How Not to Write Like a Hack

So, you want to be an entertainment reporter. You love music, movies, TV, celebrity slap-fights or whatever, and you’re convinced that your life’s work should involve discussing them in public, for as wide an audience as you can reach. Excellent. It’s a fun job. Here’s how not to suck at it: Don’t write like an entertainment reporter.

There are certain tropes the entertainment media abuse the hell out of, that create the impression that they’re letting you in on a sensational secret. That’s exactly the effect they’re going for, of course, but most of the time there’s no secret or amazing scoop, just terrible writing. Yet you can write about entertainment and popular culture without sounding like a hack.

Some pointers:

Attribution for Quotes — One of author Elmore Leonard’s rules for good writing was, “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” That means don’t attribute quotes with words like “confided,” “asserted,” “admitted,” “laughed” or anything else. Just “said” (or “says”). Leonard had a 60-year career writing novels and screenplays, including “Get Shorty.” If “said” was good enough for him, it’s good enough for you. (In fact, Leonard’s other rules for good writing are also worth reading.)

Attribution for Someone Else’s Reporting — This comes up a lot, in that that entertainment media largely consist of websites recycling (er, that is, “aggregating”) each other’s content back and forth. Attribute someone else’s original content with “reported” or “according to,” period. As in, “The New York Times reported” or “according to Rolling Stone.” Pitchfork and Consequence of Sound writers love to use “notes” or “points out,” both of which are clumsy in this context.

Clarity — Your top priority as a writer. Forget trying to be clever or funny or anything else until you can write a clear active-voice sentence with proper punctuation. This is a surprisingly hard thing to do, based on some of the copy I’ve edited over the years.

Hack words — These words are vastly overused in entertainment writing. Think about what they actually mean.

  • Admits. “Confess[es] to be true or to be the case, typically with reluctance,” according to this definition. So think of it this way: “The singer admits his embrace of Christianity was all for show” is a confession. “The singer admits he likes being a rock star” is just a dumb way to phrase it.
  • Announces. Leave this to press releases and describe the action with the actual action: “Will tour” rather than “announces a tour,” for example.
  • Comprised of. This is just wrong. “The band’s set comprised songs from its first four albums,” or “The band’s set was composed of songs from its first four albums.” (Or, best of all, “the band played songs from its first four albums.”)
  • Confesses. Similar to “admits.”
  • Confides. If your interview subject is telling you something you plan to repeat in print or on the air, s/he is almost certainly not “confiding.” (See also: attribution)
  • Drops. Albums, songs and videos are released (or posted online), not dropped, unless you are writing for The Source in 1997.
  • Officially. Often used in connection with release dates, but it’s unnecessary: “the song hit radio in May” is just as effective as “the song officially hit radio in May.”
  • Opens up. “Repeats the same talking points as in 47 other interviews” is more like it, unless Tom Gabel just told you he’s actually a woman named Laura Jane Grace. (“Admits,” “confesses” and “reveals” all work in that case, too.)
  • Reveals. “Miley Cyrus revealed a new tattoo”; rather than, “Miley Cyrus revealed that she likes twerking.” (See also: attribution.)
  • Sat down with. Like “admits,” “confides,” “opens up” and “reveals,” implies an intimacy that almost certainly wasn’t there. Some variation of “said in an interview” will suffice.
  • Unveils. Did someone literally pull off a sheet that was hiding something? No? Then use another word.

Read, a Lot — Good writers are good readers, so don’t just read other people’s sloppy entertainment writing. Read good writing, of any kind, and pay attention to structure to see what works and what doesn’t.

Spelling — For heaven’s sake, double-check this stuff, especially names and places. (It’s “Elliott Smith,” and “Johnathan Rice,” for example.)

Style — The publication you’re writing for probably has a style and usage guide. Ask your editor for it. Read it. Re-read it. Abide by it. Consult it frequently.

Voice — Go easy on writing in the first-person voice. In other words, no “I” statements, especially in critical reviews, which should be about the subject you’re reviewing and not yourself. It’s understood that a critical review is your (hopefully informed) opinion, there’s no need to make it explicit. Stick to the third-person voice. (There are exceptions, but those people have already proven they can write.)

Good luck!