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Greetings and salutations. In case you were wondering, Richard Cobbett is a writer and journalist and producer of many other things involving words. He likes cats and hates spiders. Sometimes he drinks Pepsi. This is his website. (You may have guessed.)

[30/10] So You Want To Be A Games Journalist

This is a game. Games journalists write about them. But we're not usually as pretty as Jade.

Before we begin, the backstory to this one: A couple of weeks before this story was written, there was yet another idiotic ‘So You Want To Be A Games Journalist’ guide published on the internet, which drew the ire of everyone around for trying to overcomplicate the process, and for treating the audience like idiots. In annoyance, about ten writers gathered together to simultaneously blog every possible part of the process, from ripping the piss out of it to actually providing advice. This was my contribution. Others can be found at Tracker Bill, John Walker, The Triforce, Bill Harris, Matthew Kumar, Log, Kieron Gillen, Affectionate Diary, Stuart Campbell, Tim Edwards, and Jon Hicks.

Advice #1: Trust Nobody, Including Me

That’s right. The same applies for most writing pursuits, including books, magazines, Christmas cracker jokes and anything else with words in them. Why? Because writers are paid to sound convincing and knowledgeable, even if the advice is hogwash. Unless you already know the answers, distinguishing between Good Advice and Really Bad Advice is largely a crapshoot. You can play the numbers, you can go with what feels right to you, you can rely on people whose advice you genuinely trust, but if you’re reading this, there’s a good chance that you haven’t got the faintest clue who I am, and as such, should treat everything with a pinch of salt. Unless you’re interested in my new religion, in which case, the PayPal box is over there. Bless you, my children. Go in peace to serve my interests.

In short, there are as many different ways into journalism as there are journalists in it. Some will tell you to get a degree in journalism; others - including myself - would shrug that idea off as largely pointless for anyone aiming at the world of consumer magazines rather than newspapers. What works for one person might not necessarily work for you; what sounds good on paper may well be a nightmare. It’s no wonder that instead of offering hard information, most guides focus on something like this:

Advice #2: The Next Paragraph Is Useless

You have to write, you have to like writing, you must keep to deadlines, you must write in an interesting way, you should read the magazine before pitching, you should have a portfolio, you should have your own voice, you should understand the market, you have to be open to criticism, you have to deal with PR, it’s PR’s job to blindside you, PR men probably aren’t your friends, you have to write to a wordcount, if the editor asks for five images you supply five images, you do not supply boring images of rocks and trees in a game about gods fighting dragons, you do not submit things as lossy JPEG files, you make sure you check off everything on the commission before sending it in, you should read a lot if you want to write, water is wet, the moon is not made of green cheese, Arthur did not pull Excalibur out of the stone, they were different bloody swords!

Why is that paragraph useless? Not because it’s wrong - it’s just blindingly obvious. If you need anything in there spelled out for you, you’ve got bigger problems than finding a career in games journalism.

What it all boils down to is this:

Advice #3: You Have To Be Professional

The Street Smart Writer - one of the best anti-scam books around.

This doesn’t mean that becoming a games journalist has to be a lifelong commitment or even your day job; it just means that you have to take the time to do it properly. When you write to a commissioning editor, even if just to ask if it would be okay to send in some sample articles, you’re submitting your audition piece. Overly formal and stuffy can be every bit as bad as quick and sloppy - you need to give the person a reason to hire you, not simply a reason not to move onto the next letter.

When you introduce yourself, your letter has to convince the commissioning editor to take a chance on you - reviews tend to be the starting point in the games world rather than features, although again, it varies. Spellchecking. Conveying personality through your letter, while still sounding reliable. Picking the best examples from your portfolio, and supplying around 400 words of a review in that magazine’s style, instead of a scattergun of links. If those are online, at least try to make sure they’re not under a pseudonym like ShittyPete or R.S. Bandit. I’m not joking. Likewise, if your first act with that magazine is to miss a deadline, or have to sheepishly admit that you didn’t take the shrinkwrap off a gamebox until the night before the review was due, your career with that particular title will be… short.

Again, all this should be obvious. But it’s often not. Here are three examples of the kind of e-mail I’ve had from writers over the last three years (not necessarily for games, but the point still applies)

Yo!!! Im wanting to be a writer for you magazine and-

If you need to ask, you’ll never know.

Hello. I am interested in writing for your magazine. I feel I bring a new perspective, as a new computer user, who would be able to talk to your less experienced readers on a-

You’d be surprised how often I see this one. In a nutshell: ignorance is not in fact a virtue. Writing for different levels is part of consumer journalism, and commissioning editors look for experience.

I have some experience in real-time strategy (Well, he says he does! -Ed)

Avoid cliches like the plague; avoid in-jokes like wobbling bubo jelly. If they’re from that magazine, the writers are probably sick of them already, and it’s an incredibly bad idea to fall back on them while you’re trying to separate yourself from the crowd. If they’re not, why the hell would you use them anyway?

Oh, and everyone knows GamesPress. Don’t even think about using its screenshot archives on your first run, unless a game really, really, really won’t capture.

Advice #4: Take The Time To Suck

Ah, Warlords: Battlecry. My first review in PC Gamer. It sucked. My next review for them was some six months later.

A painter who tries to reproduce a landscape can see the sky is bright green, a musician can hear discordant tones in their head. Nobody would expect to sell their first sculpture, first time out. But with writing, it’s hard to tell how close you are to the mark - how your tone comes across, how your experience colours the work. You can give a strategy game to a complete non-strategy fan, and chances are they won’t say anything actively wrong, but that doesn’t make it a good review. You can throw a joke into a review, but there’s no guarantee anyone else will find it funny.

Everything that matters comes with time, and more importantly, experience. You need to be prepared to hone your comedy timing if you want to make people laugh, and to really understand the nature of criticism to deliver a fair, balanced review. My early reviews were horrible - or at least, worse - with a particular flaw being their tendency to spend the first half of the piece talking about the positives, only to divebomb into the negatives to such an extent that they were almost forgotten by the time the reader got to the score.

(And that’s without mentioning the endless sentences and hyphen torture.)

This is where building a portfolio, and with it, challenging yourself to write in a variety of different styles and formats really comes into its own. Via the internet, there’s no shortage of places to write, and practice your writing - and practice is seldom wasted, provided that you don’t get so bogged down that you never actually get round to the big things you want to do.

The downside is that the net is a lousy source of criticism writing quality, with very short attention spans - we’ve already lost many of the people who started reading this - and responses that favour bouncing between ‘That was okay’ and ‘Reading that was so painful, my genitals started oozing pus’. Comment threads and similar can be fine for the subject matter, but they’re next to useless for getting feedback on technique.

What’s the real goal? You want to go back to a piece you were proud of a year ago, only to realise that it’s utter crap. Why? Because it shows you’re pushing to improve yourself, not simply content to sit back in blissful mediocrity.

Advice #5: The Hill Is Smaller Than You Think

Here’s the good news. Of the hundreds upon thousands of people in the world who think ‘Hey, I’d like to do that’, the overwhelming majority… won’t. Ever. They’ll just sit back and think about it, or post on forums, or stick to mini-reviews in their blogs, or other quieter pursuits. The number of people who take the time to put together a good introduction, to practice and refine their writing skills, and to submit a proper, professional piece of work, is tiny. A staff job on a magazine might draw plenty of CVs, but again, it’s not the zillions that many people think. If you’re willing to keep pushing away, to keep writing, improving, and submitting, eventually someone will be willing to give you a shot. All you have to do then is impress them.

Yep. That’s right. ‘All’.