Too many freelance writers make the excuse for their lack of journalistic skill by hiding behind what I’ve come to call The Gonzo Defense.
The Gonzo Defense is when a writer turns in an article that says, basically, nothing. It contains no real information, no interviews or quotes, and has made-up names for people and even events the writer was too lazy to research. When called on the carpet about such hackism, the writer will inevitably say, “It’s my style, it’s the way I write! I’m like Hunter Thompson! It’s Gonzo journalism!”
Gonzo journalism, for those of you lucky enough to have no idea what I’m talking about, is a style of writing made popular by Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a blend of fact and fiction, usually written in the first person, and employs sarcasim and profanity in a kind of editorial format. A detailed explanation of Gonzo can be found here on Wikipedia.
The problem is this: Freelancers who fall back on The Gonzo Defense and play the Hunter S. Thompson card usually don’t have a clue about what it takes to successfully emulate Thompson, Lester Bangs, and other disciples of this reporting style. They’ve read one or two pieces written by Thompson and it’s so easy and fun to read, they think, “Yes! This is the style for me…” They haven’t learned to read like a writer, and they certainly don’t understand that the more enjoyable something is to read, the more difficult it was to write.
Hunter Thompson took classes in short story writing, started out as a copywriter for Time Magazine, worked as a reporter, and spent countless hours at the typewriter copying word-for-word The Great Gatsby and A Farewell to Arms to get a feel for the music of sentence structure. He was a stringer for The New York Herald Tribune, a contributor to Rolling Stone, and was of course the author of such masterpieces as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels: A Strange And Terrible Saga. The list, of course, goes on.
I’m among Thompson’s legions of fans and I’ve got nothing against true Gonzo journalism. But nothing raises my blood pressure (and makes me throw up in my mouth a little) like a freelance submission littered with misspellings and lacking any information whatsoever, all of it blasphemously written in the name of Gonzo journalism. Believe me, it’s not fun to read. It’s painful to read and I feel nothing but embarrassment for the writer, who so obviously lacks any true writing or reporting skills.
If you want to be a Gonzo journalist, go for it. But you’ve got some iconic shoes to fill. Take several writing classes, learn to punctuate, check your facts, read Thompson’s entire body of work, and for the love of Thompson…use your spellcheck or a dictionary.
Hunter S. Thompson put a tremendous amount of effort into everything he wrote. If you want to be like him, do the same. Except for the suicide part.