You might think that Hunter S. Thompson is just another of Johnny Depp’s offbeat characters, created for his trippy late-90s movie Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Hunter S. Thompson was a real person. And he was even more outrageous than anything Depp could dream up. He’s also, years after his death, a big name in journalism. If you’re up for a job in the media, it’s de rigueur that you say you admire his writing during your interview.
Even if you’re not a journalist, learning to write like Hunter S. Thompson will shake up your writing habits and add an unorthodox liveliness to anything from memoirs to blog posts to job-seeking cover letters.
Who is Hunter S. Thompson?
Hunter S. Thompson was born on July 18, 1937, in Louisville, Kentucky. He began writing in high school, though journalism was not yet on his radar. In 1956, just before graduation and after a number of run-ins with the law, Thompson was arrested. He was given two options: join the military or go to prison.
He took Option One and joined the Air Force. Thompson gave himself a crash course in journalism so he could work for the base newspaper. “I went to the base library and found three books on journalism. I stayed there reading them until it closed. Basic journalism. I learned about headlines, leads: who, when, what, where, that sort of thing. I barely slept that night,” he recalled. “By the second week I had the whole thing down.”
He spent two years in the military, then was discharged. He worked at, and was fired from, several publications, eventually opting to freelance in Puerto Rico and South America. By the age of 21, he had already “developed a healthy contempt for journalism as a profession. … As far as I’m concerned, it’s a damned shame that a field as potentially dynamic and vital as journalism should be overrun with dullards, bums, and hacks, hag-ridden with myopia, apathy, and complacence, and generally stuck in a bog of stagnant mediocrity,” as he wrote in a job-seeking cover letter. This is when his attitude about the state of 20th-century journalism and his penchant for intoxicated shenanigans coalesced into a distinctive writing style, later known as gonzo journalism.
He had a series of hits that brought him national attention, starting with an article written for The Nation that later became the book Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs in 1966; an infamous article for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved;” and an article for Rolling Stone magazine that was developed into his most famous work, the book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
According to Joe Klein of Rolling Stone, by 1974 Thompson’s best work was behind him. He continued to write for Rolling Stone, The San Francisco Examiner, and ESPN.com, with varying degrees of success and coherence. He had a brief resurgence of popularity with the 1998 release of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on his book.
Thompson committed suicide on Feb. 20, 2005, at his home in Woody Creek, Colorado.
How to Write Like Hunter S. Thompson
There are eight simple things you can do to add Thompson’s eccentric flair to your writing. Only the bravest and most reckless will dare to use all eight.
1. Go gonzo
“Gonzo journalism” is inextricably linked to Thompson. It’s impossible to discuss one without the other. The term was first used by journalist Bill Cardoso in reference to “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved,” Thompson’s booze-soaked account of his attempt to report on the 1970 Kentucky Derby: “Forget all this shit you’ve been writing, this is it; this is pure Gonzo. If this is a start, keep rolling.”
What Thompson had written, and what he thereafter continued to write, was a new form of journalism that relied on first-person (highly) subjective reporting and narration. For gonzo journalism, style is more important than substance. The reporter, rather than the subject, is typically the star of the story, sharing their personal beliefs and opinions, coloring the narrative with dramatic dialogue and descriptions, and often encouraging the impression that the article is a hastily-produced first draft written under duress.
As journalist Matthew Hahn put it, “throw yourself into the middle of a story and write your way out of it.”
But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism. There was also the socio-psychic factor. Every now and then when your life gets complicated and the weasels start closing in, the only real cure is to load up on heinous chemicals and then drive like a bastard from Hollywood to Las Vegas.
– Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
The gonzo style often relies on what might be called “stream of consciousness reporting.” But it’s got to be approached with discipline. It’s still journalism; there are still strict standards of accuracy and grammar. While literary stream of consciousness might record a plethora of unconnected thoughts to present a bigger picture, Thompson judiciously pruned his impressions to present a precisely tailored story. Failing to do so can result in an unreadable mess. “You know, Gonzo Journalism is a term that I’ve come to dislike because of the way it’s been cast: inaccurate, crazy … flat-out lying is different from being subjective,” Thompson cautioned.
2. Don’t write
Listen instead. An oft-touted piece of advice is to write the way you speak. For Thompson, this is the key to understanding his style.
“As a young writer, Hunter had read his writing aloud as he worked. Later it was easier hearing friends read it. He said it was a technique he used to see how his sentences played,” explained Thompson’s former editor, Terry McDonell.
As Thompson’s drug use began to overwhelm him, his distinctive voice allowed others to essentially take over the task of writing for him.
“He knew he needed editing. When he filed, the pieces came in as a series of false leads. They were good, sometimes flashy, fragments, but they didn’t connect. So you ended up having to string them together to make a piece,” McDonell recalled.
Another editor, Warren Hinckle of Scanlan’s Monthly magazine, opined, “Editing Hunter was like picking up the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that had been dropped on the floor and trying to put them back together to make sense without having the benefit of the picture on the cover of the puzzle box.”
According to Sarah Lazin, who worked as an editorial assistant at Rolling Stone in the 1970s, “He would just file gibberish, and we’d have to put it together.”
His distinctive verbal mannerisms and their inseparable link to his writing style made it possible for even a green assistant to mimic him in print. The best way to learn Thompson’s pacing, inflection, and diction is to listen to him.
Early in his career (1967), flanked by two other men pretending (quite unsuccessfully) to be him.
Circa the release of the film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
3. Read the Book of Revelation
In 1997, Thompson was asked what he would put on the reading list if he were to teach a Journalism 101 course. His response: “The Book of Revelation. I still read the Book of Revelation when I need to get cranked up about language.”
The New Testament’s only book of apocalyptic prophecy records the surreal visions of an early Christian mystic, which include the four horsemen of the apocalypse, scorpion-tailed locusts, a seven-horned lamb with seven eyes, and a red dragon with seven heads.
“I have stolen more quotes and thoughts and purely elegant little starbursts of writing from the Book of Revelation than from anything else in the English language — and it is not because I am a biblical scholar, or because of any religious faith, but because I love the wild power of the language and the purity of the madness that governs it and makes it music,” Thompson said.
4. Damn the facts
Subjectivity is allowed. Conveying fundamental truth is more important than regurgitating raw facts. You shouldn’t make things up whole cloth, but your impression of what happened, and your opinion about it, is the key to the story. The fact that you’re reporting the story IS the story. If you have to exaggerate a little to convey the scope and impact of the events as you saw them, that’s fine.
5. Use the word “damn,” damn it!
Profanity is an essential element of Thompson’s style, as are colloquialisms, and a general lack of jargon, with heavy emphasis on clear, simple language. But to make this casual style work, you have to be meticulous about word choice, with flawless grammar and precise diction.
“I think the trick is that you have to use words well enough so that these nickel-and-dimers who come around bitching about being objective or the advertisers don’t like it are rendered helpless by the fact that it’s good. That’s the way people have triumphed over conventional wisdom in journalism,” Thompson said in 1997.
6. Use strong imagery and colorful dialogue
Show, don’t tell, is the hallmark of Thompson’s style. Traditional journalism, however, is all about “tell, don’t show,” as objective facts are dispassionately spelled out using neutral language. Instead, show the reader the story by including vivid details, allowing them to experience what you experienced in real time as they read. This includes the liberal use of dialogue. Exact quotes aren’t crucial. Whether the subject of the article actually said it isn’t important; what matters is whether it sounds like something they would say.
“Suddenly people were screaming at us. We were in trouble. Two thugs wearing red-gold military overcoats were looming over the hood: ‘What the hell are you doing?’ one screamed. ‘You can’t park here!’ ‘Why not?’ I said. It seemed like a reasonable place to park, plenty of space. I’d been looking for a parking spot for what seemed like a very long time. Too long. I was about ready to abandon the car and call a taxi … but then, yes, we found this space. Which turned out to be the sidewalk in front of the main entrance to the Desert Inn.
– Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
“[The artist] was staring intently at a group of young men around a stable not far away. ‘Jesus, look at the corruption in that face!’ he whispered. ‘Look at the madness, the fear, the greed!’ I looked, then quickly turned my back on the table he was drawing. The face he’d picked out to draw was the face of an old friend of mine, a prep school football star in the good old days with a sleek red Chevy convertible and a very quick hand, it was said, with the snaps of a 32 B brassiere. They called him ‘Cat Man.’ But now, a dozen years later, I wouldn’t have recognized him anywhere but here, where I should have expected to find him, in the Paddock bar on Derby Day … fat slanted eyes and a pimp’s smoke, blue silk suit and his friends looking like crooked bank tellers on a binge.
– “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”
7. Drugs, drugs, drugs
Drugs and alcohol, and the altered state of mind they cause, are integral features of Thompson’s articles. Intoxication drives the action in his prose, and accounts for some of the most striking imagery and insights.
In 1993, Thompson biographer E. Jean Carroll published a possibly hyperbolic run-down of his daily alcohol and drug-taking routine, which began each day at 3:05 p.m. with scotch (imbibed just five minutes after waking up); continued with copious amounts of cocaine and cigarettes; was bookmarked with marijuana just before dinner; and wrapped up with more cocaine, beer, liquor, clove cigarettes, regular cigarettes, champagne, acid, and sleeping pills around 8:20 in the morning. The fact that it’s unclear whether the schedule Carroll recorded is fanciful or completely accurate is quite telling.
Thompson told Rolling Stone editor Joe Klein that without drugs, “I’d have the brain of a second-rate accountant.”
Just say no, kids. But pay a visit Erowid so you can make us believe you’ve huffed ether in Vegas.
Soon we were staggering up the stairs towards the entrance, laughing stupidly and dragging each other along, like drunks. This is the main advantage of ether: it makes you behave like the village drunkard in some early Irish novel … total loss of all basic motor skills: blurred vision, no balance, numb tongue — severance of all connection between the body and the brain. Which is interesting, because the brain continues to function more or less normally … you can actually watch yourself behaving in this terrible way, but you can’t control it.”
– Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
8. Get political
Whatever your politics might be, let them leak into your reporting. For Thompson, this was the linchpin of journalism. “I can’t think in terms of journalism without thinking in terms of political ends. Unless there’s been a reaction, there’s been no journalism,” he said.
Ready to go gonzo? Take a look at this blog post written using all eight of these tips, “Hunter S. Thompson reviews a candy bar,” then throw yourself into the middle of a story and write your way out of it.
Katherine Luck is the author of the novels The Cure for Summer Boredom and In Retrospect. Her latest book, False Memoir, combines the high stakes of a gritty psychological thriller with the guilty pleasure of a sensational true crime tell-all. You can read more of her work, including the “Dead Writers and Candy” series, at the-delve.com.