What's the Write Word? Part 2

Kris Ex to Chuck Klosterman

by Jason Gross

24 May 2010


Robert Hull to Chuck Klosterman

ROBERT HULL (writer, sharing his musings regularly at POPKRAZY, an online hangout for brain-damaged popcult fanatics)

When I was 18, I was getting published by Creem because Lester Bangs liked the fact that I was so prolific (I had sent him about 50 record reviews, each one single-spaced on a letter-sized page). These days, the best way to appear prolific is to blog yourself to death on your own site.

I honestly don’t know what music journalism is anymore. There is so much content available that to try to break through the mess seems daunting.

Nevertheless, I would attach myself to several blogs/sites, then write in a unique style, be serious but funny (and genuine), and try not to imitate anybody.

[Any young (or old) up-and-coming neer-do-well is welcome to blog at my site called POPKRAZY. Just as Creem and Lester gave me a chance, I’d be honored to do the same. (POPKRAZY is a nonprofit zine/site focused on all aspects of pop culture from the days of yore.)]

But whatever you do, WRITE. Don’t just talk about writing. Let it loose!


MATTY KARAS (writer—VH1, Fuse)

Invest in a good pair of earplugs. Use them. Listen to as much music as possible. Listen to music by people who don’t look like you. Listen to music you don’t understand. Ask questions. Be persistent but don’t be annoying. Return phone calls and emails, in that order. Hit your deadlines. Spell every name and every title correctly. Double-check that spelling. Delete all adverbs. Read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Be honest with yourself. Understand your prejudices. Treat everyone with respect: artists, publicists, managers, administrative assistants, your editor, your readers. There is no such thing as bad music. There is only music that you don’t like. Somebody else likes it, though. Treat that person with respect, too. Check your spelling again.


JEFF JACKSON & JEFF GOLICK (writers—destination: OUT)

In the immortal words of Werner Heisenberg:

  • Be authentic in your passions (the only authenticity to worry about).
  • Don’t always listen to music in the same way; seek different contexts to see what might open it up (or shut it down) shuffle it, repeat it, drive with it, walk with it, commute with it, eat along with it.
  • Try to be understood, but don’t expect it.
  • Consider the fact that you might be mistaken about something.

JOHN KELMAN (managing editor—Allaboutjazz.com)

Your credibility is everything. Probably the most important—and humbling—lesson writers learn (from painful experience) is that readers don’t give a rat’s behind about them. They want to know about the music, so always keep that your primary focus. And while it’s one thing to provide a balanced critique, one that weighs the good with the bad, it’s another to simply score points off the artist; that speaks little about the music and everything about the writer.

Try to avoid blow-by-blow descriptions of the music, and instead aim for a bigger picture, where greater detail is used to support that larger view. Contextualize the music and the artist; your audience will be a mixture of readers intimately familiar with the artist and those for whom this will be a first encounter.

Last, avoid telling readers what they will experience when they hear the music; you can only speak to what you hear. It’s a drop-dead certainty that if you assume everyone will hear what you do, there will be folks out there who absolutely will not. Not only will your credibility be lost with the current review, but trust in your opinions in the future will also be compromised. It’s all about building an audience, one reader at a time.



1.) Listen to other writers’ advice, but don’t unconditionally accept what they tell you. People tend to retrospectively view their own personal experience as normative, particularly if they’ve had any degree of success. If someone says, “You must do _____, you always need to _______,” they’re merely telling you what they did (while ignoring the fact that every other writer they’ve ever met has inevitably done things differently).

2.) When writing a feature or a profile, don’t get paralyzed by what you assume the story should be about. Don’t immediately decide, “This is my thesis, and whatever I learn is just going to have to support it.” Be flexible. Immediately after you finish an interview, imagine the conversation that would happen if you randomly ran into your smartest, funniest friend on the sidewalk—if he or she casually asked you how the interview went, what would you tell them? That answer is probably the most interesting thing about whomever you’re writing about.

3.) Clarity is extremely important, unless you honestly don’t care how people interpret your ideas.

4.) It’s impossible to anticipate what audiences want or what audiences will like. Don’t even pretend to try. It will only make things worse.

5.) In essay writing, people will instruct you to never use qualifiers like “to a certain degree” or “almost” or “arguably.” They will say this erodes your authoritative voice. But sometimes ideas need to be qualified. Accurately reflecting how you feel is more important than expressing an authoritative view that isn’t genuine. People can see right through that.

6.) In journalistic ventures, it’s always tempting to interview your primary subject first and the secondary subjects later. It seems logical. However, it generally works better if you do it the other way around.

7.) If an interview subject isn’t responding to your questions, ask them specific queries about their craft (i.e., “How did you tune your guitar to get that specific sound?,” “What is the initial step when writing a pop song?,” etc.). Every artist enjoys explaining the technical minutia of what they do, because those details are usually overlooked. If that still doesn’t work, directly ask them. “Why are you refusing to answer my questions?” You have nothing to lose by doing this.

8.) Be hyper-aware of your own pre-existing biases. If you’re inclined to be a left-leaning person, don’t assume every album you love must be politically progressive and every album you hate is therefore reactionary. If you’re prone to conservatism, don’t create an adversarial relationship with everything that’s different and don’t immediately gravitate toward sounds that feel familiar and comfortable. Aggressively question your own feelings. Anytime you feel like you’ve come to a critical conclusion, ask yourself, “But why do I really feel this way?” Continue asking yourself that question until there’s nothing left to ask.

9.) There are exceptions to everything, but it’s generally a bad idea to a) respond to those who criticize your writing, and/or b) take any compliment about your work seriously.

10.) In 30 years, unless you’re a genius (and probably not even then), no one is going to care about the quality of your work, and no one will accurately remember anything you published… except you. You will care, and you will remember. So if you can’t satisfy yourself, you ultimately can’t satisfy anyone. That said, nobody believes their own writing is brilliant; only crazy people think like that. So if you’re insecure about your work and you lack confidence in your ability, it might just mean you’re reasonable and talented.

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