Journalism Tips #13: ‘Learn To Disconnect’

Thank you for joining us for another installment in our our ongoing Journalism Tips series. We started this column as a way to help aspiring writers get their start in music, but over the couple months we have been evolving into a place writers come to have their questions about life in the business answered. Today we are continuing that effort with a response to a question posed by multiple reader in regards to the best skill any writer can develop. If you have any questions about developing as a writer/blogger in music, please do not hesitate email and share your thoughts. We can also be found on Twitter and Facebook.

In the age of social media and instant connectivity it can be hard to resist the promise of instant gratification that comes with being the first to post about a certain artist or topic. There is a seemingly endless demand for content in 2014, and the allure of grabbing a few new clicks by hopping on the next breaking items a temptation every music writer knows all too well. What professionals realize that amateurs do not is that no amount of mindless content will ever build a sustainable career. Breaking news and being on top of the latest headline may garner short term recognition, but lasting careers are built on original ideas and unique perspectives. You have to separate yourself from the deafening roar of blogs and writers that already exists so that people seek out your work. They will still want to hear about the latest and great music, but they specifically want to hear about it from you. Delivered in your voice with your unique phrasing and style. 

I am not sure I could ever properly explain how one develops their own style, but from my own experiences and witnessing others rise through the professional ranks I can tell you the path to setting yourself apart begins with learning to disconnect. I spent years of my so-called professional career waking up at the crack of dawn with the sole intention of churning out as much news as I could in the hours ahead. My blog was young and so was I, at least in the professional sense, and I fell victim to the idea enough quickly posted breaking news bits would establish either myself or my site as something special in the business. What I did not realize at the time was that the only thing my rushed posts amounted to was a slightly condensed version of whatever information was in the press release or separate site’s post I was using as my source. I was making a lot of posts, but creating very little in the form of actual content. My URL and whatever writing talents I had at the time were a thinly veiled promotion platform for whatever talent hit my inbox first. Traffic was good, but my voice was nowhere to be found.

Somewhere amidst my fourth year of writing I felt like I had hit a new plateau where I could write about anything that interested me and my readers would follow. I was writing more original content than I had before, but I was also still making as much time as possible for news. My site also had at least fifteen additional contributors at this point, and each of them were responsible for creating a minimum of three posts a day. If the sun set and we had yet to break twenty ‘stories’ I thought I had somehow failed myself and my audience. That audience, however, was not really mine to fail. They were news hungry clickers, jumping from Twitter feed to Facebook feed and back again in search of headlines that grab their attention. They were after the video, song, tour, or other media-related item at the center of the story and not my site or the voices of anyone writing for it. We were ubiquitous in music blogging, inseparable from countless other teens and twenty-somethings with a working knowledge of WordPress, Blogger, or Tumblr. If we didn’t get the latest hot item out within minutes of the people we saw as competition our posts saw no traffic. Truth be told those posts did not really deserve any traffic in the first place. They were lifeless and filled with stale writing that regurgitated press releases in ways not too distant from my writing habits three years prior. I was spinning my wheels at best, and in doing so causing a lot of other aspiring writers to do the same. 

My breaking point came somewhere in the fall of that year. September and October are always busy months for music, and no matter how many posts we shoveled out I always went to bed feeling like we could be doing more. I would wake up no later than six in the morning (on the East Coast), shower, and then sit down at my desk to begin scouring the net for any headlines, songs, or videos that may have popped up while I was sleeping. My site was covering essentially all variation of rock, pop, and hip hop at this point, as well as some film content whenever something special grabbed our attention. Coffee was my fuel and whatever songs were released that particular day was my soundtrack. There was no time to plan, there was only that day and the dozens of press releases that would fill my inbox. I drank coffee to stay moving and left the house only for work or assignments. If I went to a show or movie, I had to write about it. I needed to set myself apart, and if we could just get a little more content onto the site I knew that attention would come. 

One morning I woke up and I felt like I was going to be sick. I could not eat, I could not drink, and I hated the idea of being anywhere that did not require a sweatshirt to be comfortable. I initially thought the season’s typical round of flu and disease has caught up to me, but by day three the pain was downright unbearable, and my list of symptoms had grown to include dehydration and bouts of dizziness. I saw two doctors and had several tests, but they best anyone could tell me was that I had simply become too caught up in the stresses and anxieties of my everyday life. I  had pushed myself to the limit, both mentally and physically, and my body was unable to cope. There was no surgery to be performed or physical therapy needed, but I did receive a recurring supply of nausea meds and a recommendation to relax.

The medicine worked wonders and I was happy to welcome it into my routine, but the recommendation to relax is one I did not fully grasp. I thought my site was they way I would typically relax. It’s what I did to feel like myself, so even though I took a leave from my day job I was still doing everything in my power to create as much content as possible. I asked my contributors to work more if they could and worried constantly about whether or not enough was being done. I did not heal and I did not sleep any more than I did before. I took my pills though, and for a long time that helped.

As I was nearing the end of my first refill of nausea medicine, I knew I needed to make a change. Winter was still waging strong and the amount press releases hitting my inbox was still on the rise, but I needed to stop. My life had become a giant hamster ball, and the endless running in circles had begun to take a toll on my body I could no longer ignore. Even worse, at least in my foolish opinion at the time, my career was still not taking off even though I was killing myself to give music ‘my all.’ Christmas was coming and I knew things would slow down a bit, so I decided it was time to finally try and unplug. 

You probably know where this is headed by now, but after a couple of days my health problems began to turn around. The knots in my stomach that I once thought could never be tighter began to loosen and my mind began to feel enthusiastic about the concept of writing once again. I did not want to write news, but rather features and editorials with interviews and unique perspectives. I wanted to uncover the last great band in the midwest and share their first demo with everyone I knew. I wanted to be a professional.

After a solid week of rest and light engagement with the digital world I woke one morning, still at six, and hopped in the shower. Once clean, I ate breakfast, spent time with my girlfriend (who had been there the whole time, though I never really made time for her), and talked about our plans for the week. I stepped out on our patio and took in the morning air, then sat down at my desk and logged on to start the day. I skipped the inboxes and went directly to work on an editorial regarding a band I had loved since childhood with the sole intention of hopefully bringing their creations to the attention of a few new curious ears. It was not the greatest article I had ever written, but it was one of the most honest and sincere things I had created in years. Better yet, it made me feel good to share it with people and see them have a reaction. There was a genuine sense of connection with those who engaged the article, and even when someone reacted in a negative way I knew it was only because of my words that they felt that emotion at that point in time. I was making a mark. I was using my voice.

Two years have passed since that first bout with self-induced illness and I still struggle with the allure of being on top of every ‘cool’ story. I am not sure online writers today can ever truly escape that temptation, but it is possible to shut off your laptop, put away your phone, and spend a few minutes engaging with the world around you. It’s not the easiest thing to do, and if I am being completely honest there have been two additional hospitalizations for similar reasons since then, but it’s one of the most important skill any writer can master. You need to disconnect from the digital world and spend time working on anything other than writing about music. Take a walk, take a nap, grab some coffee, ask someone on a date, see the Red Sox, read a book, call your mom, go camping, go to a hotel, go anywhere and do anything that allows you to interact with the universe without feeling compelled to turn that interaction into content for your blog. Life is not about content, it’s about experiences, and it’s great experiences that eventually make for great stories. You’re never going to reach the professional level of writing if you’re unable to experience, develop, and share great moments, but more importantly you’re never going to be happy unless you learn to experience life.

Don’t let your life get so out of control that you end up in the hospital with a condition brought on entirely from your own poor decision making. It’s not worth the damage it does to your body or your wallet. The internet will still be here tomorrow, and if it’s not then you will figure out another way to share your voice. Just breathe. It’s going to be okay.

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.