No matter what industry you’re in, you probably spend some time writing. It could be blog posts, technical papers, or even emails. All require a certain skill level that can be achieved with practice and improvement. As a blogger and content creator, writing plays a significant role in my career.
Writing can be a challenging and time consuming skill to learn. Luckily, this week we have a very prominent music writer share some tips on improving your writing skills! Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland, Ohio-based freelance writer, editor, journalist and marketing consultant/strategist. Annie has been writing professionally for over a decade, her work appearing in both print and online publications such as Rolling Stone, Billboard, Los Angeles Times, Cleveland.com, Vulture and The A.V Club. She’s worked as the music editor at the Riverfront Times in St. Louis as well as the managing editor of Alternative Press.
Do you have any pre-writing rituals or exercises?
“That’s a good question. So I think it depends on the type of writing. If I’m writing a critical essay, for example: Kesha’s new record. To prepare for that obviously I’m listening to the record, but I was also reading some articles to prep just to get context because she’s had so much going on in her personal life – the court battles. I might listen to some of her other music. But a lot of it sometimes for me, pre-writing, is just thinking about it. I know that seems really counter-intuitive, but if I know that I have something coming, I’ll maybe be in bed or eating dinner and be thinking in the background ‘what might my angle be?’ So it’s not even necessarily sitting down at a computer and writing. It’s more just thinking about what I want to do, and that, I think, as a writer helps you be more deliberate as you’re sitting down because you might have some sort of idea where you might want to go. As a writer, for me, I can’t do longhand anymore. I used to write things out, but for me I have to be at a computer typing, which I know some people can’t do that. They need to write things out and then transfer it. But for me, if I’m at a computer and I’m starting to write, that also helps me get my juices flowing, because I’m putting down ideas, or I’ll see a word or it’ll spark something. It’s weird because it’s really sort of intuitive, it’s very instinctual. It’s just kind of getting warmed up in a sense. […]”
And I think [being on a schedule] helps, too. Because if you know that on a certain day I’m going to write something. For me, I’m a full-time writer, I have to think about how I’m portioning my time…So, as I’m thinking about what I’m going to write, so that my mind doesn’t get completely chaotic, I try to think a little bit in order. So I’m not totally brain multitasking.”
After over a decade of writing, how do continue to improve?
“There are many different places for improvement. First off, I cannot overestimate the importance of a good editor. Different publications have different levels of editing. Some people don’t necessarily have a lot of resources, so they don’t do a lot of editing. Other places will go through and they’ll look at what I’ve said and they’ll rewrite things or kind of refine some ideas or they might send a piece back and say ‘hey, can you add this or can you fix this?’ So, just learning from other people, is so valuable. I’m a big believer that editors are very important. That’s not just because I used to work as an editor or still work as an editor…I just think that no matter how long you’ve been writing or how long or how much you’ve written, you can always learn, you can always improve, you can always get better. There’s never a point when you’re like ‘I’m the best writer, I’m done.’ There’s never that point. So, that’s one thing.
A lot of it, too, is reading other people. I like reading other people’s criticism or stories or reporting just to see what other people are doing or just to kind of absorb that type of work to find out what other people are doing. And it’s not necessarily that I’m like ‘all right, I’m reviewing this record and I’m going to read other reviews of this record.’ I actually, if I’m reviewing a record, I don’t read other reviews because I don’t want it to influence my thinking. But in general, I’m reading stories and just to get a sense of different styles and it just helps you to be reading, as well. I was a big reader growing up and I still like reading books when I have time, but I think that also helps you develop as a writer because you get
different words in your head and it’s just inspiring to read other people’s work.
And, honestly, reading over your own work, too. Before I turn in a piece, I’m always editing my own work. I’m not just tossing it off and then turning it in to let someone else deal with it. I’m very, very conscious of reading what I’m doing and going over it and making sure it sounds good. So even that helps me improve because I’m more cognizant of ‘Oh, I’m repeating this word or oh, that doesn’t sound right.’ Things like that.”
How do you combat writer’s block (What inspires you?)
“The good and the bad thing is that I don’t have time to have writer’s block because I have a deadline or things need to happen. So, some of it is just pushing through. If I’m having writer’s block, I might take a break and look on Twitter or on Facebook or actually try to read something else because that might help to jog my memory if I’m feeling a bit scattered. Another way is leaving my computer and doing things like swimming or going to the gym or taking a drive or having a snack. Just something where I’m not actually working on the piece and giving my brain a little bit of a rest.
And, just in general for combating writer’s block, just taking a break. So, on Friday nights my husband and I are like ‘all right, we’re having a date.’ We’re going to go out, it’s the end of the week, have dinner, it’s nothing fancy or anything, but we’re just decompressing. That’s kind of like our thing. That also helps, too, because I know that I have something to look forward to at the end of the week…It gives me a little bit of incentive to keep going because writer’s block is hard.
Not beating yourself up over it is also important because if you have an idea you’re working on that’s just not working. Like yesterday, I was working on a piece and I was trying to revise it and trying…Because I had something I wanted to say and it was just not working. I knew what I wanted to say in my head and it was just not translating to paper. So, I went back to something else – another part of the piece – and worked on that instead, and then went back to it and gave it some time because it just wasn’t working. I could’ve sat there for an hour and worked on it and it just wasn’t going to happen. So, working on other things to get your brain in gear also helps, too.
Working on graphics and that visual element is cool too…You use a different part of your brain. And I love doing that stuff, too. It gives your writing brain a break and you can actually be creative in a different way and it helps inform everything else.”
To what extent do you schedule your writing?
“My schedule can be kind of unpredictable sometimes. Sometimes I estimate ‘I know it’s going to take me x amount of hours to do this.’ Other times it might take me longer. So my schedule tends not to be very discreet. I like to say that the assignments expand to fill your time. A lot of times that’s what it seems like. Or you have unexpected things. For example, this week, I filed a piece last week and then I got a note back from my editor like ‘hey, I have some edits, can you work on this?,’ I was like ‘okay, yeah, cool.’ I’ve gotten a couple pieces like that actually. So that was a little bit unexpected. Generally, the bets case scenario is when you file a piece, you’re done, they’re going to edit it. But, sometimes you might have other things to go back on. That’s the thing about writing is that, if you’re in a groove it’ll take you a little bit of time, but if you’re not, it could take you three times as long. And then you’re like ‘why did that take me so long?’ But it happens, and I think not beating yourself up over it or just realizing all right, maybe I should take a nap. Maybe I should go on Instagram and look at cat pictures.”
How has writing changed for you and how do you adapt as the field becomes more digital?
“I hope that I’m a better writer. I read some of the stuff I wrote when I was younger and I cringe. Now, I look back at things I wrote and I’m like ‘I would never say that now.’ I feel like I was trying too hard. So I think in that sense, I’m a little bit more thoughtful in that and I’m definitely a little bit more cognizant of being inclusive, cognizant of trying to add to the conversation, not necessarily either detract from it or just pile on something.
In terms of digital, I’ve been writing for digital entities since 2001. I started really, really early. I used to do reviews for billboard.com and I wrote reviews for amazon.com – they used to have editorial reviews. It’s funny, I wrote a review of Avril Lavigne’s first record and I think it’s still up there, which is hilarious. So I feel like I really adapted well to digital just because I’d been doing that. In high school, I had an online blog, I made my own website, and so I jumped on pretty early on digital writing.
I think the biggest difference, in terms of news or reporting, is that you don’t necessarily have to have the whole story up. Something happens, you say ‘I’m reporting on what happened, we’ve reached out for a comment.’ You don’t necessarily have to put something out there that has everyone’s comments involved. You put it out there, and then you wait for somebody to comment. And I think that’s a big difference from the way people used to report and the way stories used to be out there. In the past, with a newspaper story, you would never put it out there without getting the other side.
And with digital reporting, that stuff lives forever, too. And while it’s easier when you make a mistake to get that updated, it’s one of those things where once it’s out online, it’s there forever. Unless the website goes down. I had a place I wrote for for several years and I noticed earlier this year that it’s pretty much down. So I went back and tried to salvage some of my stuff. Knowing that something like that can actually happen is important because you want to archive things. Backing up your work is so important.”
What is the best piece of advice about writing that you’ve ever received?
“One of the pieces of advice that my editor at Alt Weekly in St. Louis gave me was…he really taught me to think about why you’re doing a piece. The idea is just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. He kind of got me to think about ‘what would you achieve by doing this? What is your point in doing this?’ And that’s stuck with me all these years. And I think it applies to so many different things. If you’re thinking about snarking on a story you read on Twitter: How are your words going to be interpreted? Who might see this? Would this hurt someone? If your Tweet was embedded somewhere, would you be okay with that? So that’s really taught me to be really careful about that. And I’m not necessarily perfect. It’s really just taught me when I’m looking at stories to be respectful of other people. Because when you’re writing something, this has a real effect on other people. So that’s really stuck with me. I felt that was really wonderful advice.
Definitely looking over your work and fact checking. I don’t know if anyone’s ever given me that advice, but that’s what I tell people. Look over your work, check some facts. The five seconds it’ll take you to Google will make all the difference. You don’t want to necessarily have a dumb error in your piece because it may or may not get caught. Do what you can to make your work the best.
Now, people always dig up tweets from five, six years ago. Think about down the line: do you want that version of yourself to be able to be found? So just be really careful about that. Thinking about if you’re mad or you’re angry or you’re annoyed, ask someone. Or even just don’t do it. Sit on it. Because you never know who could read it and the repercussions.
I make it a rule: don’t complain about your editors or your bosses online. A. You could absolutely get fired. B. People talk and you don’t want to get a reputation as someone who’s a whiner or complainer. Don’t tweet about it, don’t subtweet about it, just don’t do it. It blows my mind how much of that I see. I think that applies to writing, too. Think before you write. Be deliberate about what you say. Really think carefully about what you want to say and how you want to say it.”
What’s the best piece of advice you can give to writers working on their craft?
“My advice is: just write. And I know that seems really, okay, duh. But a lot of people need permission to write. Or they need someone to give them a go-ahead. Everyone is allowed to write. So, set up a tumblr. Set up a wordpress. Just write. If you don’t want to put it out in public, have a Google doc, or Microsoft Word. You get better by doing it every day. Try to write as much as you can and try to write what you’re passionate about. Don’t necessarily feel like: all right, I have to write about this today. Whatever you’re feeling inspired by, write about that. And don’t be intimidated. Just bite the bullet, swallow your fears, and just do it. You never know what might happen. The worst someone can say is no. And especially in journalism, a no is…you never know why. Sometimes an idea might not be right because the publication is covering it. Or sometimes they might’ve covered it recently.
Sometimes, they might have a staffer working on it. You never know. But don’t get discouraged. Keep trying, keep improving.
Also, ask people. Offer to buy people coffee and say ‘hey, I want to talk to you about what you do.’ Talk to other people about what they do, what works for them. Talk about what you’re passionate about, too. Kind of foster that as well. Writing is so wonderful and different people work in different ways. Some people need a prompt. But other people just free-write. Find out what writing works for you. Me personally, I can’t write fiction. I try to write fiction and my dialogue sounds terrible. Right now, that’s not my thing. Doesn’t mean in the future I can’t do it, but right now it’s not my thing. So kind of figuring out, too, where your strengths are and what you’re passionate about.”
Have you ever encountered sexism as a female writer in college/the workforce and if so, how did you combat that?
“What’s interesting with the youth factor, is that when I first graduated college, my age was actually an advantage because they were looking for people to cover a lot of The Warped Tour bands. So, I totally knew all of that stuff. And that worked to my advantage because I wrote about it all the time. I think for a lot of younger writers, being tapped into that culture and a lot of the up-and- oming bands is really helpful because there are certain outlets that are actually looking for that.
In terms of sexism, I run into it here and there. And not as much as other people. I feel like because so much of my work is done remotely, I haven’t experienced as much. I haven’t really worked in an office or interacting with people on a daily basis. It’s out there and part of it…I think I just exude a personality of I don’t take shit from people. I’ve thought about this a lot, because I feel very lucky. I hear stories form other people and it’s awful and it’s shitty and I completely understand because I’ve experienced sexism in other areas. But I feel like, just because I kind of put my head down and done my work and done a good job, people respect me.
In general, trying to deal with that stuff, it’s all about not being intimidated and not thinking ‘oh, I’m inferior because of this. Or, oh, I can’t compete with X person.’ Just be like, no, I can hold my own. And having a group of people around you who support you can help with that. Whether it’s a mentor or friends, just knowing that you have someone who has your back is so powerful.”
Who is your favorite writer and why?
“One of the writers I always really admire is Maura Johnston. She’s written for Rolling Stone and Time Magazine – she’s a music critic – but she’s just a really intelligent writer. She writes about music and she has really original ideas and she has really interesting ways of describing things. And every time I read one of her pieces, I think about what she’s writing about in a different way. I think that’s the sign of a successful writer. That it’s like ‘oh, you kind of brought something new to the conversation.’ Just because there’s so much out there, a lot of it is individual stories. I’m consistently finding new writers.
There was a woman yesterday, who wrote a story about the character of Darlene on Roseanne and what it meant. And I didn’t know her before that, I was like ‘wow, that’s really interesting!’. Now, I followed her on Twitter and I want to read more about what she’s doing.
There’s a writer named Taffy Brodesser-Akner and she just wrote the Robert Pattinson profile for GQ and the way she kind of framed it and structured it and just kind of her writing, I was really impressed by it because it was really vibrant and really brought you into the story and I kind of learned about him. It was just a really, really well done piece.
There’s a woman who writes for Yahoo Music named Lindsey Parker and she’s a really great interviewer. She’s really excellent at getting artists to open up and really kind of talk about different things and she does it in a really genuine, smart way. She’s also, like, the reality singing show – American Idol, The Voice – expert. She has an encyclopedic knowledge and it’s so awesome.”
Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re excited about?
“Like I said, I reviewed Kesha’s record, so that’s out now. I’m doing a couple things. I’m doing a seminar on music writing for a journalism organization called Poynter. So I’m doing a webinar with them in a couple weeks. That’ll be fun. I’m just kind of keeping on keeping on. I’m getting assignments, working on things, and always trying to find new and different things to work on. Basically, if you look at my Twitter, that’s what I’m working on.”
Special thanks to Annie Zaleski for giving some exceptional tips on writing! Who else feels inspired? Comment your favorite writing ritual or exercise below!