The SNO Report: Lessons in writing reviews

There are a million and a half of them out there.

Of course I’m talking about entertainment reviews, talking heads weighing in on this new Ariana Grande album and that “Crazy Rich Asians” movie. You publish your take and enter the fray.

When we sat down with Detroit-based music journalist Gary Graff in October and asked him about his work, having the confidence to be yourself in your review writing was a big takeaway.

Honoring that, we don’t want put any pressure on you to change the way you write your criticisms, but we thought a lot of what he said could help you get even better and applied to writing beyond just music reviews.

Here are some of the highlights:


“When you’re talking about sound, that’s the hardest thing to write about of all the arts. Movies have plots and visuals, theater has plots and visuals, even visual art has visuals you can describe. Sound is its own beast, and to be able to convey what something sounds like and interpret and contextualize it, it’s a great challenge.”


“To do anything that involves criticism, you do need a critical vocabulary, the right words to not only describe but to put things into context and give the reader a sense of what’s going on.”

“You need to dig even deeper than you have. Yeah, you know what happened in the 90s, but you need to know what happened in the 1890s — or when we’re talking about music, the 50s and 60s. Go listen to all those Beatles albums. Know who the Rolling Stones were. Know who Chuck Berry was.

“Perspective and context are everything. Your review needs to be authoritative. You need to write with authority and authority comes with a knowledge of history … of context, and a real perspective on that artist, the genre and the overall history of the art, whether it’s music, movies or whatever.”

“You need to read about where these artists came from, who were their influences and go back and listen to those. … There are original pieces of music but there is no original music anymore. So, do the leg work. Dig in and find out where your music came from.”


“You can drive yourself crazy if you try to do that, just like you can drive yourself crazy trying to be the first one out. You have to divest yourself from worrying about what the rest of the world is doing and just do your truth. Do your article your way. Don’t compromise your criticism just to be the first or to be vastly different.”


“I want to know where the creative motivation is. What drives them? What makes them tick? Really delve into that. That comes from asking about how did you get into music? When did you start playing? What did it feel like the first time? How long did it take you to get good at it? Did you ever think about giving up? The most important thing is listening. Be ready to swerve off. If they say something that sounds interesting, follow that rabbit hole as long as you can.”