Aspiring music journalists: think ‘criticism’, beware adjectives

In the past few months, as I have been engaged in far more editing of other music journalists, than I have been in my own journalism (something which a big part of me rues slightly), I’ve realised just how poorly skilled are most of those who aspire to the task. This is a brief blog just to get it out of my head, but it will be merged into the music journalism course’s later instalments. Think of it as a sneak preview.

Some people think that ‘criticism’ = ‘negative’

Before I address this issue, let me just say: if you don’t think of ‘reviewing CDs’ as a form of critique, then in my opinion you oughtn’t to be reviewing CDs in the first place. Too harsh? As an editor I’m a lovely person, but in my own writings on this topic, it’s back to reality for everybody. I’m terribly sorry if it’s a rude shock.

Anything that you ‘review’ is something that you ‘critique’. Critique sounds very academic, and very high-brow. Done right it is, regardless of what sort of critique you engage in: music critique (from metal to pop), book critique, theatre, film, whatever. Some people shy away from the notion of ‘reviewing’ as ‘critique’ because, for some, it presupposes a more informed point of view; for some, it presupposes less enjoyment; for some, it removes their notion of just sitting down, having a listen to something they really enjoy and then writing about why they enjoyed it.

Heads-up: if you are reviewing something purely for the joy of it, you won’t last long. If you write just about what is good, you’ll will last even less time in the field. You need to be able to be critical: which brings me to my next point.

Some people believe that ‘criticism’ = ‘negative’, when in fact ‘criticism’ is the active form of ‘critique’. If you are going to critique something, you are engaging in a critical process. Those who believe that ‘criticism’ = ‘negative’ have only (usually) encountered one use of that word, and that use is in common parlance (as in, ‘stop criticising me!’), not the form of engagement and writing that is commonly known as ‘reviewing’.

Without a notion of metal music journalism as critique, you won’t ever get a balanced review. All you will hear about is what is great, what is awesome, what is top-notch, what is brilliant. Well, I hate to break your bubble: but that isn’t reality. It is extremely rare to get an album about which you can not talk about what could be improved. If you write a string of reviews, and all of them talk about how great the albums are, you fall enormously in my estimation. Why? Because you’re clearly either unable to think or write critically, or you are such a fan that everything is awesome no matter what. In any case, you don’t deserve the job of reviewer. End of story.

Jumbling a string of adjectives together does not a review make

You may be wondering what I mean by the statement provided above. What I mean is that making up strings of adjectives and adverbs to provide the body of your review, and by which to explain an album’s greatness or otherwise, is meaningless. Why? Because it tells me absolutely nothing of value.

The worst thing is that such reviews are rarely written in full sentences. They don’t provide the reader with a comfortable, or easy, reading experience in the basic (lack-of-full-sentence) construction; and nor does jumping over six adjectives and adverbs in a row make for a relaxing read.

I’m going to do something perhaps slightly unethical here to illustrate my point. Here is an excerpt from a review by one person I work with:

a wild ’80s lick, sped to fuck, twisted- into-the-contrasting-thrash onslaught

What does ‘sped to fuck’ actually mean? Fucking fast, maybe. What does ‘twisted-into-the-contrasting-thrash onslaught’ mean? Nothing. What is twisted into the thrash? And why is the thrash a contrast? Here’s another example:

opens like a cigarette to the skin and burns til the stub

With this one I’m going to be really pedantic and say that ‘a cigarette to the skin’ doesn’t open: it doesn’t open the cigarette and it sure as hell doesn’t open the skin. It burns. That’s all. It doesn’t open and then burn; it burns the whole time.

Of course you could argue that both of these examples have meaning in a particular way; the first gives you a vague idea that the music is metal in a wild 80s, thrashy way. But it doesn’t tell you what is twisted into the thrash, or what the thrash contrasts with. ‘Onslaught’ tells you that it’s fairly full-on – and it’s a word I only ever reserve for killer releases because of its implications. However, the second statement is absolutely meaningless in every sense, apart from the notion of intensity. But it doesn’t tell you anything about the music that explains why it is intense, nor why it is burningly intense.

I know that certain printed metal mags have pioneered this style of writing, but it doesn’t cut the mustard with me. What I want from my writers (and I do make it my mission to educate them and develop them along these lines) is a keen ear, a good eye, a sense of logic and rationality, and the ability to hear what works and what doesn’t. Above all, I want writers with the ability to explain why. Giving me nonsense sentences just isn’t going to work – and they always hear about it, along with suggestions on how to remedy the situation.

What is the real problem with such writing?

The reason why both issues outlined above are critical issues is simple: these problems stop a writer from developing. Without a sense of what reads well, one can never write well. It also places concrete-like boundaries on your ability to express the ways in which an album works, from an informed perspective. One could argue that lots of adjectives demonstrates a broad vocabulary; I would argue that a broad vocabulary is absolutely useless to you if you have no idea of how to use it. Adjectives, in whatever style or form of writing you produce, do not illustrate an ability to make use of a language. In many cases, all it illustrates is an ability to use a thesaurus.

Without a sense of critique, one can never provide an insightful review. Without the ability to see both of these elements, one will never be able to develop into a writer of touching prose, and will only ever reach a low standard of production. Knowing the elements of good critique enables you to recognise many more things: the production, the mix, the artwork, the entire package, how a band has emerged from its roots (or gone back to them), and so on and so forth.

Once you are past this affliction, however, the world is your oyster. You will have the literary flexibility to reach much greater heights: a vocabulary that you can use with ease, to achieve your desired effects easily (without stringing meaningless phrases together), and many more elements of critique to draw on in order to achieve true insight.

How do I deal with such writers?

You may be wondering, if I get so het up about these types of issues, how I deal with such writers and help them past this awful affliction? Well, really, there’s only one way: bluntness, tempered with diplomacy, and a lot of explanation. In practise, I have a way of writing to my contributors that keeps the family love going on; an empire is only built on the strength of its people, after all.

In my experience, this method tends to help a writer over his or her hurdle, and enables him or her to develop because it provides the flexible, explanatory environment in which questions can be asked, ideas bounced, and new ideas created. Also in my experience, such writers are so keen to please that any form of directness causes them to get sad, or lose heart, or whatever: that’s where your diplomacy skills are essential – you need to be able to walk your writers through this (potentially volatile) territory, and come out good friends at the end. While I understand the ‘let’s all take it personally’ reaction among writers (having been an edited writer myself, and been at the harsh end of the stick no less), my internal, very personal response to it – which my writers never hear – is harden the fuck up. You write for a professional publication: expect to get treated like a professional writer.

However, writers who are keen to please also find their way around the hurdles much quicker than those who are arrogant about themselves, or who resist the notion of assistance. In that instance – for example, if I have to work with a writer three times on the same issue – I give up and I look elsewhere for another writer. My standard rule is ‘three times is enough’, especially when I have a lot to do, a huge list of releases to get through, a large team, and I have spent significant hours (usually into the early hours of the morning, via email) speaking with contributors about the hows, whys and wherefores.

Happily, my method seems to work. It appears rather crude and unforgiving, written out like this. But sometimes people need to know what goes on, what an editor of a music zine is thinking, and how that editor works (and why).

If you’re an aspiring music journalist, drop me a comment and let me know what you think.

9 thoughts on “Aspiring music journalists: think ‘criticism’, beware adjectives

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  2. I really enjoyed this article, I am currently doing some volunteer album reviews for a local band promoter and I although I have a great love of music, I am not much of a writer, but I want to help out and enjoy it and have fun with it and you gave me alot of pointers.

  3. LOLZ – yeah, I guess! haha

    You know, the biggest problem is not necessarily the creative writers (although their lines are often creative), but those who are “so brooodal” or “soooo metal” and want to prove it. Usually, what they want to emulate is another zine’s style, regardless of how clear it is.

    I find that the ones so keen to prove their metal-worthiness are more into the image of it, than they are of doing a good job. I think that’s the main difference.

    Anyway, my ‘tsk tsk emails’ aren’t that scary. As you’ve said yourself, I’m really just a fluffy marshmallow haha

  4. So is it a good sign that I haven’t had any tsk tsk emails from you (yet)???

    I think that because I don’t consider myself much of a creative writer I’m too scared to do anything that might be construed as “trying too hard”. I’ve done so much technical writing that HAS to be absolutely clear that I’ve picked up a really batshit boring writing style from that, I reckon.

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