to writing.

    Watching is a considerable obstacle, sometimes more than writing! Having a cinema room must definitely help a lot with it - and here I am stuck with a small laptop screen. Watching stuff in a comfortable seat or couch is the best way to focus on it. I almost always have to watch things in bed, away from the commands to check IRC or Twitter, and preferably with a large screen so I can watch from afar but with now only a laptop, things are getting tedious. Ah, and I don't enjoy airing anime to watch a significant portion of them, and tend to reject the episodic commentary route. :/

    I used to archive my thoughts in text files as I watched something, which was tremendously useful for writing reviews and remembering my opinion on things after months or years pass, but I don't bother any more. These days, I just find an IRC channel or discussion website to throw my raw thoughts on when I have something interesting to say about a work, so (on top of putting my thoughts into words) I have logs or web pages to revisit if I decide to use my thoughts for an article or review or more serious forum post. Definitely not optimal, but having friends hearing my thoughts gives me an incentive to actually type them out. Maybe I should just get motivated and paste the logs in text files afterwards... or archive every single thought-provoking IRC conversation I see?

    I used to avoid reading other people's prose on things I intend to review because I feared I would end up adopting other people's thoughts, which at the time seemed accurate. Nowadays, I think I don't need to avoid other people's thoughts and can use them productively to adjust my own. Part of it is that I used to believe there were only one true valid opinion, but now if I have a view on something and read a conflicting one, I am more likely to end up keeping both views whether I agree with the conflicting one or not. Another part of it is that I did not always come up with strong thoughts of my own at the time, but now I have a much easier time articulating my opinion; and also, I don't feel as insecure any more about not having interesting things to say about a work so I don't end up parroting other people for lack of arguments of my own.

    Generating screenshots automatically sounds like a great idea. Taking screenshots is a major hassle to me. However, I tend not to put media in my commentary unless I have something to say about it (though sometimes it's as self-explanatory as "see, this is nice" so I end up not saying anything). So I end up having to look for specific scenes or shots manually, when I do get the motivation to. Clips can be even better than single screenshots and I like to tryyy doing commentary on scenes or animation cuts. For examples I guess I have my Ping Pong and Noir posts but I am distressingly unsatisfied with both. Ughhhhh.

    Writing and editing... I'm happy to say this finally comes naturally to me now, and although I type in a relaxed manner most of the time, when I decide to polish my prose I don't have as much trouble as before. English being my second language (although, living in England now, disliking my first language and being mediocre at it, I consider English to be my first) it used to take me ages to be able to express my thoughts let alone make my writing concise and interesting. I would spend dozens of hours on a single review. It was hell, but I don't regret it. Well, though the writing part is not as big a challenge as it used to, sorting out my thoughts and organising them in a satisfying way is still giving me headaches. I'm always reading much better writers than myself and set a standard too high for me to meet consistently. I recently attempted to fix the problem by giving up using my blog with the expectation that others would read it, but I don;t know if it is actually going to help.

    A habit I got from spending so much time writing is that I always try to do the final quality checking after sleeping. For whatever reasons, a lot of stylistic problems or typos are just invisible to me until I leave my text alone for enough time to forget about it.

    I'm not an established writer, but I hope that was interesting. It was enjoyable going through and thinking about my writing process, just as well as it was enjoyable reading yours and I am guessing that you enjoyed writing it too. Fun for the whole family!
    1. chaostangent

      It sounds like instead of throwing your thoughts into a blog post you tend to take a more social route - bouncing your ideas off friends, opening them up for discussion. It's something I wish I had more confidence to do; there's a sense of "chucking it over the wall" when writing a blog post, like a proclaimation that is to be refuted rather than an idea to be discussed.

      I envy people who are social with their anime watching because for me I've always felt reticent for various reasons. It's good to know someone had the same concerns with reading other's opinions as I did though - like just reading them would somehow shift my own viewpoint towards theirs and subsequently make my own less... authentic? As for archiving your thoughts, I guess keeping them for posterity is valid but I've found that, like with anime series themselves, there comes a point when you realise you'll never look at them again, and there's catharsis to be had from getting rid of them, like jettisoning baggage.

      Screenshots and recently OP/ED clips are something I spend an inordinate amount of time on so I fully support anyone who omits doing that and focusing on the writing. It's a massive time sink and one that I sometimes wonder is really worth it. My argument for is always that anime is inherently visual, and given the amount of words I tend to produce, breaking it up with what I'm writing about makes some kind of sense? I only wish I had some measure of video editing skills to take that idea further like others do.

      Totally agree about that final quality check though. If I was more organised I would stack up draft reviews and do a final pass at them days - weeks - after initially writing them. Unfortunately my motivation often disperses quickly when trying to do that, and my bullheaded adherence to a schedule means I'm caught between being compelled to produce something and my own bar for quality.

      It was great to hear your thoughts, exactly the kind of insight I was hoping for! Really glad you enjoyed reading, it was huge fun to write and has been a long time in the making.
    1. chaostangent

      Short answers: no and no

      Longer answer: Fundamentally there's no single overriding reason for why I don't rate what I've watched, only a panoply of smaller reasons.

      (Disclaimer: I have a MAL that has ratings on it although it is substantially out of date and not everything is rated.)

      There's the ever present apathy - the MAL list would likely grow again by half if I were to update it now. There's the apples-to-oranges comparisons that ratings invite between disparate shows - ratings are good for other people to understand what you like and maybe for broad conclusions (e.g. high ratings for magical girl shows) neither of which I find compelling enough to start. There's the lack of satisfaction I get from rating and organising shows - this despite my Anime of the Decade posts. There's the general shifting of ratings due to recency bias. There's the argument against boiling down a complex opinion about a show into a numeric score - what is the difference between a 6 and a 7 rated show?

      I would imagine if I ever did a Secret Santa for anime, I would likely update my MAL list in earnest. Until then though, the best answer I can offer to "why don't you provide ratings" is just a polite shrug.