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Positive Feedback ISSUE 7
june/july 2003


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Auroville 18
by Srajan Ebaen

In one of his popularly terse Editorials, Marc Mickelson of SoundStage! mused over the requirements that lead to good audio writing. He concluded that in the final analysis, a love of writing—about audio—was more important than fascination with equipment, excessive listening habits or supernal golden-eared skills.

I concur completely. When sufficient exposure undermines the allure of the unknown; when performance qualifiers shrink in substance and scope to make ferreting them out more hard work and less easy-come obviousness and pleasure; when the old "been there, done that" specter of exhaustion and boredom outshines the initial enthusiasm that wrote itself; when listening for stuff strangulates your native disposition of listening to music without pen & paper; when the rakish new eventually turns old hat…. what then will motivate your writerly efforts, justify them, make them meaningful, fun and self-propulsive?

Talking openly with colleagues, many confess to burnout. They observe dragging themselves to pending assignments, hoping in vein for the muse to loosen their tongue, pump those adrenals, flush out the clogged arteries and channel the good stuff. The love affair's gone stale. The pure thought of going through another round of amorous acrobatics, without accompanying desire to transcend stationary push-ups and hip gyrations into sublime sharing? It simply becomes dreadful. Mañana—perhaps. Or the day after. What's in the refrigerator?

For this very reason, a wise proverb councils against turning a hobby into a profession. Consider that most audio reviewers write not for professionals but hobbyists. Do hobbyists prefer talking among their own as they do on Audio Asylum? Or be preached to by the pros who've clearly sold out to do it for the well-rising dough? The customary definition of a professional, it's true, involves doing something for money—for a living that puts food on the table. It also involves simple regularity, implying competence, a certain standard of performance, conduct and ethics.

Outside of the money equation, these qualities or expectations overlap nicely with serious hobbyists. The money—certain sizeable print magazines excepted—really doesn't amount to much. What really makes an un- or poorly paid audio reviewer a "professional" is, first and foremost, publishing regularity. The more you write, the more often people read you; the more visible or established you become (or seem to be); the bigger of a player you grow into (if you're popular enough); the more influence you wield; the more access you develop to review gear and insider information.

Alas, it's this very regularity that also kills the spark most effectively. The only escape I can see? To make writing—every single day—your MO, part of what you're about, an essential ingredient of your life style. Then audio merely happens to be what you write about because you know it intimately, because new components present automatic opportunities – but it's somehow tangential to the raw act of writing itself. Unlike elusive fiction that needs to be dredged up from the depths of the imagination, audio reviewing presents itself in nearly mechanical fashion. The new component needs to be physically described, background data on the firm or employed technology unearthed. Then it's reporting on sonics. As a finishing touch, an assessment of how it compares finally questions whether it's worth its asking price and renders an informed judgment.

As far as writing goes, this is a lot easier than penning a regular column which requires pulling interesting stuff out of your cap like magical rabbits. It's not unlike looking for a job in the classifieds—foreboding, lonely, challenging, scary. Wouldn't you rather have efficient headhunters chase you down with a lucrative offer? The other trouble with theme-based columns? You may eventually even run out of ideas where to look, never mind finding promising things there. The only way to avoid this dry well is to live your column such that mundane day-to-day existence generates ongoing content for you. Naturally, unless you lived a somewhat interesting life—or at least interesting to your readership—this poses its own challenges.

In many respects, working as an audio reviewer seems like one of the easiest-to-master writing formats. There's a clear structure—wham-bam-thank-you-Thiel—and length is limited. It's also one of the easiest to have published. Selling fiction or poetry—once you've written it, no small task—is far harder than finding room for a monthly column or 2500-word-or-less reviews.

Committing to a regular review schedule further makes for an attractive outer structure that keeps you engaged in the process of regular writing. But as you'll have noted, all of these advantages hold true only from the perspective of wanting to write—credibly and knowledgeably—about something. While our something happens to be audio, it's truly, at the very bottom of this consideration, mostly irrelevant. It's simply that we know enough about it and enjoy an inbuilt audience with prefab interest. But the thing itself, the itch, the driving force, isn't audio. It's writing. It's the enjoyment of language, of communicating, of wrestling with syntax, of making a creative challenge out of finding new ways of saying more or less similar things over and over again. It's the fascination over turning what essentially is a form of technical writing into a creative enterprise as well.

As Mickelson said so poignantly, to be a successful long-lasting audio reviewer requires, above all, a love of writing. It ideally begins or at least soon grows into skillfulness with the written word though examples of passionate writers exist who never grow beyond a certain skill but enjoy popularity regardless. Unfortunately, many aspiring audio writers seem to believe that a love of audio and listening to music are the primary qualifications. Wrong. If those, indeed, were the overriding forces and qualifications, they'll quickly wear themselves thin and threadbare. Should such writers continue past the point of natural passion, their writing will invariably turn dull and predictable. After all, the writing only reflects the relationship to what is written about—the subject called audio hardware. It doesn't mirror the act of writing—the motivational context and creative mind space.

Unless one was self-published, audio writing of course also entails being edited. This is one of those aspects excited novices tend to overlook. They just want to get published. Alas, an editor can significantly delay or accelerate burnout. A good one is like a doctor (first, do no harm), a conductor (don't interfere unless the orchestra loses the beat) or master thief (nobody will ever know you where there). A great editor is like a teacher/therapist who recognizes potential and flaws and grooms/guides the writer to develop a unique voice while overcoming inherent technical weaknesses.

Should an aspiring writer forget to evaluate the quality of his prospective editor who becomes the de-facto pipeline through which all work must pass? He might soon find himself embroiled in a bloody battle of will and style that he can't win. Nothing kills enthusiasm as fast as constantly expectant fear over being made wrong, asked to write in a style that isn't one's own, forced to conform to paint-by-number schemes that don't fit the own voice and way of thinking.

Looking at one web-based magazine's constant loss of better writers to migration elsewhere, I must point at Editorial conflicts and poor management skills. Rather than using available talent to its best and most unique advantage, a wholesale streamlining process homogenizes individuality and thus squeezes the most gifted, interesting writers with the strongest personalities the hardest - and painfully enough to call it quits. You could say that a good Editor/publisher must also be a Zen gardener. While carefully pruning, weeding and clipping, he finds the perfect mixture of light and shade for each of his plants. For his garden, he's interested in variety and contrast—wildness and control—rather than a bland, perfectly manicured lawn where each blade is the same length as the next.

My advice for would-be audio reviewers? Don't get into it for the long haul unless you feel called to a writing career, as professional or serious amateur. If you entered into it as a writer, be careful, selective and demanding of who becomes your Editor. This, more than the actual publication, can make or break you. A well-argued, interestingly written review will shine on its own merit no matter where it appears (as long as you're assured a certain readership so it's read). A castrated, crippled review that's been through the Editorial wringer and no longer reflects its original creator's tone and meaning—or one that was especially penned in anticipation of such reactions—will read weak, patched-together and incoherent no matter how glossily represented.

Those who habitually critique audio writers might like to try on this process for size. It's a lot more work than it looks—if you had high standards and ambitions to mix it up with your established peers. Laboring two months over a 2000-word review with some good weed and tons of late-night rewrites is just the beginning. Eventually, you'll have to pen polished copy reliably and repeatably in a few days, come rain or shine. That's what separates the men from the boys, the real women from the little girls. After all, at the end of the day, a piece of writing is a product. It's no different from a repaired car or 80 poured candles. Professionals produce—on time, and in the quantity and quality committed to. The whole artistic notion of taking your good ol' time and only tackling it when you feel moved by the spirits is a bunch of lame poppycock disguised as artistic freedom. It's free only if someone else holds the bag.

If "professional" writing were what you felt called to—and audio happens to be your passion so you already have raw material to write about—you might find it to be a rather transformative experience. Writing on a regular basis eventually opens up channels. One day, you no longer have to be "in the mood" or "inspired" to enjoy a smooth, effortless experience. The mechanical aspects recede into the background and something else takes over. You'll then simply sit down and write a tight interesting article in a few hours, without any prior idea or notion what about. It's as though the act of regularity eventually burned out certain barriers. Your subconscious—or whatever you prefer to call it—then takes over most the processing and data collection. You may unravel an entire expose from one lone opening sentence that came to you in the shower. From there, it spills out freely without any apparent doing on your part—except that you have to show up at the keyboard and use your growing self-editing tidy-up skills in the wake of the transmission.

If you show up like that every single day, "someone" eventually notices and shows up as well. You may then be surprised at some of the cool stuff that comes through. Writing as a discipline to get in touch with deeper layers of our personality?

From my own perspective and experience, that's very much the case indeed. It's what makes this process so rewarding—and only tangentially related to audio. Does one ever run out of things to say? I can't tell yet. I can say that, up until now and in this ordinary but disciplined act of showing up and making space for the process to engage and fulfill itself, popular notions of abundance are confirmed time and again. Chances are that if it eventually were to empty itself out, with nothing meaningful left to say, it'd be accompanied by a sense of completion and fulfillment. It'd clear the way for another process and phase in life to arise. The only vital thing in the meantime? As long as you do it, do it with your candle burning brightly and from both ends. If that means it'll go out faster? You'll be led to other latent skills that require setting up a new candle and learning what that is all about.

If audio writing sounds like something you want to try on for size, contact me at my magazine or Dave Clark ( right here at Positive Feedback On-Line. We're always looking…

Visit Srajan at his site

On a side note, read our "Ethical Principles and Guidelines for Members of the Positive Feedback Online Community" (AKA "The BIG TEN"!) at