Chuck Eddy’s Advice to Writers

Thanks to the magic of spam filters, there was one entry missing in my writer’s survey that definitely needed to be there. Here’s some practical thoughts from one of the best editors that I’ve ever worked with.

CHUCK EDDY (Author – Stairway to Hell: The 500 Best Heavy Metal Albums in the Universe and The Accidental Evolution of Rock’n’Roll; former music editor – Village Voice; former senior editor – Billboard; contributor – lots and lots of other places.)

These are just suggestions. Some of them, I probably don’t even follow myself.

* Music is kind of crummy these days. But that said, hundreds of good new releases worth writing about (albums, singles, reissues, mixes, whatever) come out every year anyway, and no matter how hard you try you will never hear most of them. Most of them won’t get written about anywhere, either. In fact, some entire genres will barely get written about anywhere. But someday, they will, and that’s where you come in. Figure out what those genres are, and become an expert. Become the go-to person, even. Think about it: If you’re pitching the same music everybody else is pitching, you have a whole lot of competition. But if you’re the only person pitching important music that nobody else knows anything about, not so much. And as history marches on, some genres will obviously increasingly need people who can write intelligently about them. (Fine, two words: Regional Mexican. Two more words: Christian rock. Okay, now you owe me.)

* Along the same lines: There is a lot of extremely popular music that you think is horrible, and that I agree is horrible, and so does everybody else who writes about music. Most of it, we’re probably right about. But if four-and-a-half decades of music criticism are any indication, we are all wrong about some of it. In other words, there is music that will be taken seriously, as innovative and influential, 25 years from now that everybody scoffs at now. I guarantee it. It has never not happened. Figure out what that music is, and figure out what makes it interesting, and figure out a place to make a stand for it.

* If you have a car, or even if you don’t, listen to the radio. In fact, sometimes even listen to stations you don’t think you’ll like. Let the music hit you by accident, and surprise you, and challenge your prejudices. Blogs and social networking sites are wonderful places to learn about music that’s already specifically marketed to your social class and cultural niche. But to find out about music outside your comfort zone, radio still wins.

* Buy a good, cheap, used turntable. Become a regular at stores with dollar bins. Go to garage sales and flea markets. Take chances on whatever LPs look intriguing, but never spend more money than you have to. Again, the idea is to stumble across music that you wouldn’t necessarily seek out on your own – Stuff other people have discarded is always a good start. The more you hear, the more you might be able to formulate a distinctive aesthetic. There is still no more fun way to bone up on music from before you were paying attention. If that doesn’t sound fun to you, maybe consider a different vocation.

* I used to get several writers pitching me every week at the Voice. I always got back to them quickly, and always told them I needed to see examples of their writing, preferably as published. Then, if they didn’t send ideas, I sent them back to the drawing board. I never understood writers who figured an editor would just happen on their byline somewhere and they’d be called out of the blue, but then again I don’t understand people who buy lottery tickets, either. I already had scores of writers to choose from; the idea that I’d go hunting for new ones who hadn’t even contacted me is, well, really wishful thinking. (Well okay, occasionally I did. Once in a while, I’d see somebody’s writing somewhere else and be impressed enough to track them down, or I’d really be in a pinch for some obscure genre specialist and I’d go out hunting –- even more so at Billboard, where I’d need a specialist in some area of the biz. Most likely, that expert’s not you.) So anyway, if I still had those jobs, here’s what I’d say: (1) Send me clips first; then (2) send me specific pitch ideas, in an email convincing me that your topic is worth covering. None of that “if you ever need somebody to write about something, I’m out here” bullshit.

* Have the courage of your convictions. Which is to say, start out realizing that all opinions about music are purely subjective, but then write like they aren’t. And for God’s sake, when you listen to a record you’re reviewing, don’t judge it against some stupid arbitrary checklist. Just let it grab you, or not. Figure out what you like about it, and what you think is compelling or amusing about it, and what you don’t – Worry more about what the music does than what you suspect the artist is trying to do. Let existence precede essence, instead of the other way around. And then type that essence up — realizing, though, that your description of the music matters more than your opinion. And don’t worry too much about whether you’ll change your mind later. But maybe worry a little.

* Develop a personal, unmistakable, indispensable voice. But make that voice flexible, so you can adapt it to different publications. And for each publication you write for, figure out how much of your voice you can get away with, and use exactly that much. But come to think of it, before you develop your voice, learn to write in a place where a voice isn’t allowed. Covering high school sports and sewage commissions for a suburban weekly in Michigan worked well for me, but I’m sure there are several other options available.

* First person is a tool, like any other tool. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You don’t have to be famous writer for it to come in handy – for it to help put the music into context. I can often relate to, and be moved by, songs sung in the first person, even if I’m unaware of the singer’s specific biography; I have no idea why reviews should work differently. On the other hand, I admire the creativity with which certain daily newspaper critics manage to get around the limitations against first person and swear words. A smart writer can work within those perimeters, too, and make it entertaining regardless. I’ve done newspaper reporting – and edited at Billboard – where first person wouldn’t make any sense. But as an editor at the Voice, I was frequently known to edit sentences from pitch emails back into submitted reviews in part because the emails did use the first person, and sounded less stiff and stilted and more conversational in the process. I.e., sometimes it helps make for better writing just because that’s how people talk. So I’ve never bought the dumb claim that “writing for a paycheck” requires “detaching yourself from the subject.” On the other hand, when space on the page is at a premium — which it was even when wordcounts could get away with being ten times higher than now — wasted words are wasted words, “I” included. (Though at least “I” is a fairly short word.)

* On the other hand, the editorial “we” — first person plural – is the province of savages and barbarians. It is meaningless. Don’t use it. If an editor tries to put it in, put up a fight.

* Finish your work early. I’ve never comprehended the wait-until-the-last-minute thing. That would drive me into the crazy house, to work that way. (And as an editor, writers working that way drove me even more nuts, usually because they tended to go way past the last minute. So actually, that’s the reason editors work up fake deadlines, without telling writers they’re fake.) As a writer, here’s what I do: Give or take certain haiku-length mini-reviews, or if I have very very very tight deadline (which I usually find ways to avoid), or if the writing is just some boring obligation that I don’t really care about one way or the other and just want to get off my plate (yes, those happen sometimes, if you’re freelancing for a living), I almost never file copy the day I finish it. I generally prefer to sleep on it overnight — or, for longer pieces, maybe over a weekend — before making final tweaks/overhauls/massages to it and sending it in (which tends to be the first thing I concentrate on the next morning, before moving on to other work). As an editor, though, I saw certain writers even more neurotic than myself worry and overthink pieces into oblivion and missed deadlines. And odds are very good that I crossed them off my list.

* You’ll probably be shit out of luck as far as this goes, but you should be aware that, for years (in pre-Entertainment Weekly days, so through the end of the ’80s at least) running reviews of albums weeks after their release was more common than not — especially if, say, the album was ignored on release and now had a couple hit singles. Some albums have to be lived with a while to sink in. Nobody thought twice about doing it then, because it was the sane way to do things. But at some point, editors (or their bosses) started worrying about being “scooped” if everybody else reviewed an album first, and now nobody wants to go against the grain, especially since lots of editors haven’t been around long enough to remember when it was any other way. (As if reviewing an album first has anything to do with scooping; as if reviews are “news.”) Mostly the change had to do with national publications kissing asses of record labels, who thrive on publicity geared to release dates. Local papers “pegging” reviews to live shows to appease clubs and promoters? Same thing. Nothing wrong with doing it sometimes. But making a practice of it isn’t criticism, or journalism; it’s advertising. That said, you will probably have no choice but to live with it anyway – So before you pitch something, know release dates and show dates. Or better yet, do what I do, and keep a file of them on your laptop.

* Which is to say: There’s the way things should be, and the way the way things are. If you want this to be a full-time gig (fat chance), selling your soul and self-contempt are part of the job. That said, it still beats working for a living. And words are still fun.