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6 Rules Every New Music Writer Should Follow When Writing an Album Review

Some practical steps to help you guide readers to investigate music for themselves.

Patrick Foster

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I’ve always believed the only real rule for writing an album review is that it should make you want to hear the music whether you think it’s good or bad. 

With that being said, here are some practical steps to help you guide readers to investigate music for themselves — and tell them something about it.

  1. Listen to the album at least 5 times. You can’t get a true sense of the music without immersing yourself in it. It is easy to tell when a reviewer has only listened to something once, and it never makes for a good review. 7 to 10 listens is ideal. Jot down notes when you notice something. These will be useful later. A review should have evidence. In music, evidence is found in immersion. 
  2. This is your view! Own that. Speak in the first person without stating “I think” or “In my opinion.” Avoid using terms such as, “the audience” “listeners” “fans.” Don’t assume to know their thoughts. The reader is here to learn what your thoughts are, not your assumptions about the thoughts of others. 
  3. Make sure to clearly state your opinion – the earlier in the review the better. As stated in rule #2, this is your view so make your stance clear. Establish your opinion in the first or second paragraph, and use the rest of the review to give evidence for your stance. A reader, turns to you for a trusted voice. Their interests are in your perspective. Do not make them wait 500 words to know it.
  4. Don’t be influenced by other reviews of the album. You may want to avoid them altogether until you have finished your piece. It is hard to write something personal and meaningful without being subconsciously influenced by someone else’s work. If this becomes a road block refer back to the notes you jotted down while listening to the album. They are your initial instincts. Elaborate on them. Ask yourself what grabbed your attention and why. 
  5. Double check everything, all names and spellings of songs, as well as albums. Double check references to other bands and songs in the same way. Be accurate in citing years albums were released or songs recorded. Double check all names, labels and places you reference. Inaccuracy in your review can damage credibility. 
  6. Go with your strongest instinct. Brian Eno once said, “Often in life you are confronted by many possibilities. The best thing you can do is just go for one with a quick decision, then make that choice work for you. It takes you to interesting places with surprising results. Don’t worry about what the reaction of the readers will be especially don’t let the fear of hurting the musicians feelings stand in the way. Writing what you feel, good, bad or somewhere in between will make your work stronger, truthful and more impactful. Honesty and transparency are important.  

Bottom line: Trust your gut. If it triggers a reaction in you, it will likely do the same in others. Honor your emotional reaction, it will resonate with others. It’s universal. 

If you obsess over singers and bands, and are one of those people who make a playlist for every occasion, join CMN’s Music Journalism Course and get real-time experience, intense feedback on your writing, exposure to music industry insiders, and a great place to display build your portfolio. Get all the details on the Music Journalism Course here.

Patrick Foster is the Executive Editor of College Media Network. He's has been a journalist for over 20 years, working for wide variety of publications, including The Washington Post, Time Out and SPIN. He is the co-host of the music podcast Rockin' the Suburbs.

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