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Writing and Editing for RPGs and Fiction

May 6, 2012

The ScreamA couple of weeks ago I was delighted to start as the new fiction editor of Lavie Tidhar’s World Speculative Fiction Blog. So far it’s been as fun and as rewarding as I expected – and as labour-intensive! – so I thought I’d take this opportunity to blog some of my thoughts on the often murky world of just what editing is, and how writers can interact with it.

The biggest difference between editing for RPGs and fiction for me is in the approach to wordcount. By that, I mean the number of words which a given “work” is targeted to have. A lot of people entering the writing field have expressed surprise to me that the number of words they write is such a big deal – but then again, if you think about it from the business point of view, of course it makes perfect sense. The price of printing or producing a book is directly linked to the number of pages it has – the physical amount of paper and ink required, the artwork which must be commissioned (for RPG books), the amount of editing and proofing needed. The balance between the content you put into a book and the number of words you use to express that content is critical.

First up, for RPGs, less is always more. In fiction, you may have a particular turn of phrase which is bang on – beautiful, or euphonious, or just ringing with associations. In fiction, a good editor is going to allow you to express that poetry of words. In RPGs, that matters far, far less. If you can say in ten words what you just rambled through in fifty, your RPG editor is going to ask you to sacrifice that redundant 80% on the altar of brevity. When I sit down even with one of my own RPG manuscripts to edit it, my goal is to kill at least one word in ten – and, if I can, one word in five. Out with those word-hungry passive constructions (“the game master may want to read page 30” becomes “Read page 30”!), out with the florid circumlocutions, in with terse and tightly-targeted prose. In RPG writing, if you can say it with less words, then generally you should; the flipside is that the reader will then get much more content bang for their buck.

Don't Do ThisObviously the same doesn’t apply to fiction. But one thing does: accuracy. There’s nothing worse as an editor when you receive a submission which is riddled with typos, misspellings, and grammatical errors. Honestly: if I as a writer can’t be bothered to make sure my writing is absolutely spot-on correct, then why should I expect an editor to be bothered to read it? Sure, typos do creep in – it’s hard to write 50,000 words and not make the occasional slip on the keyboard – but endemic bad grammar and a clear inability to spell is a massive and unprofessional turn-off to any editor.

A good copy editor of course will always work with your style as a writer. Once you’ve learned the rules and proved you can master them, then you get to occasionally break them, too. Maybe you use a lot of half-finished sentences. Or fragments. Or maybe you enjoy putting together vast, sweeping sentences with gorgeous and oft-archaic circumlocutions; or deploying punctuation like so many battle-hardened troops to achieve your final, military goal of finishing that sentence with a tub-thumping staccato flourish. That (usually) isn’t a crime; nor is it incorrect; and a good copy editor will guide you through its pitfalls without slashing up your own hard-won personal style.

To some extent that holds with RPG editing, too. Some RPG writers write dry, precise prose, like a washing-machine manual or a project management document for NASA; others write like they talk, peppered with colloquialisms and profanities, addressing the reader like an old gamer friend from way back when. Fitting your authorial voice to your subject matter is key, however; just as in fiction, if you write a majestic, Tolkienian text using expletives and street jargon, it really ain’t gonna work, Bilbo, dude. And the opposite holds true, too.

WTF, dude? Just, like, chill.

There is, of course, one editorial job which people starting off writing don’t often perceive; and that’s the work of the commissioning editor. As the name implies, commissioning editors work to source manuscripts for their publisher; they read and solicit proposals, issue contracts, and often project manage the whole process from start to finish. It’s a much more high-level job than copy-editing, which deals more with stylistic and grammatical interventions. But commissioning editors don’t just commission; they interact directly with the writer to provide feedback on the shape and structure of the manuscript at all stages – not just when it’s finished, but during the writing process. They’ll offer critiques of plot developments, language, structure; and even insights into what’s marketable or not. A copy editor might tell you there was no ski lift on Ben Nevis in 1929; a commissioning editor will tell you whether you should be writing about skiing or Ben Nevis in the first place, and whether your approach is fun and interesting, or as turgid and laboured as all hell. This aspect of a commissioning editor’s job is priceless to a writer; it’s like that honest feedback every writer wants. “Am I doing it right? Is this good?” As a writer, you might not always like the answer, but it’s the commissioning editor (or one of his or her assistants) who’ll give it to you – and straight between the eyes, if required!

Here’s one last thing which is often uppermost in my mind these days, both as a writer finishing a manuscript, and when I have my copy-editor’s hat on: what version of English are you writing in? This might seem a bizarre question, but these days there are at least four variants of the English language which a writer might use: American English, International English, British English, and that most wonderfully academic of beasts, “the Oxford spelling” of British English. As a linguist myself, I must admit to a forbidden love of the Oxford spelling (google it), but it’s perhaps just far too arcane these days, despite its linguistically accurate approach, and most of what I write and read is either American or British English. But many writers approaching the business of writing may be unaware that differences between “the Englishes” don’t just apply to spelling – they apply to punctuation, word choice, and even grammar, too. Try checking out the use of speech marks and quotation marks in British and American English if you don’t believe me. Happily, copy editors and proofreaders are pretty merciful when it comes to slips on this level: if a publication brief is “use the Chicago style manual”, and you’re a Brit, you could be forgiven for getting your capitalizations of military ranks or titles slightly wrong, or when to write your numbers as numerals or letters – but, as a writer, it’s always good to be aware of these issues. Forewarned is forearmed, and attention to detail can solve 90% of issues with “the Englishes” before they ever cross your editor’s desk.

The relationship between writing and editing is endlessly fascinating, and it’s a privilege to be able to play for both sides. Editing other people’s work is a great way to see the glaring holes in your own writing; and, likewise, writing manuscripts and submitting them to an editor with a humble prayer is a great way to gain insight into the impact and effects your own editing will have on other writers. At its best, it’s a beautifully productive exchange of ideas, and – at those times when it clicks – it’s a magical moment of creativity in its own right.

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