Journalism Tips #7 ‘Common Writing Mistakes & How to Avoid Them – PART 2’

Hello and welcome to the seventh installment in our ongoing Journalism Tips series. This specific column is a continuation of a post we debuted last Saturday (which can be found here), but reading that entry is not a pre-requisite to enjoying the words shared below. We are glad you stopped by and hope the following advice will help further your efforts towards building a lasting career in the music business. If you have an idea for this blog, or if you would like to learn more about the digital distribution services we offer, please do not hesitate to email and share your thoughts. If you prefer social media, feel free to reach out to us on Facebook and Twitter.

The initial response to last week’s post was so overwhelming that contributing writer Joe Ballard actually spent the last few days refining the words and advice shared below to craft a suitable follow-up. His insight will not only make you a better writer, but it will also make you far less of a pain in your future editor’s side, which might get you further in life than your talents as a journalist when all is said and done.

An Introduction:

You know that classic phrase “it’s a dirty job, but someone’s gotta do it”? I feel like that’s how a lot of people think of us editors. After all, part of our job is to clean up writers’ articles and make them shiny and spotless before they get published. However, even the professionals can’t catch all the mistakes 100% of the time, and this is why I’m here today – to show writers and aspiring journalists five of the most common errors I see in music-related articles and how you can successfully avoid them in the future.  

1) Apostrophes in Years

This one is similar to the “that vs. who” mistake in that the incorrect versions are commonly accepted as accurate. Many authors and journalists will typically write a sentence just like this:

Oasis was one of the most popular British rock bands in the 1990’s. (Incorrect)

When it should read as such:

Oasis was one of the most popular British rock bands in the 1990s. (Correct) 

It’s a natural inclination to think there should be an apostrophe in a year, mainly because having a number and a letter right next to each just looks odd to many people. When dealing with apostrophes – and this applies to all words, not just years – ask yourself: what does the apostrophe stand for? That’s how you know there should be no apostrophe in the sentence above – because it can’t stand for anything. But where should it go when you’re abbreviating years?

Some of my favorite songs were recorded back in the 60’s. (Incorrect)

Some of my favorite songs were recorded back in the ‘60s. (Correct)

Many journalists make the mistake of writing the former sentence simply because it looks nicer and, well, you see it more often wherever you look on the Internet, whether it’s social media, forums, or even news outlets. The “apostrophe + s” again does not work because it cannot stand for anything there. By putting it before the 6, you’re showing that it’s standing for, in this case, the missing 19. 

In the end, the trick to dealing with apostrophes in years is similar to the “it’s/its” conundrum; if you’re writing an article and you get tripped up, stop for a moment and ask, “Can the apostrophe stand for something here?” If it can’t, you can safely live without it.

2) Compliment vs. Complement

This mistake seems to appear in music journalism more often than most other places, but fortunately it’s an easy one to rectify. 

Example 1: Few vocalist duos complement each other as well as Emery’s Toby Morrell and Devin Shelton.

Example 2: Oasis paid a lot of compliments to The Beatles throughout their discography.

If you’re a music journalist, 80% of the time you probably mean to use “complement”, which means “to complete” or to “make perfect”. You should only use “compliment” if it’s to express admiration or respect for a band or album. 

3) Who vs. Whom

Whom: the one word every writer desperately wants erased from the English language. Luckily, that’s why we have editors and the solution to the infamous who/whom debacle can be explained in a pretty straightforward way. 

Use “who” when referring to the subject of a sentence. Use “whom” when referring to the object.

Example 1: Mindy White, who once sang vocals in Lydia but now leads the band States…

The “who” in this sentence refers to the subject, which is Real Estate.

Example 2: I wonder whom the Tonight Alive song “The Other Side” was written for.

The “whom” in example 2 refers to the object of the song – in this case, a person.

In music journalism you probably won’t come across many cases where “whom” should be used. However, if you’re still confused about the subject/object issue, here’s a helpful trick: 

If the “who/whom” reference can be answered with “him/her” then you should use whom. If it can be replaced with “he/she” then it will always be who.

Take another look at example 1. You could also put it as “She once sang vocals in Lydia but now leads the band States.”

Likewise, in example 2 you could answer the question by saying “The Other Side was written for him.” 

There are examples of rarer usages in all of these cases, but to explore them all would likely leave you with a migraine. As a professional editor, this two-part series is meant to showcase a few of the most common mistakes I see from both journalists and authors. It is of course my job to find them all and correct them, but if you are or will be pursuing journalism as a career, you will impress all current and future employers by constantly practicing and perfecting your linguistic skills.

Joe Ballard is an editor for MindEqualsBlown. We have not interviewed Joe for our blog just yet, but you can rest assured we will share his story soon.

James Shotwell

James Shotwell is the Director of Customer Engagement at Haulix and host of the company's podcast, Inside Music. He is also a public speaker known for promoting careers in the entertainment industry, as well as an entertainment journalist with over a decade of experience. His bylines include Rolling Stone, Alternative Press, Substream Magazine, Nu Sound, and Under The Gun Review, among other popular outlets.