What's the Write Word? Part 4

Ned Raggett to Bill Wyman

by Jason Gross

7 June 2010


Tim Riley to Amy Schroeder

TIM RILEY (writer—Slate, Washington Post, NPR; author of books on the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Madonna, and rock gender ideals; teacher—journalism at Emerson College)

This whole business of “giving advice” to “young writers” smacks of old-school authoritarianism and I won’t participate in that scam without some kind of “honorary degree.” Music writing’s a great racket—jump in, the water’s warm! ID’ing yourself as a “writer” reminds me of how Ringo Starr spoke about his son Zak taking up the drums. “It chooses you,” he said, proud father. That’s the best logic I can give for dumping a surefire career as an academic piano teacher and plunging into the glamorous world of non-stop typing.

My advice is: make sure and screw up big on your first few assignments—that will humble you into doing better next time and not being such a jerk to your editor. Then cling onto your weaknesses tight, they’ll define you even after you outgrow them, and come back to haunt you just as your first BIG BOOK gets reviewed. Read more than you ever can hope to absorb, then start re-reading. Type out your favorite essays on your own damn keyboard to force the kinetic rhythms of Lester Bangs, Robert Warshaw and Ellen Willis up into your fingers and out your nose. Read all the music critics from today and all of history up to now, especially G.B. Shaw (he RAWKS). Read everything. Rewrite everything. Follow your favorite bylines down every rabbit hole and back. Your digital fingers should stink of metaphorical ink.

Finally, comb Amazon’s music category for all the new releases, and read everything about culture in general, graduate to politics, history, philosophy (some of those blokes can THINK), and take time out to read. Be a snob, but secretly dress up all your favorite sports writer’s bon mots in “rock slang.” Eschew jargon, fashion, and the verb “to be.” Rehearse story ideas at random intervals to your CD racks so when your editor queries you about something, you can spit back five cover articles before you get accused of sloppy reporting.

Tie a string to your pinky to remind you to hound that clerk every Thursday at 4 to yammer about your check. Just start doing it whether you’ve turned anything or not, they’re shameless. But first, take all calls from PR flacks graciously, with great wit and generosity towards your fellow journalists, and tell them that product they sent/tweeted/uploaded for you is “next in your pile.” Write like your heroes in disguise. And don’t forget your fucking humanity.


IRA ROBBINS (editor/publisher/founder—Trouser Press)

As important as learning the mechanics of clear, entertaining, grammatical expression, a critic (if that is what one intends to be) needs to develop aesthetic standards, a consistent yardstick that guides the evaluation of art. Think about what moves you and then figure out why. Make connections, put art in context. You will discern contradictions in your emotional reactions, and you must figure out how to reconcile them. Figure out what elements of music you value the most—lyrics, melody, beat, sound, attitude, etc.—and then measure your reactions against that. Make adjustments. Think hard, question and doubt, but in the end, you must find something in yourself to believe. Then be confident in your values—they are the source of your art. Don’t review or be swayed by audience reaction, sales figures, or popular wisdom. In the consideration of creative effort, it is entirely possible to be a minority of one and still be right.


ALEX ROSS (music critic—The New Yorker; author—The Rest Is Noise, Listen to This)

Some quick pieces of advice:

1) Be a journalist—research your subject and offer fresh material. Check everything twice.

2) Find a particular niche and cover it more thoroughly than anyone else.

3) Write in quantity. Whether you’re based on a blog or at a small-circulation publication, you’ll learn best by establishing a track record and evaluating your work as you go.

4) Find an editor, or at least a writer friend who’s not afraid to be critical. He or she will pinpoint your bad tics and needless repetitions.

5) Revise and revise again.

6) Be obsessive and be lucky.


GREG SANDOW (critic, composer, consultant, specialist in the future of classical music)

1. Read. Novels, poetry, philosophy, biographies, classics, journalism, plays, history, comics, screenplays, noir thrillers, science fiction, criticism. Everything. Song lyrics. Tweets. See how writing works. Make your own judgments. Read things you never would have thought of reading. Read things you think you’ll hate. Read!

2. Write what you think. Write your own perceptions, your own ideas. Respect what other people think, but don’t assume you should agree. If you see many other critics writing in a certain way, don’t write like that. Be guided by your own thoughts. Be true to yourself.

3. Find the words that say exactly what you mean. Don’t go halfway. Don’t write generalities. Don’t write things you know are only partly true. Find the words that say exactly what you think (this might take a while—be prepared to take whatever time you need).

4. It’s more important to describe something truthfully than to tell the world how much you love or hate it. If you describe exactly what you see (and hear, and feel), your opinion will come shining through your words.


JON SAVAGE (author—England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock and Teenage: The Creation of Youth 1875-1945; started writing for first magazine, the British weekly Sounds, in 1977)

You have to want to do it. For whatever reason. Otherwise you wouldn’t put up with lousy rates of pay, corporate bullying, etc. The reason that you will want to do it is probably because there isn’t a reason, just an overwhelming impulse. Music is a great form of communication and if you’ve heard the piper, you will follow him and her despite any privations. Always have a sense of your own worth and a keen nose for bullshit. Try to match the excitement of what you’re hearing somehow in your prose. Warning: if you’re thinking that this is a lifestyle option and that it’s a glamorous life, think again.


PATRICK SCHABE (music reviews editor—PopMatters)

Remember that the best music writers are just plain good writers.  Having a passion for music is vitally important—because you’re translating a sensory experience into words, only that passion can make writing about music truly compelling—but it’s not enough to be enthusiastic.  Good music writers understand that successful writing is as much about craft, style, and even basic mechanics as it is about sharing the glory of the latest band you’ve fallen in love with.  Nothing about a pitch or writing sample irks more than sloppy copy.  Take some care with your work.

Good music writing must be well written, interesting, insightful, and keep a constant eye on engaging the reader.  It doesn’t matter who you think your audience is, so long as you focus on the fact that you aren’t writing to reify your own opinions, you’re writing to be read, and possibly even sway an opinion or two.  Because in the end it’s not about what you think of the music, it’s what you can make the reader think about.


AMY SCHROEDER (founder—Venus Zine)

Do your research. Journalists are overly curious and want to know everything there is to know about everything. Apply your thirst for knowledge to all aspects of the journalistic experience—from researching your dream writing gig to pitching relevant and timely stories to preparing for interviews. Come interview time, make sure you’re not asking your subjects the same questions they’ve already answered 29 times. Your subjects will appreciate your creativity—engage and stimulate them.

Listen, really listen, and observe. You’re already armed with informed questions, but don’t feel like you’re on the offense or that you’re putting on a show. The art of interviewing is just as much about asking good questions as being a good listener. Sometimes, the best questions aren’t the ones you thought you were going to ask. They’re usually the ones that come to you, in the moment, after observing your subjects in their environment, picking up on their mood, meeting the people in their lives and seeing the world through their eyes.

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