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Author Topic: Writing for People  (Read 7858 times)
Paganini
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« on: September 19, 2004, 11:00:09 AM »

I'm putting this in Publishing, because I think it has a lot of general application, even though it originated in an Adept Press thread.

Earlier today, Ron, writing about his target audience for Sorcerer, made a distinction between "gamers" as a subculture, and people who role-play. His point was that, WRT Sorcerer, "gamers" don't get it, and it's pointless to rewrite Sorcerer to try and cause them to get it, because, by and large, they aren't interested in getting it.

As a teacher, I agree with this basic sentiment - you can't cause interest in a naturally indifferent subject. Interest comes first, then the work gets done (or actual play happens).

To carry the teaching analogy a bit further, a lot of people will say "no, it's the teacher's job to make the students be interested." And this is just not true. There's a subtle distinction: A teacher's job is to *engage* the interest of the students. In other words, the interest is already there. The techer picks up on it, finds ways to amplify and direct it based on the needs of each individual student.

To put it differently, a prime goal in teaching is to present the material in such a way that the students are not bored by a subject that they would otherwise have been interested in. Natural interest + bad teaching = indifferent students. Natural interest + good teaching = enthusiastic students.

I suggest that this process is pretty close to writing RPG materials - *especially* materials that outline procedures (i.e., core rulebooks).

In a nutshell: Yeah, some people don't get it. They don't want to get it. They never will get it. Writing your material to try and engage these people is a waste of time.

On the other hand, I assert that it's lazy and pointless writing practice to limit your audience to people who *already* get it.  You can put your neato-keen dice mechanic on an index card and pass it out. Voila, Narrativism! (Or whatever.)

There are other people (I believe a lot of other people) don't get it, but are open to getting it, given good presentation of material. These people are the equivalent of students with natural interest, open minds; people who are willing to try new stuff with the expectation that they will enjoy it. There are a lot of these guys over on the RPG.NET threads who encountered TROS but didn't get it. TROS is the poster child for good games with bad presentation. It's the 1:1 equivalent of "bad teaching" in my analogy.

Writing is a medium of communication. Any time you set out to communicate something through writing, there is one basic assumption you must make about your target audience. You must assume that they are receptive - that they are reading with the intent of internalizing the message that you are offering. (Not necessarily to *agree* with what you're saying - but to, essentiall, "get it.")

Our goals as writers - especial as writers of procedural material - is to make that internalization process as quick, clean, simple, and easy as possible. Period. If you're not doing that, then I, personally, do not have respect for your work. I might admire the design structures that you've built as a game design technician. I like TROS a lot as a game engine. But as a production, it's amaturish, and it suffers for it. In fact, it's frequently dissed for it.

This is one reason d20 D&D sells so well. It looks good, is well written, and is easy to learn.

Don't get me wrong... this is not something that is easy to do. It requires advanced knowledge of writen communication. It's like being a journalist (or better yet, a technical writer). But it's also something that is really important. There's a widespread perception in the indie-underground, especially in the context of cheap/free electronically distributed home-brews that presentation is unimportant; all that matters is the content.

This post is a battle-cry against that attitude. If your presentation is not good, your ideas are worth squat.

This is why I'm not enthusiastic about the dominating indie "one guy, one product" trend (or even the "few guys on a product," which gave us TROS). One guy may know how to construct a fun game. But telling others how to duplicate his method is something else again.

This is the exact reverse from the situation in the electronoic gaming industry, where every company that writes a game knows more than the next about how to make the game pretty, how to milk the most polygons out of your processor (etc.) but where there are like 3 guys in the entire industry who actually understand what makes a game *fun.*
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #1 on: September 19, 2004, 11:07:05 AM »

While I don't agree with your second-to-last paragraph, the rest of this post is so perfect that I don't want to argue it.

Yes.

Yes.

Yes.

yrs--
--Ben

edit: someday I will learn to count.
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #2 on: September 19, 2004, 04:48:13 PM »

Like Ben, I agree with every point you make (though I don't own TROS and can't speak for it), but disagree with one of your main conclusions:

Quote from: Paganini
This is why I'm not enthusiastic about the dominating indie "one guy, one product" trend (or even the "few guys on a product," which gave us TROS). One guy may know how to construct a fun game. But telling others how to duplicate his method is something else again.


Yeah, sure.  But one guy can seek to duplicate the results of having many brilliant minds (and editors) on a project by doing some serious peer editing and playtesting, by finding good proofreaders, and, in the first place, being a sensitive writer who's aware that they need to write for the kind of audience you describe.  I'm not saying it's the same, but I think it mitigates many of the problems.  Paul Czege and Vincent Baker have had great (I think) recent success with writing games that engage their audience's interests.  My Life with Master and Dogs in the Vineyard are the poster children for clear, concise writing in indie rpgs, which is, no doubt, part of the reason they've attracted so much attention.

Then again, there are clear advantages to doing things differently, which is part of the reason I'm planning to eventually try mimicking the Image Comics model and see how that would work for creator-owned games.
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Valamir
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« Reply #3 on: September 19, 2004, 05:04:00 PM »

Quote
This is why I'm not enthusiastic about the dominating indie "one guy, one product" trend (or even the "few guys on a product," which gave us TROS). One guy may know how to construct a fun game. But telling others how to duplicate his method is something else again.


Both Ben and Jonathan have posted in disagreement with this, but I have to admit, I just don't understand the point you're making here enough to agree or disagree.

What exactly about one guy, one product are you seeing as a weakness and what alternatives are you seeing that address that weakness?
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Paganini
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« Reply #4 on: September 19, 2004, 06:17:55 PM »

Ralph & all,

My (apparently) controversial sleeper paragraph was really just a side point. Basicall, all I was suggesting is that if you're just one guy, odds are that you are not omni-skilled. Just because you can design a good mechanic doesn't mean you can explain it to other people well in writing (and vice versa, of course).

I don't disagree with Jonathan at all. If you need help, get it. But if your product sucks because you can't write, spiffy design structure won't save it, even if you've come up with the best gaming innovation in the decade.

The prevailing indie trend seems to be to pooh-pooh the necessity of good presentation. As long as your work contains good ideas, it doesn't matter how those ideas are presented.

I oppose this. Good design and good presentation are equally important to the quality of a product. When I say "presentation" I'm not just talking about layout and artwork and stuff. More importantly, I'm talking about your actual ability to produce text that clearly and simply explains the procedures in your game, along with the sequential organization of material.

Ralph, as far as solutions, Jonathan nailed it in his post. You get peer editing, proofreading, you actively work on your own writing abilities.

In the indie scene, being a game designer is the same thing as being a game-book producer. You can't just rely on your ability to scheme up new ways to play. You have to be able to communicate those ideas well in writing.
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Valamir
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« Reply #5 on: September 19, 2004, 07:26:47 PM »

Thanks for clarifying

Quote
The prevailing indie trend seems to be to pooh-pooh the necessity of good presentation. As long as your work contains good ideas, it doesn't matter how those ideas are presented.


Where does this conclusion come from?  What sequence of games / products have you seen that lead you to believe this is a trend?  Is there some thread here on the Forge that gave you this impression?  If this is the prevailing trend its one I've not seen.
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Paganini
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« Reply #6 on: September 19, 2004, 09:39:20 PM »

Ralph,

I'm not sure that this is something I can support with direct evidence. You characterize it as an impression, and that's what it is. I can't really argue it with specific evidence, like Forge thread links, and stuff.

However, I look at a lot of games that people are paying money for that would never have made it out the door if a professional editor was responsible for approving them.

There's a general substance over style vibe that I've gotten for years when looking at indie products and talking to indie developers. Sure there are some exceptions. But in general, the level of work does not approach professionalism, and no one is out there saying "hey! we need to do this better!" I've even encountered the idea that your presentation doesn't really matter that much, because if your readers aren't willing to put some effort into understanding what you have to say, then they aren't worth writing for.

Here at the Forge there's a constant escalating demand for better mechanics, deeper understanding of actual play events, and so on. But there's no equivalent demand for production excellence. No one is out there trying to publically figure out the best way to explain a mechanic or organize a game book. Threads in indie-design about the best way of communicating game text are few and far between. Corresponding discussions about communicating *during play* are a top priority. I perceive this as an imbalance.

People who post to indie-design are expecting comments about how their game will work during actual play. They tend to get them. People who contact me privately for comments on their drafts are usually really surprised when I start talking about avoiding passive voice, organzing the information presented, and so on. They're expecting me to tell them the nuances of probability with their dice mechanics, and how this or that rule will affect social dynamics, and what they get is me telling them that their ideas need to be expressed more clearly.
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ChefKyle
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« Reply #7 on: September 20, 2004, 03:24:24 AM »

Paganini, you've said some very good things. I like your approach. I've often done much the same thing myself, but never in that structured way, just in my head.

Quote from: Paganini

However, I look at a lot of games that people are paying money for that would never have made it out the door if a professional editor was responsible for approving them.

Is this any more true of the pdf/indie industry, than the mainstream print industry? We can all name a few games in print which have poor indexes, or whose indexes weren't updated along with the rest of the text from one edition to another. Or similar problems...

In terms of presentation, I'd say the chief difference is in layout and illustration. This difference can be accounted for by budgets. WotC may be able to afford $4,000 for glossy colourful artwork for its latest big product; most of us cannot.

As to layout, much the same applies. Art and layout design editing is a specific job, requiring training and/or experience. Whereas most indies just know about writing. They don't know about editing, or layout, or art design, or business. Just writing.

Quote
There's a general substance over style vibe that I've gotten for years when looking at indie products and talking to indie developers. Sure there are some exceptions.

Quite true. But as I said, this is attributable, I think, to the skills of the person producing the thing. Everyone tends to think that whatever their own skills are, they're the most important ones in the production of something.

Chefs think waitresses are useless, and waitresses think chefs are idiots. But even the good chefs and waitresses, though they don't think badly of the other lot, it really doesn't occur to them that the other lot are vital. It needn't be scorn - just forgetfulness. You only notice their absence when your customers start complaining:)

Similarly, I think, with writers, and artists and editors. Each thinks the other is a dime a dozen, and considers their own work to be the most important aspect of the entire product. That's just human, to value your own skills over another's.

Quote
I've even encountered the idea that your presentation doesn't really matter that much, because if your readers aren't willing to put some effort into understanding what you have to say, then they aren't worth writing for.

This is a common attitude among bad writers, yes.

Quote
But there's no equivalent demand for production excellence.

When something isn't mentioned, it may be because people aren't thinking of it, or because they're taking it for granted. For example, I was offered salaried work with an rpg company. In their offer, they described at length how many words I'd have to write each month, and were at pains to explain to me that 90-100,000 words per month was quite achievable. It was an 800 word letter. The only mention of quality was, "you should be able to produce 90,000 publishable words per month" (my emphasis).

Now, I couldn't tell, from that letter, whether they failed to mention quality because it wasn't important to them, or because they took it for granted. So I went and examined their products, and concluded that the former was the case.

Obviously, it's difficult to do that for every publisher, indie or otherwise, who discusses things other than presentation, etc.

However, in general my feeling is that we, as in the rpg industry as a whole, we focus on the writing. The person who decides to start a particular project is usually a writer. You don't get artists going around saying, "hey, can I hire a writer to write the text for the rpg I'm going to illustrate?" It's writers asking artists to help them.

Quote
They're expecting me to tell them the nuances of probability with their dice mechanics, and how this or that rule will affect social dynamics, and what they get is me telling them that their ideas need to be expressed more clearly.


Sounds like you help them a lot. I was lucky enough to get a person for my game who did both, game-check and editing-critique for clarity. The another assisted me with layout, which I believe greatly improved the game's readability.

You're quite right, Paganini, it's something that more publishers need to bear in mind. But I think the essence of it, is that most indie publishers are writers. They're not artists or editors.

If an artist decided to write a game, and there was a Forge For Artists, then we'd get their Paganini complaining that everyone was emphasising style over substance. Whereas here it's substance over style:)

It's just a question of focus. And you're quite right to suggest we ought to widen our focus.
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Cheers,
Kyle
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LordSmerf
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« Reply #8 on: September 20, 2004, 07:15:36 AM »

Quote from: ChefKyle
You're quite right, Paganini, it's something that more publishers need to bear in mind. But I think the essence of it, is that most indie publishers are writers. They're not artists or editors.


I am not sure that i agree with this statement.  Perhaps most people who write RPG texts are closer to being writers than they are editors or artists, but that does not mean that they are writers (or at least good writers).  Now i am not trying to pooh-pooh anyone's work.  I consider anyone who completes a major writing project to be worthy of respect, whether it is a novel or an RPG.

That said i think some good points have been made here.  Consider some of the most successful indie-RPGs in that past few years:

Universalis
The Burning Wheel
Sorcerer
My Life with Master

One thing that each shares is good writing.  Sure they all use different styles of writing (consider the infectious excited/humorous tone of the Burning Wheel compared to the logical teaching tone of Universalis), but they are all well written.

Perhaps it would be profitable to start a thread over in Game Design regarding important considerations when writing a game text.  Things like Order, Tone, Indexing, pagination, etc.

Thomas
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Michael S. Miller
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« Reply #9 on: September 20, 2004, 08:28:40 AM »

These are good points all. As one of the perpetrators of poor writing, I will be taking these points to heart whene working on the Full Edition of With Great Power...

In the meanwhile, some aspects of acheiving clarity in writing have been addressed in Shooting the Sacred Cow. Near the bottom of the first page, Chris Lerich explains how to use an outline to trim the fat and tighten the meat of writing project.
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timfire
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« Reply #10 on: September 20, 2004, 08:59:10 AM »

Quote from: LordSmerf
Perhaps it would be profitable to start a thread over in Game Design regarding important considerations when writing a game text.  Things like Order, Tone, Indexing, pagination, etc.

This is off-topic, I apologize, but lately there's been a lot of threads started in the wrong forums. The Indie Design forum is for actual projects. Such a thread should probably be placed here in Publishing, though it might work in RPG Theory as well.
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--Timothy Walters Kleinert
Paganini
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« Reply #11 on: September 20, 2004, 09:15:00 AM »

Tim, you are corrrect. I intend to do exactly that when this thread winds down, assuming someone else doesn't beat me to it. :)

I have in mind to talk about overall organization of a game presentation (i.e., the order in which concepts and procedures are presented) in one thread, and save actual writing technique for a later thread.
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clehrich
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« Reply #12 on: September 20, 2004, 09:17:25 AM »

Quote from: Michael S. Miller
In the meanwhile, some aspects of acheiving clarity in writing have been addressed in Shooting the Sacred Cow. Near the bottom of the first page, Chris Lerich explains how to use an outline to trim the fat and tighten the meat of writing project.
I was just going to refer to this myself -- incidentally, it's Lehrich.

I agree with Paganini about writing well.  I constantly encounter among students the claim that so long as the content is good, the writing as such shouldn't matter.  My usual counter-argument, apart from pointing out that people who care about writing are the people who give out the grades, is to point out that every great argument I can think of in the disciplines I study was written well.  This is not a coincidence.  It is sometimes said that you can't write well if you don't think well and vice-versa, and while that's overstated the point is basically valid.

Where I don't agree with Paganini is about indie games being particular sinners in this respect.  I would point to AD&D (1st ed., because I haven't seen the rest) as stunningly well edited and proofread, although I'm not sure the writing was always particularly efficient or to the point.  But if you hand me your favorite old White Wolf game, I will be happy to go through with a red pen and point out all the grammar and spelling errors, not to mention the gracelessness and pretension of style.  Actually, I won't be happy to do it, but I most certainly can.

In my experience as a writing teacher (I do analytical writing, not creative writing) I find that the dominant group of students who think prose style and editing don't matter are science-engineering students.  This group is, I think, extremely strongly represented in the RPG community.  To my mind, this is a central reason why there is so much bad writing in RPG's.

Turning to good examples -- always more interesting than bad ones -- I note that My Life with Master and Dogs in the Vineyard, two games I've looked at recently, are well written.  Not coincidentally, they are also efficiently written.  Dogs is not a short book -- over 100 pages -- but it works very well in part because it uses minimal words to say a lot.

Especially for science-oriented folks, I think this is the way to go.  Work on efficiency first of all.  If you can say it quickly, don't waste space.  The object of the exercise is to use the fewest words to say what you have to say.  If you emphasize this principle, your prose may not be graceful, but it almost cannot be actually bad.  Think about it like writing code or something: don't waste words.

At the risk of demonstrating that we morons in the humanities always use far too many words, let me say something about grammar and spelling that you may not know.

First, you may not have focused on the fact that spell-checkers do not catch the difference between "there" and "their," and so on.  Assuming you know the difference yourself, the best way to catch these things is to READ ALOUD.

Second, try a grammar-checker.  They are very powerful.  What they do is try to parse your sentence, and when they can't they tell you there is an error.  The problem is that once the thing has failed to parse, it's basically making a wild stab at what the error might be.  It's usually wrong.  So if it says there's an error, there probably is some problem, even if only a stylistic one.  But assume that whatever the checker identifies is wrong.

Third, to repeat, READ ALOUD.  I don't mean mumble under your breath.  I mean PRINT IT OUT (yes, it works better from paper, I don't know why), and STAND UP in your own room alone, and READ IT OUT as though giving a speech.  LISTEN to your voice.  You will catch all kinds of errors because your ear is more accurate than your eyes.

Just some notes from the trenches.  Apologies for running on, but I'm grading 60 assignments today....
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Chris Lehrich
Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #13 on: September 20, 2004, 07:08:48 PM »

Another suggestion that I use myself, when writing speeches (I agree with Chris that speaking texts aloud can help solve a great many writing problems), is to break down the lines and parse the document as free verse poetry, complete with pauses where they should be and key words falling at the beginning or ends of lines.

So, looking at the paragraph I just wrote, I might rewrite it something like this:

When I write speeches,
I often break down the sentences,
turning the document into free verse poetry,
complete with pauses
and key words at the beginning
or ends of lines.

When you do this, you don't get impossibly long sentences or phrases, which are difficult for people to read.  Also, when you read the text aloud, it flows more naturally because you have plenty of places to breathe and have a rhythm built in.

Just a suggestion from the creative writing and performance side of things.
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DannyK
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« Reply #14 on: September 20, 2004, 07:28:01 PM »

I think most consumers of indie games have already chosen to select context over form, since no indie game I've ever seen has the production values of a glossy illustrated White Wolf corebook.  

I think Sorcerer, My Life With Master, and Dogs in the Vineyard were all very nicely presented in terms of layout and art.  None of them is glossy, but all of them are attractive, eye-catching, and in general suggest that the game's producer has his shit together.  That's what counts, IMO.
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