What's the Write Word? Part 1

Charles Aaron to Dave DiMartino

by Jason Gross

19 May 2010

Over a 100 music scribes are confronted with this not-so-simple question: "If an eager young writer cornered you and asked 'What's the best advice you could give me?' what would you have to say?" Part one of our advice to aspiring music writers from music writing professionals.

CHARLES AARON (editor—Spin)

Rule #1: Be a Lunatic

Despite the digital putsch against print publishing, writing about pop music is no more or less preposterous a career move than it was 20-plus years ago. Blogging or Tumblring is easier than producing a fanzine, and there are more websites now than there were magazines or alt weeklies then. But it’s still fairly impossible to make a passable living writing about stuff you actually like. You need to hustle, compromise, hold down a day job, whatever, just to keep breathing and functioning.

So, why do it? Because you have to, because you can’t stop yourself, because you can’t get to sleep unless you scribble out some random (or seemingly profound) thought that’s coursing through your brain like multiple lines of whatever powder your roommate nicked from so-and-so’s skeevy ex-boyfriend. It’s not a case of sticking with it because you don’t have a choice—you’re compelled to the edge of desperation because you’re so deeply immersed in, and inspired by, some artist or song or show.

Unless you feel like that, unless you’re consumed by an emotional frenzy to do this, then get the fuck out now. You’re just eating somebody else’s food. And you’re taking up limited space that’d be better used by somebody more passionately unhinged. Because this is no life for rational people. Or at least it shouldn’t be. They’re the enemy.


FRANK ALKYER (publisher—Downbeat)

Understand that saying an artist is playing your town—and that you have access for an interview—does not constitute a pitch that will get any consideration. Have a real, researched, and creative plan for the article. Present an idea that doesn’t sound like so many of the formulaic entertainment articles that flood music magazines, web sites, and blogs. Put some art into your arts journalism.


HARRY ALLEN (hip-hop activist & media assassin)

The only advice I can rightly offer young writers is counsel in those areas where I’ve had success myself.


One: Write with passion on subjects about which you’re passionate, and reject anything which corrupts your ardor.

Two: It’s been said the secret to all wealth is that you must completely own the rights to what you make. Thus, when you license your work:

a) Sell time-limited rights in your work, but only those 1) that the client can demonstrably and immediately exploit, and 2) for which they can pay you now.

b) Keep all other rights to your work for yourself.


BILLY ALTMAN (writer—New York Times, New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Esquire; longtime senior editor—Creem; teacher—School Visual Arts)

There is no question that the Internet has, to a great and unfortunate extent, significantly devalued the art of writing. However, compared to the earliest days of music journalism in the late 1960s, when there were literally only a handful of legitimate outlets, and most newspapers and general interest magazines barely (if ever) covered the pop field, there are now nearly infinite opportunities to make one’s voice heard.

(I didn’t say opportunities to make a living, of course, but in my own experience spanning better than four decades now on the rockwrite front lines, I’ve never really known a single music journalist worth a damn who ever got into this sad racket for the money. It’s always been a love of music and a desire to share feelings pro and con about the music we hear that’s been the primary driving force and common bond for our specialized little clan.)

In any event, because there are so many places these days to simply speak your piece, the present landscape for any aspiring music writer is no different than any from the past in the one and only area that truly matters: talent. And it remains my firm belief that, regardless of the forum, good work will always stand out. So, if you’ve got the skills—and the perseverance to keep at it—you’ll always have a chance to make your mark.


STACEY ANDERSON (senior associate editor of music—Village Voice; contributing writer—Spin)

Simultaneously be starved for human contact and possess the horrendously inflated sense of self-worth that leads you directly to Charles Aaron’s office one afternoon with a terrifying, unbroken stream of stupid questions. Because I can attribute my entire career to one slow afternoon during my internship at Spin when I accosted my future mentor in his office, and he was just bored enough to be entertained by it.

But really, seek out writers you admire and ask for their honest advice about your work. There is only wisdom in admitting you don’t know everything; feigning expertise only robs you of the chance to receive it from someone else. And feeling like you’re connected to the writing community buoys you when the work is slow or nonexistent, and it becomes self-fulfilling quicker than you’d think.

Almost every gainfully employed writer I’ve talked to says the same thing: there was a stretch when the work wasn’t coming and any logical person would have given up and chosen another career path. Mine lasted for years and meant day jobs in retail and telemarketing that I shall never speak of again. But if you’re really crazy about writing, enough to accept every assignment you can get, find avenues to strengthen your skills and knowledge in the slow times, and pound the pavement after every sane person gives up, you’re pursuing this for the most sincere reasons. Good things come to people with good intentions.

Oh, and cash your checks immediately.


TED BARRON (editor—Boogie Woogie Flu blog; photographer)

My advice to young writers is to be passionate. Writing about sounds is somewhat akin to describing a smell. It’s not easy.

Contextualize your writing. Have a life.

Read books, and not just books about music. Look at art. Watch films.

Avoid hero worshipping. Musicians, however much you may admire their works, are just people. Know them personally, be one, be something.

Don’t be afraid to be uncool, just don’t be ignorant.

Listen to music, lots of music, both old and new, and across multiple genres.

And above all, don’t be boring.


ANGUS BATEY (freelance writer)

If you’re a writer—indeed, as in any other walk of life—you never stop learning. All the advice you’ll find in this PopMatters series will be valid and important, and you’ll become a better writer if you follow as much of it as you’re able to cope with. But the one thing I’ve always felt was the crucial foundation to everything else is perhaps the most obvious—and therefore the most oft-overlooked—of all. And that is that if you want to become a better writer, you have to become a better reader.

You need to read all the time, and your reading needs to be wide-ranging and open-minded. Yes, you need to read in order to increase your knowledge of the subjects you’re writing about, and to discover what others have been saying about them; but reading to gain information is only a small part of it.

Reading great writing is the best way of discovering what great writing is made of. Reading books that tell you how to write will take you a long way down the road, but you need to read great writers, understand how they write so well, and come to some conclusions about what you yourself feel is great writing in the process. You can discover technical tips, learn tricks of the trade, and even use others’ work to cheat a little—seeing how someone before you has got around a structural or narrative-flow problem might give you the tools you need to accomplish the same in your own work.

But it’s also just as important to read bad writing. You can often learn just as much from seeing how not to do it as you can from studying how it should be done. Just as you need to make your own mind up about what constitutes good writing, you also need to decide what bad writing looks, sounds, and smells like—and once you know that, you can better avoid producing bad writing yourself.

Read fiction, even if you don’t write it: I learned more indelible lessons about planning a narrative structure from the introduction to Slaughterhouse Five than in any number of journalism- or feature-writing text books. Read about subjects you don’t have any interest in: it might be easier to concentrate on the style and technique the writer is employing if you’re not going to get distracted by the content. Read to learn, in the broadest sense; read because you need to find out, on every level; and absolutely make sure you read at least three editions of a publication from cover to cover before you pitch an idea, make contact with an editor, or start writing a story for them, because otherwise you won’t have a clue if what you’re doing is going to be usable. But above all, just read.

One more point, which is quite important—your own sense of style and individuality will only come when you know what you think is good and what you think is bad in terms of writing.


J. BENNETT (contributor—Decibel, Revolver, Alternative Press)

I’m not really sure I’m in a position to give advice to anyone about anything, but because you asked so politely, I’ll say this: If you’d like to be rich someday, stop freelancing before you even finish this sentence and hurl yourself at the mercy of the first drunken one-eyed slave-driver you can find in this booming economy of ours. If you’re really lucky, you’ll land at some alt-weekly where you can have the pleasure of quitting work two hours a day so you can talk about working with people who don’t know how to get their jobs done. If you’re unlucky… well, I’ll have mine with no onions. Or as we say in Los Angeles, No cebollas, por favor. The punch line is that you’ll still be making more money than me.

But if you absolutely insist on being a hard-headed bastard and competing with me for the handful of paying freelance gigs still available to people who write about music (and who demand to be called “journalists”), my advice would be to unlearn everything you learned in journalism school. Except maybe that stuff about commas and semicolons and whatnot. I didn’t go to journalism school, and I remain convinced it’s the only reason I can get a job in this godforsaken racket. Last but not least, write every day. Even when you don’t have to. Until you hate it. Until it becomes a job. When you really, really hate it, you might discover it’s become your job. And then—again, if you’re lucky—you just might learn to love it again. Or at least to sort of enjoy it somewhat when the money is right.

We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media

Call for Music Writers... Hip-Hop, Soul, Electronic, Rock, Indie, Americana, Jazz, World and More

// Announcements

"PopMatters is looking for smart music writers. We're looking for talented writers with deep genre knowledge of music and its present and…

READ the article