Advice to aspiring game journos: competition is good

First I’m going to plug this thing I wrote for G4, because I received a lot of positive feedback on it from working, freelance video game journalists, which tells me I nailed it: How To Become A Video Game Journalist. That piece is a completely accurate and honest retelling of how I broke into the game journalism industry. I also took at look at Meagan Marie’s FAQ that a friend mentioned on Twitter today, which talks about how to break in to video game journalism and I see many of the same points I made repeated.

My G4 post was about how to land paying freelance work in video game journalism because I wanted to focus on how one gets their foot in the door. I feel like that should be the beginning and end of all advice columns on the subject of “how to become a video game journo” because advice columns should focus on actionable advice, in my opinion. “Move to San Francisco” and “Learn how to deal with human beings better,” which was some of the info contained in this response/addendum to my column from Joystiq writer Arthur Giles, ARE things that would help someone become a full-time video game journalist, but I don’t know how realistic they are, and therefore whether that’s actionable advice.

I often focus on the importance of getting paid when speaking to people who want to write about video games, but what I’ve never made clear is that it isn’t actually about the money for its own sake, especially if we’re talking about writing online because the pay sucks. I have an outlet that will pay me $50 for a “Top 10” list. Freelance writers should be prepared to pay 40% taxes right off the top of any money they make, so I’d only actually be receiving $30 from that article. I’m also going to have to wait up to 90 days for that $30. Writing that article is hardly worth my time financially. It’s valuable to me as a clip, and as experience working with a editor, and as part of learning how to run my books, but it’s not really about the money because the money is terrible and slow in getting into my pocket.

The reason why writing for money is important is related to something that Mr. Giles said in his response to my G4 piece:

I read an awful lot of game writing outside of the official enthusiast press. Most of it is really bad, for a variety of reasons. But reason number one is a lack of writing ability. Maybe the writer can’t express their thoughts clearly, or maybe it’s just basic sentence construction. Maybe the writer doesn’t know how to fit their opinion into their work. Regardless, it doesn’t matter that you started that gaming blog on your own, that you post every day, that you know all about what’s going on. If you don’t have that basic, minimal natural affinity for writing, you probably shouldn’t be writing for a living. I would say I’m sorry for telling you that, but I’m not.

Writing for pay is about voluntarily placing yourself on the firing line where you will not get page space unless you can deliver engaging, entertaining content on a regular basis, and that forces improvement, which is the point. There are notable exceptions in the unpaid video game blogging space like Bitmob, where I got my start, or The Border House, but those are also competitive spaces, i.e. sought-after real estate. They are also thus excellent training grounds, but I feel making a concerted attempt at writing for pay is especially important for people who claim aspirations of writing about video games and who also incessantly criticize video game journalism for the quality of its product.

People LOVE to rank on game journos and it’s irritating because these people have no idea how difficult it is to actually write content that is intelligent and substantive while ALSO entertaining the audiences of the outlets publishing said content. I think the perception that it’s easy comes from a vicious circle of writing for free on blogs and being praised by other people who write for free on blogs, which descends into a circle-jerk of self-righteousness. I recently had someone tell me that learning to adapt to an outlet was “selling out.” They tried to couch the comment as a joke, but I’ve heard that sort of thing before and it’s precisely the kind of mentality that this circle-jerk I just described leads to.

There are a handful of iconic writers who might be able to make it on the strength of their names alone, and who can write pretty much whatever they want, garbage or not, and still earn a paycheck and page space doing it because they are personalities and people just want to hear what they have to say. For everyone else success is about entertaining the audience, because they’re only going to want to read you if you entertain them. That does not mean selling out. It means learning to recognize the difference between something you think is interesting and something that everyone else will find interesting. I still struggle with this, myself.

How you say something is more important than what you are saying. Tom Bissell regularly takes subject matter which I think is pretty dry if you strip it down to the core, but he makes it interesting through his pacing and word choices. Bissell takes theory and makes it readable, which then gets through to audiences. People who write about video games that hail from academia face this problem more than anyone. I’ve often read media students trying to write for consumer-facing outlets and usually the copy is terrible, because in academia what is being said is more important than how it is said, and academic writing is usually dry, tedious and boring. You can’t get away with that if you’re writing for a non-academic audience.

If you set your goal as writing for pay, you will have to learn these lessons quickly. You will learn to throw out ideas that are half-baked or only of narrow interest, or you will learn how to shape them into something interesting for a wide audience. You will hopefully get into the clutches of an editor who shows you where your craft requires honing, and develop better style. And you will have no choice but to do these things successfully or else lose the paid position you earned. When you’re writing for free on a blog, there aren’t a line of people behind you waiting to take your spot the moment it opens up.

Now that my First Person column is on The Escapist, I worry more than ever about whether or not what I want to write is worthy of the page, because I know my space there isn’t guaranteed. It has to be earned every week. Either I am going to rise to that challenge, in which case I’m going to get much better at selecting topics and utilizing my craft to explore them, or I will lose the page space. It’s a hell of a lot of pressure, but I can already see my writing improving as a result.

Like Giles said in his piece, this is a job you do because you love the writing. Set writing for pay as your goal not because it will put some beer money in your pocket 90 days after you’ve filed the invoice, and not because the pay “validates” what it is you’re writing, but because writing for pay forces you to become a better writer or lose the gig, and your goal is always to become a better writer, right?

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