So You Want To Write About Games
This article was inspired by, what I see as, a lack of direction for people who are scratching the surface of their interest in writing about games. Sure, there are plenty of PDFs and eBook guides by industry veterans, and they are all fine but they were never the introduction I wanted. Because what those guides miss is that every person who can think can write. All it takes is the will to start.
What follows is the anecdotal advice of my own journey, one as unorthodox and accidental—and admittedly recent—as any other. This is the lessons and aphorisms which at one point were sharpied on legal pads and taped to the wall behind my desk: reminders that whether you’re Yeats or Sterling, Dawkins or Martin, Wallace or Wittgenstein, everybody starts with absolutely no idea what they’re doing.
The examples I’ve included are those that have influenced me most, and newbies ought not feel dissuaded if they don’t recognize many of the names here. It is not the reference that is important but the lesson.
Banner image is "Office Shot" by Martin Thomas. (Source: Flickr)
Great writers begin by being great readers. Nobody who has ever written professionally gets anywhere by having never read others in the same field as themselves.
...Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence…
The advice from Yeats’ poem Sailing to Byzantium is simple: you learn by studying. Read IGN, Gamestop, Jim Sterling, The Escapist, Ancient Gaming Noob. Read everybody. And I mean everybody. Read Big Bertha’s Final Fantasy WordPress blog, Chimichanga’s Tweets, and CoolGuy69’s xanga. It doesn’t matter what you think of the brand, or the writer with the smug avatar, study everyone and everything.
And as you read ask yourself, “why did they organize their article like this? Are they telling me what I want to know? How much of their article is personal experience versus objective description of the game’s mechanics? How much information do they withhold?” And most important, “do I like how they’ve written this article, is this something I want to emulate?”
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (author of Ubik, A Scanner Darkly, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and many more) learned to write—supposedly—by copying the pulp fiction novels he read as a kid. He dissected his mentors, emulated their style, and transformed them into something new by virtue of being his substance-abusing compulsive-lying self.
When anyone emulates another they can’t help but imbue their work with a piece of themselves. Just like all people everywhere, you are a product of your own experiences and immediate context. So don’t be afraid to take apart your favorite reviewer, essayist, author, and copy them as best you can. What you’re doing isn’t plagiarism; it will become your own style, one that reflects you. That’s how you learn. It worked for Dick.
As a fun aside, it worked so brilliantly for Dick that he became the only American speculative fiction author who Polish-author Stanislaw Lem (best known for Solaris) respected, a respect that was repaid with a letter from Dick to the FBI accusing Lem of being a Communist sympathizer. Just because you’re in the same profession doesn’t mean you get along.
But if you only study the tip of the pyramid—the Kings on the throne—you’ll never understand the foundation it rests on; to know what counts as good writing you must also know what’s considered bad writing.
Understand what it is that makes bad writing bad. “Did the writer use too many commas? Does their grammar confuse their purpose? Are they inserting long syllabic words, words that have been clearly taken from a thesaurus like, ‘Gigantic is a pulchritudinous MOBA?’ Do their sentences follow logically from one to the next? Is it one declarative sentence in a chain of sentences too many? Are their sentences all the same length, with wordy usages that sound monotone and tepid?”
Every day I read dozens of articles across the MMO and gaming sphere, some that desperately need an editor and others that are finely crafted works of prose. At first it’s not obvious. But the more you read and write and study the more aware you become of what works and what doesn’t, until a single paragraph will tell you where the writer is on their own journey.
Here, I need to raise a quick objection to the notion that all writing is subjective, just as the notion that all art is subjective. Neither is true. You innately know bad writing just as you know bad art. You can blame extremely loud pseudo-intellectuals for the blue-ribbon posturing that all creations are equal. Like art, writing is a safe space for elitism. It’s why people who don’t read know the name “James Joyce,” but I don’t know anybody who can tell me the author of 50 Shades of Grey.
There is a debate in writing between prescriptivism and descriptivism. The truth is that both schools are correct, and I can explore the practicality of that debate in a future article.
Cory Doctorow spoke some sage advice in a YouTube video I can no longer find the link for. His line was something like, “Force yourself to write every day. In a year you won’t be able to tell the difference between when you force yourself and when you’re inspired.”
Every day, set aside time to hone your craft, whether it’s a half-hour, an hour, less, or more. Consistency is what’s important. At first you’ll struggle, you’ll bang your head against the kitchen table and doubt you have anything worth sharing. Everybody goes through the same routine. But in as little as a week you’ll start to notice a difference, you’ll become more comfortable with the pen or keyboard, and that sense of doubt will dissipate and you’ll wonder why your doubts existed in the first place.
Pop culture has fostered the erroneous image that writers—and artists—only create when they feel inspired. We can’t help but conjure a tweed jacket-wearing, corn-cob pipe smoking contrarian who whips out a pocket-sized notebook in the middle of dinner because she’s been struck by Jupiter’s touch—a lightbulb hovers above her mushy cranium in our mind’s eye. While such a ridiculous image does happen, it’s not the quotidian life of any person who creates.
No great writer, from Sappho to Plath, created only when they feel inspired. Most of them wake up on Monday, sigh over a cup of coffee, and force themselves to clack away on their keyboard. They don’t hate what they do, but they don’t live in a constant state of ecstasy either; that would be exhausting.
If you want to write just do it, and just by doing it you will get better.
Every act of communication involves words; even emoticons is a kind of a hieroglyphic language. Poet Robert Pinsky remarked that the way we speak is the most natural song we know, so that we are constantly singing to one another all day long. And he’s right. The way you intuitively communicate with friends and family is the simplest and most straightforward language. And your prose ought to begin by reflecting that simplicity.
Writing is an art, but it doesn’t have to replicate the surrealism of Wojtek Siudmak, or William Burroughs’ cut-paste technique. Strive to make your writing as clear as possible. If you show an article to your mother, your dad, your aunt, and they spend more time looking up words on their phone than they do figuring out what a “World of Warcraft” is, then you’ve made a mistake.
George Orwell wrote an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” which you can read online for free and you should. In it, he rallies against bloated bureaucratic speech, Latin phrases, multisyllabic words, and all other enigmatic aspects of writing he saw as a way for a pompous—and foolish—pseudo-intelligentsia to inflate their ego: one that talked in its own puffed-up language mask the poor ideas being expressed. It’s a great read, and every person who wishes to write ought to know it, and keep it mind as they write.
Don’t misunderstand. Flowery and creative language is a wonderful tool, but like VFX in a movie it doesn’t make up for a lack of substance. (Funny enough, it was George Lucas who made that remark. He didn’t follow his own advice forever. But that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.) Poetic prose helps reinforce ideas which are expressed with concision; simple language is the hallmark of great writing.
If you want to know what to read as an example of prose with clarity look no further than the Bible. H.P. Lovecraft remarked that the King James Bible was the finest work of English prose he read. It also contains wisdom that makes it a bestseller, ”Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10).
If you want to write about games, do it with all your might.
When I work with new writers I always tell them the same advice Vonnegut wrote in his guide to writing well. And I can’t say it any better than he did. But my poor summary is, imbue your work with a part of yourself because writing is a craft rooted in honesty:
Newspaper reporters and technical writers are trained to reveal almost nothing about themselves in their writing. This makes them freaks in the world of writers, since almost all of the other ink-stained wretches in that world reveal a lot about themselves to readers. We call these revelations, accidental and intentional, elements of style.
These revelations tell us as readers what sort of person it is with whom we are spending time. Does the writer sound ignorant or informed, stupid or bright, crooked or honest, humorless or playful–? And on and on.
Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your reader will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an ego maniac or a chowderhead — or, worse, they will stop reading you.
The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not. Don’t you yourself like or dislike writers mainly for what they choose to show or make you think about? Did you ever admire an empty-headed writer for his or her mastery of the language? No.
So your own winning style must begin with ideas in your head.
What’s preceded is an all-too short compilation of advice, things I routinely think about as I put together any piece, including this one. There’s plenty more to be said but this was created as the starting advice for someone whose New Year’s Resolution is, “I want to write [more] this year.”
In one of my favorite episodes of Star Trek a fictional Mark Twain says to an aspirational Jack London, “Write what you know.” I have never heard better advice as elegantly put as that. Remember, as long as you can think you can write. All it takes is a bit of pen and paper, and the will to make them meet.
So, write what you know.
If you're interested in reading more check out Part 2 of the So You Want To Write About Games guide.
All books can be purchased through Thriftbooks, where they’re typically no more than $4.00. Or you can find free PDFs if the book is older.