Monday, October 30, 2006

So You Want To Be A Games Journalist

I'm playing this very straight as I work for some very straight publications, and my years in games journalism have not been the dazzling multiformat affairs that my co-writers have experienced. It's also based on magazines, because they're what I work on, and it's been done in a hurry because I'm trying to launch one at the moment and that's taking up most of my time. Made very short:

1.Be a good writer
That means knowing how to spell, knowing the rules of grammar, knowing which clich├ęs to avoid and lots of other stuff that boils down to knowing that millions of words have already been written, thousands more will be written about exactly the same subject, and that your words have to stand out from them. If you aren’t a good writer – and this is something you should always be insecure about - then practice, and read other good writers, until you are.

2. Know something about games
I mention this mostly to point out that you don't have to know everything about games, played every Mario game to completion, have a Halo tattoo or whatever. Journalism has always demanded the ability to very quickly become an expert in something. You don't have to have played everything, but you do have to be prepared to do enough research to convincingly plug any gaps in your knowledge before writing.

3. Know about the medium you're writing for, and write for it
Writing for the web is different from writing for magazines; writing for one magazine is different to writing for another. Magazines for twelve-year-old boys will have a very different approach to magazines for thirty-year-old developers. If you only want to write concept reviews explaining how Solid Snake is actually speaking from the perspective of the battered wife, great, but don’t submit them to Good Housekeeping.

4. Have something interesting to say
This is overstating the case, but I believe it to be necessary. There are some, very few, games that are easy to write interestingly about. The majority of games are uninspired genre work. Your function is to write about them and make it interesting.

You might think that all of the above is stating the obvious. I used to, too, until about two years in; the umpteenth conversation or forum post or plaintive email about I Want To Be A Games Writer or Those Bastards Won’t Accept My Illiterate Blog Post About Girls In Gaming. Thus, I want to be very explicit: from my point of view as somebody who employs people to write about games (and all sorts of other stuff) what I want is somebody who's going to produce something literate, interesting, novel, and suitable for whatever I'm putting together. That is not an exclusive group: there's no sinister Illuminati or secret training school, no vital qualification you have to have. Just be good at writing, then politely and professionally inform people that you want to write for them. If they don’t take you up on it, then consider that the samples you provided, or the way in which you provided them, weren’t up to it – and try again.

I know many games writers who started out penning blog posts or forum arguments or articles on massively obscure websites. There’s no magic barometer of quality. There are just people who are good at writing, good at communicating, and those people are always in demand: every editor, everywhere, needs more and better writers, and usually they’re too busy to actively scour every written medium to find them. If you’ve decided that you really want to make a living in this remarkable, underpaid, bizarrely staffed field, then be the best damn writer you can be and draw as much attention to it as possible.

Some final notes:

* To a commissioning editor/employer, a degree in journalism is less useful than proven writing ability.
* Spelling and grammar is important. Sorry.
* A freelance commission specifies a writing style, a word limit, and a deadline. If you can’t meet any of those demands, don’t bother taking it on.
* Being a games journalist is not about “playing games all day.” Text does not occur naturally. Every word in every magazine or website has been written by someone, and if you a junior staff member/freelancer, then that someone is you.
* If a particular pitch is repeatedly rejected, it’s probably terrible.
* If you make regular requests for freelance and are repeatedly rejected, your writing is probably terrible. Get better.
* Don’t become a games journalist expecting to get rich.
* There are, as yet, no old games journalists. Except maybe Stuart.

This was born of an overstuffed MSN conversation with Tim, Kieron, Suki and others, and represents part of a general commitment to bringing Truth To The People. You may read the other epistles here:
Tim | John | Suki | Kieron | Bill | Tom | Log | The Triforce | Richard | Matthew | Stuart


Anonymous said...

* A freelance commission specifies a writing style, a word limit, and a deadline. If you can’t meet any of those demands, don’t bother taking it on.


*draws breath*



Anonymous said...

"Spelling and grammar is important. Sorry."

Spelling and grammar are important, surely?