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Old 04-19-2012, 05:54 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Default An in-depth guide to writing your first Music Journal

[
I know Tore wrote a guide to or help with writing reviews, but it's now closed and after consultation with him or her, I've decided to try writing my own. In addition to giving tips on writing reviews, as well as other ideas on how to “spice up” your journal, assuming you have one, I'll field questions should anyone have any.

But first, some disclaimers:

1. This is of necessity going to be a long and possibly evolving guide. I'll be adding to it as I go along, but anyone who knows me from my writings will understand this will be long-winded and detailed. So I'll try to encapsulate the important points in headings, so that those who want to can skip my usual waffle (those who want to read it are more than welcome!)

2. I'm not trying to tell anyone how they should write their journal, or come across as a know-it-all. This is just a guide, with suggestions and ideas. You are completely free to ignore everything I say here, however the basic stuff like spelling and grammar should be taken on board if you want your journal to be read by others.


So, with all that in mind, off we go!

1. Well, I'd like to start a music journal, but it seems so complicated!

If you're looking at starting up a journal, but are a little daunted by the process, I can help with that. If you have a journal but are unhappy with its structure (or lack of same!), content or direction, perhaps I can be of assistance there too. Having written close to 400 separate album reviews over the last year (I know: I have no life!) I think I'm relatively qualified to put forward some advice and suggestions, and explain how to get the best out of your journal, and make sure others do too.

Of course, this is all my own personal opinion, based on my experiences with my own journal, and everyone is free to do what they like with their journal; no-one is under any obligation whatever to follow the guidelines I'm setting down here, and that's all they are, guidelines. But if you do, you may find that it really improves your journal, gets more readers and garners more interest in what you write, and that writing itself may cease to be a chore and become much more fun.

1a. Album reviews
Looking then at album reviews first, because, let's face it: they're going to be the main staple of anyone's music journal. Most if not all of us started journals because we wanted to share our enjoyment of certain bands with everyone, and that usually comes about by the medium of reviewing their albums. It isn't, of course, the be-all and end-all of a music journal. You can theoretically have anything you like in your journal --- I just recently began discussing my favourite TV shows --- but a large percentage of the time, it's going to be music related in one way or another. Perhaps the link with music is tenuous, but usually there is one. Somewhere.

1a (1): Using the English language

The first point I want to make, and it's an important one, and applies not only to album reviews, but everything you write in your journal, is what I like to call S&G: Spelling and Grammar. Now, some of us are not the world's best spellers, but that's no excuse. I personally am a great speller, always having had an interest in the written English language, but even for someone who finds it hard to spell properly, there are dictionaries (online and in book form: yes, they exist!), spellcheckers which come with virtually every word processing program available and for those who are really stuck/lazy, there's me. I'll be happy to check and correct any spelling or grammar in any articles anyone wants to post. Just send them to me in a PM here or email me at trollheart@gmail.com.

Spelling is basic, but even at its heart it's simple: you either spell a word correctly or you don't. Grammar is a little more involved, but can actually be more off-putting to a potential reader than bad spelling, although that's also annoying. Bad spelling can sometimes be explained away as someone being in a rush, not double-checking, not understanding the context in which the word they want to spell is being used, or a hundred other reasons. But bad grammar is just laziness and shows a basic refusal to understand what you're writing. And if you're not that bothered, how can you expect someone reading your articles to be?

So try to pay attention both to your spelling and your grammar. Some word processors have built-in grammar checkers too, though I find these are often more a hindrance than a help, as most of them are created in America, and their grammar (and spelling) will often differ from how we use it. But you shouldn't really need a grammar checker: it should be basic common sense. I mean, which is correct of the two sentences below?

I haven't heard of none of these albums before now
or
I haven't heard of any of these albums before now.

Answer, of course, the second one. Yes, that's a simple example, and grammar can be much more confusing. But again, anyone who is unsure is welcome to send me their work to be checked and, if necessary, corrected.

But spelling can also be a simple matter of thinking things through and taking your time, or looking something up if you're unsure. If you don't know the difference between the usage of “their”, “there” and “they're”, you can really confuse your readership. Similarly, one letter out of place can change the whole meaning of a word, or even sentence. Consider this: This album is now available from itunes can change, with just one letter, to This album is not available from itunes. See? And that's more than likely not a spelling error, per se --- who can't spell “now”, after all? --- but just someone rushing and not taking the time to check their work before submitting it.

One more point: punctuation. Yes, we all have problems with when you use a colon or a semi-colon, but commas and full stops (or as you Americans would have it, periods) should always be used in the correct place. Not enough of the former makes a sentence seem overlong and too many just makes it look silly. But you don't have to use colons, semi-colons, hyphens etc if you don't want to, as long as you remember to break up your sentences with a least a few commas and end them with a full stop/period.

So, that's enough about spelling and grammar then. But if you master both of these disciplines and use them properly, your piece will look and read a lot more professional, and people will enjoy reading it more.

1a (2): And so it begins....

On to the actual review itself then: what do you need? Well, obviously you need a heading, as Tore points out in his/her original guide. It should consist of, at a minimum, three main parts, which should really be self-explanatory, but just in case, they are: TITLE OF ALBUM, ARTISTE and YEAR RELEASED. You can switch the first two around if you want --- I usually do it the way shown --- as long as the information is there. So you would have as an example something along the lines of “Script for a jester's tear --- Marillion --- 1983”, to which I would usually add the label, and you can also mention other things like Producer, Studio, anything you want to really, but a word of caution: don't overdo it. Certain information can be divulged within the article; there's no need to have it all in the heading. As a personal rule, I stick to Title/Artiste/Year with Label in brackets, but that's just me. Whatever works for you is good, however once you have your format you should stick to it, as people will expect to see this.

You can then highlight the heading in various colours and fonts, available from the menus at the top left of the “post article” dialogue. I usually highlight the whole heading, then choose Font, Size and Colour. This makes the heading stand out and be very visible. Usually it's expected that either beneath or immediately above the heading you have a picture of the album sleeve, which can be easily retrieved from any online source (Google/Wiki/Yahoo etc). If you're a total beginner (and there's nothing wrong with that) and need a step-by-step guide, click (How to review an album: music journal step-by-step guide 2012)here, but I won't put the details in the main thread so as not to bore those who have done this sort of thing a hundred times and know it inside out.

I normally then start with a brief introduction, either to the band/artiste or the album itself --- the former usually only if this is the first time I have reviewed their material --- perhaps a quick history, or some idea of what contribution the album has made to either the band's own fame or music history in general. Something like, using the above example:
Marillion's debut album, one which helped spark the resurgence of progressive rock in Britain in the eighties, “Script for a jester's tear” remains the standard for prog rock bands even today, and while many compared Marillion to Genesis, there is in fact a world of difference between the two bands.

You don't need to write paragraphs and paragraphs, but a few lines is at least preferred. Of course, you don't have to do this: you could just launch right in describing the album, but I always feel it helps to set the scene for your readers. Remember, just because you love (or hate) the album and know it backwards doesn't necessarily hold true for everyone. Some people will never have heard of, for instance, Marillion, and will want to know who they are, what sort of music they produce, if they're still around and so on, so a basic grounding is never a bad idea.

My other important point to note when writing a review: WIKIPEDIA IS YOUR FRIEND. Of course, no-one wants to read a regurgitated version of what's on Wiki regarding your specific album or artiste; plaigiarism is frowned upon, here as anywhere else, and anyway it's lazy. If all you're going to do is copy-and-paste someone else's article, what right have you to call that review your own? But you can use the information in the Wiki article to flesh out yours. You can, for instance, find out about the band or artiste --- details you perhaps were unaware of --- and you can also get a proper tracklisting, see who plays what, who writes what, what chart position, if any, the album attained, and so on. There are also often interesting little anecdotes pertinent to the album or band or artiste in these articles, which will help bring life and character to your review. Just remember: if you copy anything verbatim from Wiki you MUST advise your readers this is the case. Quotes are fine, but reference them.

I personally find Wiki a huge knowledge and research resource, and almost every album I review, no matter how well I know it, I find out more about when I look for it on Wiki. Another good source is Discogs (www.discogs.com), where you can get the liner notes or additional information on many albums, although it is by no means a complete resource. You can also use Wiki as the source for the image of the album you are reviewing, as shown in the step-by-step guide. If there is no picture available, try Googling it under images; there's usually something out there.

1a(3): Duh, what should I write?

How do you actually review your album though, now that you've got past the heading? Well, the short answer is there is no particular or standard way to do this. I personally tend to write a short (or sometimes not so short!) introduction, often bringing in elements from my own personal association with the music being reviewed --- for instance, it might be the first time I got into the band, could be the first album I bought, etc --- and then go through the album track-by-track, with a wrap-up usually at the end, but that's just me. I often quote lyrics, of which more later; some people do not.

Many people do an overview of the album, referring to certain tracks to make their point, eg Pink Floyd's “Dark side of the moon” is a classic album, with a mixture of powerful, expressive instrumentals like “On the run” and “Any colour you like” and stone classics like “Time” and “Money”... all of which can be expanded upon, or not, if you prefer. Then sometimes people will just pick a few tracks to concentrate on.

You can do it any way you like. I run a section in my journal called “The 200-word album review”, which, as its name suggests, tries to review an album in two hundred words. With a restriction like that, there's no way you're going to be able to go track by track, and that's a challenge I set myself, which I enjoy. But there's no reason you should do that too (I have it copyrighted, by the way! ) --- whatever method suits you is the way you should do your review. Whatever's comfortable. Don't try to emulate someone else's style, as it is, after all, their style, and you'll just come over as trying to copy them. Develop your own, make it yours.

Next time I'll discuss how to structure your review --- well, how you CAN structure it, if you want to do what I do --- and how to make it interesting to read as well as accurate. Until then, feel free to leave any comments, questions or indeed articles you want spellchecked or grammar-checked.
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Old 04-19-2012, 04:59 PM   #2 (permalink)
 
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Brilliant idea Trollheart. I'll probably take a few pointers myself!

This should be stickied in the journal section.
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Old 04-19-2012, 05:21 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Hey, this is great! Good suggestion from Zero, this can be stickied or even moved wherever you'd like it to be, Trollheart. Let me know, I'll do it for you.
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Old 04-19-2012, 05:58 PM   #4 (permalink)
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Thanks guys! Sticky away if you can, I don't know how.

Thanks for the positive comments!
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Old 04-19-2012, 07:22 PM   #5 (permalink)
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1a (4): The sound of a forehead repeating striking a keyboard, with attendant groans

Yes, indeed, the way many of us feel when faced with our first review. There's a real temptation to think “look, I just love this album, man, so why doesn't everyone else?” and not to put too much effort into your review. But as I mentioned in the last post, no matter how great you think an album is, there will be those that a) disagree and b) don't know the album. Regarding the first category, people who don't like the album, or indeed artiste, you're probably doing something in the wind there that is not advised if you want to stay clean. People who dislike an album are very unlikely to be suddenly swayed by your argument, no matter how well you write. It's just a fact of life: people make up their minds and it takes something momentous to change their opinion, if it ever does change. Chances are, they won't even read your review as they won't be interested in it. As for the other category, the ones who don't know the album, these are the ones you have a good chance with.

1a (5): Setting the scene

So try to explain all you can about the album: any contribution it made to music history (“Black Sabbath” redefined a whole new sub-genre of metal”, for instance), perhaps where it comes in the artiste's catalogue (debut, third, most recent, last etc), any notable people who played on it, like guest musicians, arrangers, producers. Was the cover art created by anyone famous? Has it become an iconic image in its own right (Dark side of the moon) and so on.

The key thing to remember is make it interesting: don't just bombard your readers with facts and figures, but don't make the information too sketchy either. There's a fine line between what people are prepared to read and what they're not: when it gets boring or you're overloading their minds they may lose interest. Some, of course, may thrive on this sort of mega-information, but they are likely to be in the minority and you can't take the chance, as you're trying, generally, to appeal to as many people as you can, in order to get as many readers as you can. And preferably, repeat readers.

1a(6): Track performance

There's nothing wrong with going into some sort of detail on each track on the album --- I usually do this --- but you have to know how much space to allow for discussion on each track. You may love track 1, hate track 2 and be ambivalent about track 3, so do you spend four paragraphs describing how great track 1 is and just barely touch on tracks 2 and 3? Preferably not. You don't even have to go track-by-track. Many people just cherry-pick from the album, using certain tracks as representative of it. You've no doubt read those short reviews in the music press, where they have a limited amount of space, and just barely nod to one or two tracks. You can do this too, if you want. There are no real rules, no right way or wrong way to review an album.

But remember, though this is your journal and, for the purposes of your review, your opinion is the only one that matters, in reality that's not the case. If you make a big noise over a certain album or track and someone reading it disagrees, and they're prepared to post a comment, be prepared to take their opinion with good grace. Answer them if you can, but --- and this shouldn't have to be said, but I'll say it anyway --- refrain from unseemly “flame-war” tactics.

In other words, don't start shouting down someone who doesn't agree with you, or expresses a differing opinion to yours. Posts like “You don't know what you're talking about!” or “Go back to listening to boybands!” may fly on general music forums, but here within the members' journal section you're expected to be a lot more cordial and tolerant. Think of this journal as your home, or office, and behave accordingly. Don't steal the paper clips, though.

Similarly, if someone posts nasty messages in your journal (this is very unlikely, as the mods monitor all posts --- yes, yours too --- and won't allow anything to be posted which they consider inappropriate) respond with a polite rebuff, and if necessary seek aid from the mods. But these things should not happen if your reviews and other posts are well-written and balanced. Just about everything that goes into a member's journal is taken to have the invisible prefix IMO, and that's all it is: your opinion. Unless it's a clear, solid, undeniable fact, like sales figures, chart positions, names of musicians or stuff like that, everything else is opinion, and everyone is entitled to one, but yours is not the only one, or necessarily the right one. Couch your posts in that manner, so that people reading them understand that this is what you think, not to be taken as fact, nothing carved in stone.

1a (7): Words don't come easy to me...

Lyrics: should you quote them? Often it helps, particularly if you're trying to make a certain point about what the artist is trying to say, (Don Henley in his song “Goodbye to a river” mourns humanity's need to control everything: ”They put that river in a box/ It was runnin' wild/ Man must have control””) or to back up something in your review. Quoting lines and lines of lyrics is really not the thing to do: it will get boring and detract from your review. I usually throw in a few, though not always, and only when they illustrate the point I want to make. If you are going to quote lyrics though, make sure they're correct. Either use the album liner notes (unless you know the song so well or it's such a famous song you couldn't possibly get the lyrics wrong) or search for them online. There are many websites dedicated to providing album and song lyrics. Just search in Google under [artist name] lyrics. If you can't confirm the lyric but are reasonably sure that it's correct, say so in your review. Something like “I think this is what he sings” or “It sounds to me like” and so on. Nobody's perfect, other than me, so don't try to present your knowledge as encyclopaedic. Of course, that's not an excuse for just not bothering to look up things either. But if you've tried and failed, throw in your disclaimer.

1a (8): Don't drop that ("F") bomb on me!
One small, somewhat amusing but often frustrating point: no forum allows swear words --- well, very few, and this is not one of them --- so the system is apparently setup to automatically catch any words that it should be flagging: the “f” word, the “c” word, the “n” word and so on, but this can lead to quite ludicrous occurrences, because the system is unable to determine when a “banned” word is used out of context in a totally innocent way, so that when I tried to use a word for laughs that rhymes with biggers and begins in sn, the “n” word, as the system saw it, was asterisked out. I had to use snickers instead. And only today, I tried to say something like rock-***-country, and as you can see here, it blanked out the three letter word that begins in c, ends in m and has u in the middle, because its use is banned. Never mind that it was being used in a totally non-abusive or obscene way: once it saw the word the system immediately raised a flag and I had to find another way of saying what I wanted to say.

So, again this is something that should not need to be said, don't use bad language in your posts. In the first place it looks and sounds unprofessional, and in the second, your posted article (if it gets that far) will look ridiculous, with asterisks all over the place, and people probably unable to make out what it is you're saying. Even if these “f” or “c” words are in lyrics (or album titles) you want to quote, you'll need to find a way around them. Of course, you can always box clever: fkuc is I think still able to slip under the radar, as is cnut or ctun, but best of all is not to use these words. I also don't think appealing to the mods for an exception will work, though I could be wrong: I think the system is automatic and there's nothing they can do about it.

So the idea of reviewing the album “**** you!” by **** and the ****ers is probably not going to be a good one...

I'm off to bed now, more tomorrow.
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Old 04-19-2012, 07:43 PM   #6 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Trollheart View Post
Thanks guys! Sticky away if you can, I don't know how.
Anything for a fellow Simpsons fan! Only moderators can stick threads.
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Old 04-19-2012, 07:43 PM   #7 (permalink)
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Another useful tip

Don't put about 50 youtube videos in one post that causes most peoples computers to crash as soon as they go to it and then wonder why your journal doesn't get approved by mods.
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Old 04-20-2012, 05:35 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Urban Hatemonger View Post
Another useful tip

Don't put about 50 youtube videos in one post that causes most peoples computers to crash as soon as they go to it and then wonder why your journal doesn't get approved by mods.
Absolutely, and I have been guilty of that in the past too, so if it's a slight dig at me, UH, it's accepted.

I will of course be covering YouTube in the content side of the journal in future posts, as well as the need to wait for your articles to be approved. Right now, I'm off to the bank (though not laughing all the way there --- who does these days? Other than bank CEOs, of course...)
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Old 04-20-2012, 11:59 AM   #9 (permalink)
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1a (9): A question of balance

A key question any reviewer, or would-be reviewer has to ask themselves before beginning an article is why are you reviewing this particular album? I don't think any of us just reach out and grab the nearest off the shelf or from the music directory on our Pcs, or indeed shuffle our ipods and take what comes up. I do this in a section called “Spinning the wheel”, yes, but that is a conscious decision made with a very definite aim in mind: to randomise my selection and through that medium hope to come up with something different that I would perhaps not normally review. And anyway, that's only an occasional feature, it's not how I usually decide to review albums.

There are probably four reasons why you might choose an album for review, and they depend also on how you go about reviewing.

1. You might love the album, and want to share it with others, in the hope of making them love it too.
2. You might hate the album, and want to tell others why you hate it.
3. You might not yet have heard the album, but want to or
4. You might have been recommended to listen to it, by a friend, radio station, magazine review, anything.

All of these are good and valid reasons for picking an album for review, and each reason will lead more than likely to your approaching your review differently. If you love the album, you probably know it inside out and can expound for hours about it, filling page after page with gushing praise. A word of warning: don't go overboard. A shamelessly slavish devotion to an album will probably come across as insincere, as in, you probably haven't got a bad word to say about it, and won't hear one from anyone else. This labels you as somewhat close-minded, and discussion of this album with you will be discouraged, unless by other devotees who also want to pray at the same altar.

Try always to be objective. In scenario one, you love the album but that does not mean everyone else does. Many will hate it, or just think it's okay. If you're lucky, you'll have many lively, possibly heated discussions on this topic, and in these discussions, as already mentioned in my previous post, you need to rein in your indignation and disbelief that anyone could seriously think this is not the greatest album in the history of music ever, and listen to opposing views. You may even find that your opinion of the album changes very slightly as a result. No-one's saying you're suddenly going to hate it, but you may manage to see flaws that your devotion previously made you blind to. It's good to have a different set of eyes or ears on the subject.

If you go for option 2, you have to be very careful. You may hate the album, but just as in example one above, your opinion may not be shared by others. If you start slagging off the album and calling it rubbish, you will almost certainly get responses, ranging from the snippy to the outright hostile. Worse, you will begin to alienate people who might previously have considered reading your journal. Annoy them by slagging off what might be their favourite album, and you have created an uphill struggle for yourself. It's hard enough to get readers as it is without you putting unnecessary obstacles in your own path, and that of potential readers.

Always treat every album you review with respect, even if you hate it. Outline why you hate it, how you think it could have been made better, and perhaps compare it to another album, either in the artiste's catalogue, or, if you hate ALL their music, something similar, and show how you believe it fails to measure up, where it goes wrong. Always bear in mind that differing views exist, and respect those views. Comments like “It's not my cup of tea” or “You might like it but I hate it” are very useful, as they show the reader that though you hate this album, you understand there are those out there who may not. This will certainly mollify any miffed readers, and may make them think twice about responding hotly to your criticisms.

But there is nothing at all wrong with reviewing an album you hate. I have done it many times, though usually more with an album I've been disappointed with than one I hate for its own sake. Perhaps something in the catalogue of an artist whose material I generally enjoy that fails to live up to my expectations,(Chris Rea's “The road to Hell part 2” is a good example, as is Gary Moore's “A different beat”) or an album I bought on recommendations but was let down by (Bon Iver's “Bon Iver” and Jeff Buckey's “Grace” spring to mind). I end up being so disappointed with these albums that I need to tell my readers about them, and so I do. But I'm always careful to point out that though I didn't like these albums, others may. It's not that the recommendations were wrong, just that, as an old Irish radio DJ used to say, “they didn't suit me”.

The third method then is perhaps the most interesting. A large percentage of the albums I review get listened to for the first time when I write the review. This way I get an honest first impression, without the time to reflect and wonder whether or not I really like/hate the album. Now of course that can work in reverse: listening to an album only once often does not give you all the experience you may need with that album, and your opinion may change over time (hence my “Last Chance Saloon” feature), but usually I can make up my mind whether or not I like the album on the first listen.

If this is the way you're doing a review, do remember to listen to it all. There's a temptation to skip through, but when you do that you can often miss different, unexpected turns in songs that could very well change your opinion of them, and possibly the album too. Of course, many reviewers will frown on this method, espousing the belief that you need more than one listen in order to be able to make a thorough, honest and informed review of an album. And that can indeed be the case. It really depends on you. When you listen to an album, do you automatically like/hate it on first listen, or do you usually need to hear it a few more times before you make up your mind? If the latter, I wouldn't recommend reviewing on first listen, as you may end up having to eat your words and look rather silly if your opinion changes after you've posted a vitriolic lambastation or indeed praiseworthy adoration of a particular album.

Finally, there's the recommendation. That's pretty similar to the above, but in some ways the choice has been partially taken out of your hands, as someone else has said this album is good and you now want to know if they know what they're talking about. Don't make the mistake of, if you have a totally opposite reaction to the album than they had, writing in your review that “reviewer X must be mad” or “reviewer Y doesn't know about music if he likes this!” No-one's forcing you to review an album you haven't heard, so it's a calculated risk, and if it doesn't come off it's not the fault of whoever recommended it to you. It just may be that they have different musical tastes to you (this should be obvious: if you hate, for instance, hip hop or dubstep or opera, and someone recommends an album in those genres, you're probably going to be wasting your time, as your mind has already been made up to hate it. Don't review an album just to prove you don't like it purely on account of its genre or style) or that, whereas you normally like the same sort of music, here you differ. Differences are what make us all so unique as human beings, and everyone can't like the same thing.

You may even find that if you decide to review an album to tell everyone how much you hate it, if you haven't listened to it for some time, that it isn't that bad after all, and your review must then reflect this. Or you may still hate it. But I would never shy from reviewing something because I expected it to be good and it turned out not to be. It's more open and honest when you can tell your readers, “well I expected this to blow my socks off, but hey, it's not so great after all!” No-one likes anyone to set themselves up as perfect (again, except me ) and to be fallible is human. And welcome.

So, whether you're reviewing an album because it's Band X's latest and you can't wait to tell people about it, or it's one that you've been meaning to get rid of because it's so bad but never got round to it, or indeed it's something you've never heard before and are curious about, try to treat every album with the same amount of respect and dignity that you would if reviewing your favourite. This helps readers to see you have a balanced approach in your writing and your reviews, and they can begin to believe that you're a source to be relied upon.

Respect, at all times, in all things. It's not a bad creed to live by, you know.
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Old 04-20-2012, 12:05 PM   #10 (permalink)
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When is this going to be released on Paperback?
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