Guest Author Jim White (better known as T.W.Wombat) edits RPGs for companies like Beer Star Games, Moebius Adventures, DwD Studios, and Kobold Press. You can see a list of projects he’s worked on at his site twwombat.com. He’s happy to chat and answer questions on Google+ and as @twwombat on Twitter. In his spare time he blogs about RPGs, editing, and a smattering of flash fiction at Wombat’s Gaming Den of Iniquity.
You’re an author and game designer. Your job is to create content and rules. You’re focused on your job as you should be. You don’t always have the time to go back and make sure what you wrote makes sense. Many times you’re too close to the content to look at it objectively. Your writing may struggle to express itself, overshadowed by an avalanche of typographical errors and passive language.
You know you could improve your writing, but you don’t know how or you just don’t have the time. What should you do?
Hire an editor. An editor’s job revolves around removing problems and letting you communicate more effectively. Editors partner with authors and provide specific feedback to help clarify your writing.
Editors do many things, and there are several kinds of editors, but editing boils down to three main points.
1. Consistency, Consistency, Consistency.
Continuity errors drive readers crazy. Remember the last article you read that contradicted itself? What was your first thought? Mine was, “Did anybody even read this before they published it?” That’s precisely what editors get paid to do: make sure the author fulfills every promise made to the reader.
I’m not repeating myself in the title of this section: Consistency checks fall into three broad categories.
Facts presented in a story or article need to be consistent throughout the entire piece, or you need to explain why it changes. If you set up a husband/wife relationship early on, you shouldn’t refer to it as a brother/sister relationship later without a character in your story questioning it on the reader’s behalf. A magic item called the Red Blade of Doom shouldn’t glow blue. Sometimes I call these “factual typos” since the author usually changes an idea during a rewrite and misses updating a mention of it later on.
Nothing kills believability faster than not keeping your facts straight, especially in a short format like a magazine article. An editor should catch these internal inconsistencies and either fix them or flag them so you can fix them.
If you write as part of a larger world or RPG setting, your new content needs to fit with all the existing canon for that world or setting. If this is your first creation for the world, you need an editor familiar with the setting to navigate around the inevitable pitfalls.
Writing for a roleplaying game presents its own set of challenges. You need to leave enough room in your setting for the GM to create things as needed during play. Having an entire empire pre-scripted makes for a predictable setting, but predictability usually causes boredom. Boring settings don’t sell, and an RPG editor will give you pointers on how to make your setting sing.
Rule books have standardized stat blocks for a reason. They’re easy to read once you understand the layout and what the icons mean. If you write stat blocks for your game supplement, make sure they’re consistent with the base system, including capitalization and font. The same goes for a system’s keywords. Hit points, wound points, stun/body, life points, vitality, and stamina all refer to the same idea of measuring character health, but each system uses a single term for consistency. An editor will make sure you use the correct one.
Fiction is slightly more forgiving in this regard than RPGs, but publishers may enforce restrictions on font, formatting, or even word choice on submissions. Word count is important, especially when writing for a magazine. Writing 3,000 words for an 800 word article creates extra work for the magazine editor and will probably count against you when you pitch your next article idea. Make sure you and your editor both understand what’s expected before you submit.
Proofreading and correcting grammar also fits under style, as English has rules about word definitions, punctuation usage, and sentence structure.
Articles all have once central idea. Everything in your article should support that central idea. If you’re writing about the Gods of the Elves, you can write about relationships with other pantheons to illustrate a point, but explaining a mining technique’s impact on the dwarven economy wouldn’t make sense.
An editor will suggest that you stick with one central idea and not take on an entire world, especially in the scope of a magazine article. Other ideas belong in other articles, and an editor will help you sort out what belongs and what doesn’t.
Focus holds for rules books as well. Explaining rules should have a flow where a new concept builds on the concepts before it. Trying to explain many ideas at once will confuse your audience, especially in a crunchy section like a complex combat system. Eat the elephant one bite at a time, and remember to chew thoroughly and swallow before taking your next bite. Your editor will have suggestions about organizing your ideas to flow easily.
3. Seeing Around Your Blind Spots.
When you write, you know exactly what you mean. But when someone else reads what you write, all bets are off. What is “a reasonable amount of time” to wait for the expedition to
return to the ship? Why did these mindless skeletons tunnel through the wall in this particular spot without being ordered to do so? An editor will question your assumptions and point out where your audience needs an explanation or a definition.
I can hear some of you say, “But I don’t have a blind spot.” Congratulations. You’ve just found one of your blind spots.
Everyone has a personal bias, whether you can’t stand encumbrance rules, or you think that all undead have some innate intelligence, or the thought of gnome PCs makes you break out in hives. These assumptions will influence your writing, sometimes in unexpected ways. A good editor will help you recognize and work with your personal biases and keep them from alienating your audience.
If you remember only one thing from this article, remember this: All writing is subjective. If you want to write something objective like, say, rules for an RPG, you need a different point of view before you publish.
Getting a second opinion on your writing will help you communicate more effectively. Editors give second opinions for a living. Your editor can help you navigate past your hangups so you can write your best work.
That’s the whole point of editing: making your writing the best it can be.
Now go forth, find yourself an editor, and watch your writing soar.