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 Scott Creney

How to edit music criticism

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By Scott Creney*

 *Everett’s note: The article which this blog entry refers to was an early submission from one of Collapse Board’s new writers. Acting in his role as a CB sub-editor, Scott cc-ed both me and the writer with these suggestions, notes and amendments. I was impressed by the amount of time Scott had put into reading through the raw copy, and thought that to reprint his email would be of interest, particularly to those hoping to make a go of music writing. I asked Scott to clean it up a little, make it understandable to a casual reader, and obtained the permission of the original writer. I think the end result provides a fascinating insight into a little of what goes on behind the scenes at any half-decent music publication.

That sentence at the end of your first paragraph, probably the most exciting event of the music world in 2004 is a pretty big claim. When you follow by (finally, after an entire paragraph) telling us that a Blink 182/Cure show was this event, you probably lose credibility with any reader who wouldn’t agree with that statement (and I bet there’s a LOT of people who would disagree with you). It’s your choice. Nothing wrong with being opinonated. But be aware that making grandiose claims on behalf of bands you like can actually make people LESS likely to agree with you, or want to listen to you further. Everett can get away with that stuff, but only because he’s been doing this for so long that people know he is. They respect him as a writer and as a listener, and so his words carry a little more weight than the rest of us. People are interested in hearing what he has to say. Nobody’s interested in hearing what you or I have to say, so we have to work a little harder for our credibility.

2nd paragraph, the way you broke ‘MTV ICON event’ — with a huge parenthetical aside — made it seem like you were referring to Marilyn Manson as an MTV ICON (the lack of comma didn’t help either).

When you say The Cure “no doubt had an influence on that record you can’t stop listening to” I instantly think about all the records I’m listening to that weren’t influenced by The Cure. This gets back to my earlier point about credibility and grandiose claims.

Song titles in “quotes”. Album titles in Italics.

I found a video of the performance. One of the great things about music writing on the internet is you can let the reader see/hear what you’re writing about. Keep in mind this can help/hurt whatever argument you’re making.

Note: too many “to be” verbs (They were, He was, The rest is, etc.) can make your writing sound more dull than it actually is. Same goes for passive voice. Instead of “The fucking ball was thrown by John” try “John threw the fucking ball” (or “kicked” the ball if your audience is English).

Originally formed in 1976, in Crawley, UK, the band originally went by the name The Easy Cure. Previous to The Easy Cure the band were named Malice but chose to rename the project after the departure of some members. The Easy Cure were just some dudes who liked to dress in black, paint their nails and sing about girls. Looking back, it’s amazing how many influential bands over the decades started this way. I guess sometimes writing love songs and trying to get laid in high school can really pay off, just ask EVERY SINGLE POP PUNK BAND.

I’m going to focus on this one paragraph, because it encapsulates a lot of things in your writing that are problematic:

The Easy Cure were just some dudes who liked to dress in black, paint their nails and sing about girls.

Even The Cure didn’t go goth until a couple of albums into their career, let alone The Easy Cure. Not only were The Cure pretty normal-looking for the first couple of years, they actually bragged about being anti-image. As a Cure fan you lose me here.

Looking back, it’s amazing how many influential bands over the decades started this way.

This sentence implies that over the decades lots and lots of influential bands liked to dress in black, paint their nails and sing about girls. Which I don’t think is true. The statement is both grandiose and vague. If you want to claim a band is influential, it’s probably a good idea to tell us some of the bands you think have been inspired by The Cure. If you’re saying Blink 182 and Marilyn Manson were inspired by The Cure, well there’s a LOT of other things that inspired them more. Again, I’m not saying there aren’t Cure-influenced bands out there. But if you want to make that case, you should probably make the case.

I guess sometimes writing love songs and trying to get laid in high school can really pay off, just ask EVERY SINGLE POP-PUNK BAND.

The ‘”I guess” makes it seem like a continuation, or a summing up, of the rest of the paragraph. So when I read this sentence, it makes me think wait, pop-punk bands dress in black and paint their nails? I don’t think that’s what you meant, but the way it’s written means that I as a reader have to give you the benefit of the doubt. In order for your piece to make sense, I have to kind of force it to make sense. In short, it just leaves me frustrated, irritated, and makes me want to stop reading. Which I’m assuming isn’t what you’re going for. Anyway, if you want to annoy your readers, being confusing is one of the least rewarding ways you can do it.

… Cure debuted in 1979 with their album, Three Imaginary Boys (this album was later reissued in 1980 under the title Boys Do Not Cry.)

Aside from the obvious typo (it’s Boys Don’t Cry), the album was released in America under that title with a different tracklist — added some singles, cut some other stuff. But it wasn’t a reissue per se.

‘Killing An Arab’ wasn’t on Three Imaginary Boys. It was on Boys Don’t Cry, but remember, that album was only released in the US. I’m pretty sure most CB readers are UK/Australia, so all of this would be pretty confusing for people. Furthermore, ‘Killing An Arab’ was the band’s first single, released before any album. And while we’re on the subject, you whole rant re: ‘Killing’ is just plain weird. First off, Elektra issued the song on Boys Don’t Cry so they weren’t too pussy to release it. And when the Standing On A Beach comp came out in 1986, they put a disclaimer on the album stating that the song didn’t promote violence against Arabs. That’s it.Also, ‘Killing’ didn’t chart in the UK either. Or anywhere. The ALBUM TIB charted at #44.

RASICT is not a word. Racist is.

I like ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ too. But the band weren’t dressed the way you think they were, so the point you’re making about eye shadow, nails, etc. is inaccurate. Also, the part of the song that isn’t a chorus is spelled verses not versus. And fix that apostrophe in ‘Boy’s’, I’m tired of doing it.

Note: the term ’emo’ wasn’t used until the mid-late 80s and wasn’t used to describe The Cure until the 21st century. ‘Break through’ is one word. The ‘remained’ in ‘peaking at #20 in the UK music charts and remained’ should be ‘remaining’. Also don’t use the word charts twice in the same sentence. It’s jarring and unnecessary. Just use ‘there’ the second time.

Lots of bands pumped out albums as that rate. The Smiths. Husker Du. The Minutemen. Sonic Youth. David Bowie. Pixies. Rolling Stones. Siouxsie And The Banshees. and COUNTLESS more. You’ve heard of those bands, right?

Too much encyclopedia writing, not enough critical writing. It’s good to do research, but without any commentary/insight, it’s just Wikipedia.

typo – ‘hit the charts are #10’

typo – ‘finished The Cure’s stellar recording run off with a band’. Don’t even know what this means.

typo – ‘Kick start’ is still one word.

Mention that the singles are singles.

The idea that The Cure’s 90s albums trumped Kiss Me and Disintegration is DEFINITELY a matter of personal opinion. [Damn straight. They were ALL shit after Three Imaginary Boys – Everett]

“The Cure dropped songs on five compilations and they released 11 music videos.” This whole paragraph is confusing and awkwardly written, filled with half-truths (believe me, The Cure’s ‘recording reputation’ TANKED with the relese of Wild Mood Swings. They haven’t had a gold album outside of Switzerland since 1992) and irrelevant facts (lots of bands appear on compilations and release music videos — and pretty much all of them tour).

Also, I’m pretty sure we can (and probably should) forget their inclusion on the Judge Dread soundtrack. [Dredd, actually – Everett]

“The Cure was (should be ‘were’) the first rock band to successfully incorporate the use of keys and synthesisers (sic) into the despondent and unexplored side of punk rock.” Really?

[Wait a second. The debut Cure album came out in ’79. ‘Atmosphere’ was released in 1980 – Everett]

For that matter, ‘The Walk’ is a ripoff of ‘Blue Monday’. And ‘In Between Days’ is so New Order it hurts.

Their music served as a movement in music that serves as the counterpart of the heavy punk which we are seeing expressed so often today. This is by bands similar to Interpol and Bloc Party and in the past through bands like The Smiths, The Go-Betweens and Joy Division. Robert Smith has also collaborated with Blink 182 and new wave dance outfit Crystal Castles.

The next-to-last paragraph is awkwardly written and nearly incomprehensible. I’m going to do this one last time, so it’s clear what I’m talking about. And because I’m an hour into this now, I’m probably going to be more cranky about it. Sorry:

Their music served as a movement in music that serves

You’ve got to be kidding.

as the counterpart of the heavy punk which we are seeing expressed so often today.

counterpart TO the heavy punk … And btw, I’m not sure heavy punk is being expressed so often today.

This is by bands similar to Interpol, The Get Up Kids and Bloc Party

You need to realize that the noun-less ‘this’ implies that you think these bands are ‘heavy punk’. I know (I hope) that these are actually bands you think are influenced by The Cure, but that’s not what you wrote. Readers shouldn’t have to work this hard for so little reward. Also, you’re not saying it’s by those bands, you’re saying it’s by bands SIMILAR to those bands. There’s a difference. And it’s not a good one.

and in the past through bands like The Smiths, The Go-Betweens and Joy Division.

Not sure what this means. Are you saying these bands are also a counterpart to heavy punk? Are they supposed to relate to The Cure? And why these bands? Why not Tracy Chapman, Milli Vanilli, and James Taylor? Don’t they represent  a counterpart to all that heavy punk?

The Cure were an amazing consistent scene setting outfit, painting their nails and dressing in black; it’s like nothing has changed since the 80s.

‘Scene setting’ should be hyphenated, and changing either ‘amazing’ or ‘consistent’ to an adverb wouldn’t hurt either (or a comma). Also, A LOT has changed since the 80s. Trust me. In fact, the only thing similar to the 80s is that back then people also thought that dressing in black made you a gothic homo and being cool translates (not ‘transcends’) to sitting on your best friend’s (not ‘friends’ ) couch every Saturday night watching MTV and getting high.

Also, you should know that The Cure have gotten pretty much ‘blah’ reviews ever since Wish.

Sigh. There’s a great case to be made, in a MOJO sense, for The Cure being a great iconic band (‘2 Late’ is a GREAT B-side by the way. People love the whole “they even put their best songs on the B-side” argument), but I’m not sure this article makes it. It’s riddled with inaccuracies, typos, clunky syntax, and hard-to-follow logic. The fact that you backtracked on the earlier article you sent in, but then submitted this as the ‘polished’ version kind of sucks. You didn’t even spellcheck this article, let alone heavily edit it (the fact that you sometimes punctuate things correctly tells me that you know how to do it — like writing Boys Don’t Cry as Boys Do Not Cry — the fact that the typo is still there tells me that you’re kind of lazy, or to put it a little nicer, that you expect someone else to do that for you).

I hope all of this is helpful to you, and it doesn’t just piss you off. Because you have shitloads of talent as a writer. You’re opinionated, passionate, and (when you trust your own voice) engaging and funny. Believe me, the stuff I’m pointing out are problems that EVERY writer has had to deal with at some point. I wouldn’t spend an hour-and-a-half doing a line-by-line readthrough of a 2,000 word appreciation of The Cure if I didn’t think your stuff was worth it. As someone who works two jobs, plays in a band, writes/edits for CB, writes books, and has friends and stuff, my schedule gets a little tight sometimes. But I appreciate you asking me to do this, and I tried to take it as seriously as possible. Note: Most editors are not nearly this patient (or at all, really) when it comes to typos and inaccuracies.

If you ask me, your strength at the moment is as a reviewer. Esp. Live reviews. You’ve got a great eye for detail, and you’re usually more interesting than the band you’re writing about. Two important qualities in a music writer. But historical, career-spanning appreciations of iconic bands who’ve been recording for 30 years is an ENORMOUS challenge. For anyone. So don’t sweat it too hard. But if I see another article from you in my inbox that OBVIOUSLY hasn’t been proofread, I’m going to edit all your future CB articles to make you look like a dick.

Cheers,
Scott

25 Responses to How to edit music criticism

  1. Mr Joseph September 12, 2011 at 9:23 pm

    Ah, the old “singular/plural” debate about band names.
    If I may:

    “The Cure was (should be were)…”

    The first way was correct, and here’s why.

    When you are talking about a band as a single entity, the verb should be the singular form.

    When you are talking about members of a band, the verb should take the plural.

    How many bands named “The Cure” are there? One. Yes, there are members OF the band, but they are collectively known as “The Cure.” Thus, the singular form.

    The notion that it must be plural because of multiple members…I don’t buy that. For instance, Paul McCartney has a backing band. But you’d never say “Paul McCartney are…”

    Now whether or not that is “too many” or “never enough,” well…that’s another debate entirely!

    Is this a geographical variance? I ask this because I see the plural form in describing a singular entity much more in British publications than I do American.

  2. Everett True September 12, 2011 at 9:32 pm

    It is a geographical variance, if such a phrase exists.

  3. Princess Stomper September 12, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    I always use the plural form when talking about a band, because I don’t view a band as an abstract entity.

    For example, I know a family whose surname is “Pagan”, and it’s a long-running joke when inviting them to dinner that “the Pagans are coming!” – as though it’s some sort of invasion. I wouldn’t refer to the Pagan family as an “it”. They are the Pagans.

    That especially holds true when the members of the band ARE members of a family, like The Corrs. I wouldn’t say The Corrs is playing, but The Corrs are playing.

    Anyway, great article – though of course I’m now terrified of Scott Creney and frantically reading through anything I’ve submitted lately!

  4. Everett True September 12, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    Wait till our new sub-editor starts!

  5. Joseph Kyle September 12, 2011 at 10:06 pm

    Fun with high school kids:

    Kid: “Panic! At The Disco rocks!”
    Me: “Actually, it’s rock. And no, they don’t”

  6. Tamsin Chapman September 12, 2011 at 10:10 pm

    Yes, I’m terrified too. This is helpful though. I’ve never been offered any feedback on anything I’ve written, so there’s some useful thoughts here (the blog I used to do reviews for would sub-edit my copy, but would make the syntax WORSE). Though if I’d got this email from Scott I’d probably never write again – so well done for perservering, anonymous CB writer.

    “Song titles in “quotes”. Album titles in Italics.”
    Oh right, didn’t realise. A style guide would be useful?

    “Grandiose claims”
    Guilty. Very.

    Have also been thinking that I should be more careful not to use British language/references that might alienate an international audience – but how to square this with keeping it ‘my voice’? In the piece I submitted last night (stuffed to the gills with grandiose statements – oops), I said ‘sweater’ when I really wanted to say ‘jumper’, and it made me feel slightly nauseous.

  7. Erika September 12, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    When you have writers from lots of different English speaking countries, I think that you either have to pick a dominant language and edit for that, or just let the writers roll in their own dialect/natural voice. Spelling, vocabulary, idioms, and even punctuation can differ from country to country. I doubt I could un-Americanize my writing even if I wanted to. I am not sure it makes sense for CB writers to try to edit away all regionalisms since the readership is international.

    As far as album titles vs song titles, I think of album titles like novel titles (italicized), and titles of songs like stories or articles (quotation marks). One thing I didn’t realize until I started putting out my own albums is that in the U.S. at least, song titles traditionally capitalize EVERY word (including “a” “and” “the” etc). Strange.

  8. Joseph Kyle September 12, 2011 at 11:10 pm

    I tell you what gets me about reading mags like MOJO and Uncut–that they use no quotation marks around song titles.

  9. Scott September 13, 2011 at 6:14 am

    @Tasmin. It depends on the claim and how grandiose it is. In this case, the writer stated, as an indisputable face, that the MTV icon show from 2002 (or 2004, can’t remember exactly when) devoted to The Cure, and featuring a contribution from Blink 182 was the most eagerly anticipated event of that year. Not for him, mind you. But for the world of music, or something along those lines. Which still might have been okay if he’d provided a qualifier, something along the lines of, ‘You might think I’m crazy, but…’ or ‘In my opinion…’ or even ‘I don’t care WHAT you think…’

    And I don’t think there’s a set policy at CB regarding national idiom, aside from the fact that US writers have to put their punctation outside the quotes (yes, even after 9/11, Americans are still being made to suffer the hostile assaults from an outside world that hates us for our freedoms). And this is just my opinion, but I think it’s totally okay for English folks to use ‘jumper’ or ‘pavement’, or for US people to use the word ‘dude’ or ‘sidewalk’ or for Australian writers to talk about koala bears all the time. We live in an international age, and coming across regionalisms is fun, the written equivalent of eating at a foreign restaurant. It’s one of my favorite/favourite things about CB.

    And please don’t be terrified of me. I’m really nice. Honest.

  10. Scott September 13, 2011 at 6:19 am

    That should be ‘indisputable fact’, not ‘indisputable face’. See, even sub-editors are human.

  11. Everett True September 13, 2011 at 7:47 am

    A style guide would be useful?

    One is on its way. Our new sub-editor is busy working away on it as we speak.

  12. Everett True September 13, 2011 at 7:49 am

    See, even sub-editors are human.

    That’s human, not humane.

  13. Tamsin Chapman September 13, 2011 at 8:07 am

    @ Scott- You proved your mortality by also getting my name wrong – it’s TAMSIN.
    Good news about the national idiom acceptancy though – maybe my next review will be a mixture of Wigan and Yiddish. Maybe.

  14. Wallace Wylie September 13, 2011 at 9:49 am

    This is good stuff. I would imagine it takes the patience of a saint to edit. I just want to put it out there that just because I write for free doesn’t mean I can’t take a bit of criticism if necessary. Anything along the lines of “This doesn’t really hang together, it needs a rewrite” to “That last piece was a little sloppy” or even “You should probably clean up that third paragraph” would always be appreciated. I don’t actually know the ins and outs of technical writing and really only began writing properly last year so I need all the help I can get.

  15. Everett True September 13, 2011 at 11:03 am

    Cut out the ‘actually’s’ and the ‘really’s’ and the ‘just’s’ and the ‘a little’s’. They don’t add emphasis. They only detract.

  16. Everett True September 13, 2011 at 11:06 am

    One thing I didn’t realize until I started putting out my own albums is that in the U.S. at least, song titles traditionally capitalize EVERY word (including “a” “and” “the” etc). Strange.

    Scott can probably clarify here, but I had the impression that it was mainly in the U.K. (and, by extension, Australia) that this applies, whereas in the U.S. they don’t like to capitalise (note regional variation on spelling) every word in a song title. It used to drive me mad when I was writing reviews for Maxim and amazon.com, trying to figure out which word to capitalise and which to leave lower-case.

  17. Wallace Wylie September 13, 2011 at 11:06 am

    I hate you.

  18. Everett True September 13, 2011 at 11:10 am

    (Don’t ask me why I was writing reviews for Maxim. Actually, you can. They paid a dollar a word.)

  19. Darragh September 13, 2011 at 11:22 am

    ET – As you suspect, I know for publications here that many ask to capitalise all letters in a song or album title.

  20. Scott Creney September 13, 2011 at 11:35 am

    @Tamsin. I’m sorry I messed your name up. That was weak.

    The first time I noticed Every Word Being Capitalized In A Song Title, Even The Articles And Conjunctions, was with the advent of iTunes. But it seems to be spreading, along with alphabetizing by first name.

    @Joseph, et al. When it comes to singular/plural, I tend to follow the sports tradition. It isn’t ‘The Red Sox sucks’. It’s ‘The Red Sox suck.’ Even singlular sports names, like the Orlando Magic, get dealt with as a plural. If you go to see David Copperfield, the magic was terrible. If you go to see Dwight Howard, the Magic were terrible. That’s what works for me. Plus it sounds better.

    ‘The Beatles sucks’ anyone?

  21. Matt O'Neill September 14, 2011 at 8:56 am

    For the record, because I often write for free, I can’t take criticism. Say one harsh word and I will burn your house down. So hard.

  22. Scott Creney September 14, 2011 at 10:54 am

    Matt, please note the above reference to grandiose claims.

  23. Matt O'Neill September 14, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Man. I’m not even mad. I’m just impressed.

    Still going to burn down your house, though. Can’t have people doubting my credibility.

  24. julian k. September 14, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Boys Don’t Cry was the version of the first album released in Australia. Three Imaginary Boys was not. If you were a young trainspotter like me you had to buy it from an ‘import record store’. I remember hearing their version of Foxy Lady for the first time and thinking it sounded like a different band from the other material. It’s a cool version and probably more closely linked to the Heroin Face period than the other material on the album.

  25. Person September 14, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    It’s funny that there are typos in this article.

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