THREE GUIDING PRINCIPLES
Audience. Before even hitting the keyboard, consider who will be reading what you write. A range of readers come to All About Jazz to browse, and they all share curiosity and enthusiasm but vary widely in their previous exposure to jazz. Some are serious, others are casual. Some are musicians, others are armchair listeners. Depending on the setting, you'll be addressing a specific group.
It's best to try to be inclusive:
Present a few general ideas about sound and substance that anyone can appreciate.
Place the music within the jazz continuum.
Offer a few specialized details that true afficionados will appreciate.
Try to avoid being overly formal, since that repels casual readers, but keep it serious enough that people will take you seriously. Diction and density also matter here.
Message. The way you choose to organize expository writing is critical. If you can provide a theme to guide the flow, you'll find it more natural to write coherently--and readers will appreciate the fact that you took the time to consider larger ideas they can consider as the definitive essence of what you're trying to communicate. No need to be singular about your message; in fact, the best writing combines and interlaces broader ideas in a revealing, intuitive way.
Evidence. Evidence is the partner to message: without one, the other is useless. Whenever you make a point about the music, provide some details to back it up. The degree of specificity depends on the nature of the claim, of course, but basic descriptions are the main fodder here. Evidence serves a logical role as support for any larger ideas you choose to present, and it also serves as an independent vehicle for readers to assess the validity of your claims. If and when you discuss individual pieces, try to think like a DJ would: make note of high and low points, and aim your focus at the specific tracks which deserve special attention (and why).
YOUR LEAD SENTENCE
Make your lead sentence sparkle. The usual ways to do this are to offer intrigue or provoke a reaction. Try to get the reader to ask "why?" right away. Tie in an overriding concept which you can reference later in your submission. For example:
"Hitting play on a reissue can be like stepping into a time capsule."
The lead sentence is the way you grab the reader's attention, so give it high priority during the writing process. Avoid starting a piece by stating the lineup of a band, detailing the personal history of an artist, or offering a detailed description of the music. Instead, employ your creative powers to come up with something special: an overriding question or issue. The added bonus of this kind of approach is that you get a touchstone for use later in your piece; and your piece will have more coherent structure.
Try to communicate information, opinion, and experience as accurately, cleverly, and succinctly as possible. Repetition and redundancy should only exist to serve a purpose. Always bear in mind the point of view of the reader, which is usually to absorb as much as possible in as little time as possible. Literary tools like metaphor, simile, sarcasm, analogy, and irony are your best allies for keeping the reader's attention and accomplishing this goal.
Freshness is everything. Skirt cliches at every opportunity. Tired old phrases bog down your writing and make it significantly less fun to read. Avoid phrases like "a fascinating disc," "a unique approach" or "tremendous playing." Instead, try to give a detailed justification which will allow the reader to reach these conclusions on his own. Always use evidence to support your conclusions.
Present an angle which is unique to the artist at hand. Try to let readers know what makes a particular approach different and notable. For example, you might say:
"Butch Allen's throaty tenor saxophone style contrasts sharply with his bird-like voice on the alto."
Present a balanced perspective about the music. When considering the relative merits of a record, also pay attention to its shortcomings. Likewise, when pointing out weaknesses, identify strengths.
When you want to emphasize your opinions, always provide relevant straightforward information about the music, which allows readers to assess whatever bias you're using in coming to your conclusion. This is essential. The best way to handle value judgments in CD reviews is to provide descriptions about the music, then aim your like/dislike in specific ways.
Words like "good," "nice," "bad," "poor," and so forth work best when used sparingly. (See above regarding freshness.) Words like "perfect," "masterpiece," "disaster," and "failure" are to be used with extreme caution. Readers are very sensitive to unreasonable aesthetic judgments; if your goal is to convince them of your point of view, reasonable understatement always works better than heavy-handedness.