A Writer's Guide To Gonzo Journalism

A Writer’s Guide To Gonzo Journalism

In this post, we explore gonzo journalism, the unique writing style that originated from the New Journalism-movement. We include examples and tips for writing it.

The first appearance of true Gonzo Journalism is credited to American writer Hunter S. Thompson in 1970. The gonzo genre is experiencing a 21st century resurrection.

Here’s a writer’s guide to gonzo journalism (and how it works).

What Is Gonzo Journalism?

Gonzo journalism is characterised by the writer’s immersion into the story’s events, often in first-person. Writing is factual, but techniques like exaggeration, humour, and sarcasm are incorporated. 

The role of a gonzo journalist can be compared to a method actor: instead of just telling the story, their personal involvement in its events are crucial.

Gonzo is still journalism, but with a bladed edge and allowed wit.

Who Wrote Gonzo Journalism?

Hunter S. Thompson is credited as the founder of gonzo with the publication of The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved (Scanlan’s Monthly, 1970). 

Further examples of gonzo writing includes journalists Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Mandy Wiener.

Markets featuring modernised gonzo writing includes VICE (My Wedding Feast Gave All Of My Loved Ones Salmonella), Esquire, Mail & Guardian, and Rolling Stone (Billie Eilish and the Pursuit of Happiness).

The lasting popularity of gonzo-style writing has increased the markets who are willing to publish more. Traditional ‘essay’ markets such as Vanity Fair have included it. See Dominick Dunne On His Daughter’s Murder and Buzz Bissinger’s The Famous & The Dead.

Gonzo On Paper: Examples

The inherent gonzo-ness of a writing piece should be apparent from its first sentence. Standard journalism (for example, hard news) uses an introduction to state initial facts, but gonzo draws the reader in.

  1. ‘I got off the plane around midnight and no one spoke as I crossed the dark runway to the terminal. The air was thick and hot, like wandering into a steam bath. Inside, people hugged each other and shook hands…big grins and a whoop here and there: “By God! You old bastard! Good to see you, boy! Damn good…and I mean it!”’ – The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent And Depraved, Scanlan’s Monthly, by Hunter S. Thompson. The iconic Thompson-piece begins with scene description at length. While the piece covers the Kentucky Derby event, its central focus is interaction, setting, and eccentricity.
  2. ‘Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening […]’ – Frank Sinatra Has A Cold, Esquire, by Gay Talese. Talese wrote his Esquire feature in a true gonzo style. The quotations are accurate and the subject is described: simultaneously, Talese uses heavily descriptive sentences atypical of standard journalism at the time.
  3. ‘The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call ‘out there.” – In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. Capote wrote his iconic nonfiction book In Cold Blood, released in 1966, after involving himself in the story by interviewing the accused. The results proved popular, though very controversial.
  4. ‘You’re either on the bus, or off the bus.’ – The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, by Tom Wolfe. Wolfe published The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test in 1968 to cover the story of a bus, counterculture, drugs, and experimental science of the time. It became an immediate mark of New Journalism, which would later evolve into gonzo.
  5. ‘On the 22d of September I was asked by the [New York] World if I could have myself committed to one of the asylums for the insane in New York, with a view to writing a plain and unvarnished narrative of the treatment of the patients therein and the methods of management, etc.’ Ten Days In A Mad-House, by Nelly Bly. Bly made history for journalism and mental health: she had herself committed to Women’s Lunatic Asylum in 1887 to investigate allegations of patient abuse. Later, her reports were collected in a book – as a true example of early immersive journalism. Writers of American Horror Story based the character, Lana Winters on the life story of Bly. The full, original text is available at Project Gutenberg.

A Writer’s Guide To Gonzo Journalism

1. Gonzo & Style: Why It’s Different

Gonzo journalism is known for its creativity, scene description, and writer’s involvement in the storytelling. The story uses facts, but conveys them using a more personal writing style.

The journalist uses their role, interaction, and personal thoughts to drive the narrative. Gonzo writing is less subjective than standard news reporting as a result.

2. Gonzo & Topics: Can Anything Be Gonzo Journalism?

Interviews, events, and human interest stories are a good gonzo journalism fit. If you would like to write gonzo journalism yourself, check with your publication first and foremost.

Editors enjoy excellent writing, but editors will not enjoy being surprised by gonzo journalism when they didn’t ask for it. A close relationship with your chosen publication is advised for gonzo work.

Do not expect a publication to cover your expenses (unless stated or agreed), and never expect a publication to get you (as the writer) out of trouble for a story.

3. Researching & Gonzo: How It’s Done Right

Gonzo is still journalism, and stories covered should always remain rooted in fact. Never misquote a source, and never let a creative exaggeration skew a real quotation or event.

Great gonzo writing combines:

  1. Reliable online research sources.
  2. The writer’s first-hand experiences by immersion.
  3. Secondary interviewed resources.
  4. Post-mortem double-checked facts during editing.

Always begin with initial research on the people, the topic, and the setting before any attempted immersion or interviewing. It’s how any smart journalist prepares.

Must-read: 6 Practical Research Techniques For All Writers

4. Immersion & Other Gonzo Themes

First-person storytelling is a common sight for the majority of gonzo writing you’ll read. For writers, it means immersion and involvement in the story (or story’s arc), and heightened creativity in its description.

Do you think you’ve got a gonzo story coming up? Record the experience, and take detailed notes. Involve yourself in it, and ask a lot of questions. Gonzo means getting involved and writing about what happens next.

Gonzo journalism should never potentially endanger a writer, a subject, or a source. While gonzo often looks crazed and chaotic, its events are never dangerous or illegal.

5. Successful Gonzo Journalism: Putting It Together

A gonzo journalism story works when it has managed to grab the reader until the end, and still conveyed the focal point through creativity and chaotic style.

Collect interviews, recordings, third-party resources, and experiences as a researcher first. After the event, go through these resources to create your story’s outline.

From the skeletal outline, build your sentences (but do not forget your initial statement, topic, or point).

6. Gonzo Journalism Mistakes: What NOT To Do

Gonzo is easy to attempt, but can be tricky to achieve. There are obvious mistakes that separates the good writing from the bad. Here’s what to avoid at all costs if you want readers/editors to enjoy the ride.

Gonzo journalism should never:

  1. Endanger writers, sources, or subjects.
  2. Misquote, or skew the story’s truth.
  3. Be fuelled by alcohol or drugs, though references are common.
  4. Blow profanity out of the water, though references are common (and publication dependant).
  5. Let its topic get lost in distraction or creativity.

The Last Word

If you think that gonzo journalism might be your chosen style, study publications (for example, VICE) and writers (for example, Weiner, Thompson, & Kerouac) with more intensity.

Experience new things, interact with new people, and write about these newfound experiences: this is how the gonzo writer learns.

Image: Two thumbs and four fingers holding a peyote button form the ‘gonzo fist.’ This originated in Hunter S. Thompson’s 1970 campaign for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado. It went on to become an iconic symbol of Thompson and gonzo journalism as a whole.

 By Alex J. Coyne. Alex is a writer, proofreader, and regular card player. His features about cards, bridge, and card playing have appeared in Great Bridge Links, Gifts for Card Players, Bridge Canada Magazine, and Caribbean Compass. Get in touch at alexcoyneofficial.com.

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Posted on: 9th August 2021

2 thoughts on “A Writer’s Guide To Gonzo Journalism”

  1. GReat blog. Did you know that the majority of the interviews for ‘In Cold Blood’ were conducted by Harper Lee and not Truman Capote? It was one of the reasons why these two friends-from-childhood fell out. Capote never acknowledged Lee’s massive contribution to the book. And she was, needless to say, rather miffed.

  2. Well, I never knew this was a thing! I love it and now it has a name, I’ll use it more. I guess it’s OK to fictionalise it.

    Thanks for sharing and I’ll be more cautious about the tempting chicken at weddings.

    **Note to caterers, make you you make not quite enough, so ALL the evidence is consumed!

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