The Gonzo Defense

gonzo-fistToo 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.


Learn To Read


I bet right about now you’re saying, How dare you?! Of course I can read,  I’m a writer for crying out loud! (Don’t worry, I’ll address the issue of exclamation points and their place in hackism in a later post because, believe me, it is an issue.)

But I’m talking about a different way of reading. You need to read from the standpoint of a professional writer. Look at both past issues as well as the latest copy of your targeted magazine or newspaper and see it as a road map. Because it is a road map, leading you to where you want to be on those very same pages. Too many freelancers consider themselves above reading other people’s work. This is a huge mistake. Not only will you be writing in a vacuum, you’ll never see the competition and you’ll never set the bar higher for yourself. And every writer, I don’t care who it is, should always be setting the bar higher.

So read your target carefully, don’t rush. Take your time and study each section to get a feel for where the publication is coming from and how the writers approach their subjects. Do they write in the first person or third? Do they use personal anecdotes or a straight reporting style? Do they interview one person or round up two or three experts with differing opinons?

Studying the Letter From The Editor is just as important as the articles. It will tell you a lot about what he or she likes in the publication and what’s coming in future issues. Usually an editor will throw in some personal stuff as well, and that’s a good thing. You want to familiarize yourself with the boss and what he or she is interested in.

Read the Letters To The Editor, as well. What are readers thinking, what do they like, what do they dislike? Is there a topic that isn’t being covered? You might find your next article pitch in those letters.

If a magazine is your target, read the list of contributors. Are all the health articles written by doctors? The food articles by chefs? The technical articles by mechanics? Probably not, but it’s good to know if all the freelancers are from speciality backgrounds.

In a newspaper, read the special sections and find the editors names. Are the articles written by that editor, staff or freelance contributors? Know your market.

And most importantly — and I’m trying not to lose my cool here, because this should be obvious — read your own article once it appears in a publication. I can’t tell you how many freelancers take a brief glance at their published article just to make sure it’s there, then stuff it in a box for safe keeping. They never even see any changes made by the editor. And if the editor did make changes, why? Compare the edited version of your article to your original copy and see what’s different. It may be obvious where you went wrong. If it’s not obvious, call or email the editor and (nicely) inquire why the changes were made. Unless your mistakes were monumental, the editor will welcome your interest in making improvements to your writing.

Remember, editors want freelancers they can count on. That means learning from your mistakes. It means learning what successful freelance writers are doing differently than you. If you’re willing to find out what your editor wants and then do it, that editor will send work your way.

At The Very Least

“There is Style and there is style.”  

 from The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage 

To be published, you don’t have to be a great writer. You don’t even have to be particularly good. But if you can make life easier for an editor, if an editor doesn’t have to go in and “fix” your story to make it work for his or her publication, they’re going to like you. A lot.

Part of making life easier for an editor is to make sure you, as a contributor, know the writing style of the publication. What I mean by style has nothing to do with your personal writing style. What I’m talking about is the difference between the following sentences.

Walker was born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts.

Mr. Walker was raised in Massachusetts.

Jim was raised in Boston.

Jim was born and raised in Boston, MA.

All four sentences say the same thing. Some are more formal than others, some do not go into detail, while others do. Some spell out Massachusetts while others use the abbreviation. How would your targeted publication phrase the following information?

The deejay is a wannabe super star.

The DJ is a wanna be superstar.

The D. J. is a wanna be super star.

Should you capitalize Hell? Is General Director capitalized? Is something manmade or man-made? Hand-crafted or handmade?

This is called style, and every publication has one. It’s the structure of spelling, grammar, and punctuation,  the standards for design of the document. It’s necessary for consistency, so you don’t have one article talking about MA, and another article talking about Massachusetts.

It’s the writer’s obligation to use a publication’s style when writing their articles; it’s the editor’s job to enforce the publication’s style. Note the word enforce. It is not the editor’s job to do your job, and putting your editor in that position is not going to make you any friends.

If an editor has to correct your style usage, or send the work back to you for correction, it’s a task that is never forgotten by the editor. It’s time-consuming on the editor’s part, and unprofessional on yours. In some cases you’ll get a warning (which you should find embarrassing); in others, the editor will correct your work and never hire you again.

To avoid anything that smacks of hackism, study the publication and take note of its style. Ask the editor for a “style sheet” or ask if they use Chicago Manual of Style, or the Associated Press Stylebook, or The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage, or their own combination of all three. They may tell you to study the publication, which you should be doing in the first place.

Submitting your articles written in the style of a publication is the very least you can do to impress your editor and show what a pro you really are.