The Emotional Road to RPG Editing

Note: This post is Part One of…two? Maybe three? I’ll figure that out later.

Several people have asked recently about how I became an RPG editor (and, I believe, asked implicitly how they can get into the field). Since there’s no clear cut path—it’s not like there’s a degree you should pursue or some kind of certification that’s required—I’ll share the path I took and hope you can pull applicable lessons from it. There were several steps for me—primarily emotional and practical—so I’m going to address them separately. Today will focus on the emotional journey I ended up taking.

For me, the first step was realizing that editing is something I have a passion for. “Editor” doesn’t tend to come up very often when you ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, so how do you decide that’s what you want to do? Personally, I followed a pretty circuitous route to get there.

I always expected to major in English (and I did!) so I got a lot of “What’re you going to do with that? Teach? Write?” I can only speak for myself, but as an avid reader who idolized authors, I most definitely got the sense that the really talented English majors would go on to write and the rest of us would end up as teachers or we’d be slinging fries at Mickey D’s. After collecting a few degrees, I followed the example set by the many excellent teachers in my family and I got my teaching certificate (which was a good choice for me—I think I was a good teacher, and I enjoyed it very much and learned a lot from my teaching experiences. I’m not dissing teachers at all, and this is not the place to get into my many opinions on the state of education). However, I couldn’t help feeling that I should aspire to be a writer.

When I was growing up, I wrote some stories and some incredibly terrible poetry. I took fiction writing classes in school, after school, and at the local community college. I managed to put words on paper (literally—handwritten first drafts, final drafts on my mom’s old manual typewriter) but nothing ever really grabbed me. My best story by far was a retelling of an urban legend, so it wasn’t even an original plot. This was perhaps my first hint at my future career.

I know lots of writers—I guess that’s bound to happen when you tend to hang out with creative types. My best friend from college has written novels (as yet unpublished) and screenplays (one was made into a movie). She and I took a writing seminar with Madeleine L’Engle, which is when I finally realized that I just don’t have stories to tell. A few years later I became friends with Cam Banks and watched him become a game writer and a novelist. My husband Clark began writing for games as well. For a while, Jim and Shannon Butcher were also part of my circle of friends. And of course now that I work with game writers for a living, it seems that everyone I know is writing something!

I know I get hung up on the definition of “writer”—since I do express myself in writing a good bit and even occasionally get paid to do that, I suppose I am a writer. However, I won’t ever be an author of books and stories. I don’t feel that need to create stories and worlds. I watch the writers I know and I’m in awe. I can’t do that. More to the point, I don’t want to do that—I find the prospect of creative writing terrifying and I don’t feel enough of a passion for it to take that leap.

That brings me up against another insidious perception, which is that editors are just writers who are in between jobs or couldn’t hack it as a writer. There’s some truth to this—many editors are putting in time until they can break into doing what they really want to do, like the actor who really wants to direct. And the skills that make you a decent writer often also allow you to be a decent editor when necessary—after all, most writers do a lot of self-editing as part of the writing process.

Like most insidious perceptions, this one is limited. Many writer/editors love doing both, since both jobs require very different parts of the brain. Nevertheless, sometimes it’s hard not to feel that wanting to be an editor and only an editor is somehow selling myself short.

However, that’s not where my strengths and interests lie. Over time I’ve learned that I’m more skilled at adapting than I am at creating—I’m much better helping other people be brilliant than I am at being brilliant myself. Through my teaching experience, I also realized my primary strength is in helping students with their writing one on one. This led me fairly naturally into editing.

Most importantly, I enjoy it. The feeling of satisfaction when I know that a book is better because of my impact is amazing. Whenever I read anything, my impulse is to look at how it could be improved. While this is often annoying for those who live with me (yes, I incessantly edit TV commercials and ads in magazines), it also demonstrates to me that my passion is in editing.

I know I’ve complained about this before, but editing isn’t a glorious job. People outside the project won’t have any idea what you did and are unlikely to mention you as part of the team. All the typos and mistakes are your fault and, if you’re doing your job right, no one from the outside realizes what an impact you had on the text since they won’t see those early rough drafts. Your satisfaction with this career needs to come from working with the writers and knowing that the book is better because you were involved in it. It means feeling a responsibility for everything and ownership of nothing—you won’t be able to point to some section later and say, “I did that!”

And yet it’s one of the most rewarding and fulfilling things I’ve ever done.

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13 Responses to The Emotional Road to RPG Editing

  1. Matt Logan says:

    Hi Amanda, great stuff-thanks for sharing!

    I do try my hand at writing but I think I have some issues when it comes to the idea of creating something that may be, more or less, permanent.
    One of the things I enjoy about roleplaying (and music, to some degree) is that, as a creative form, it has a fleeting quality about it. A game, or a tune, lasts only for a brief time and is then gone. Even if it were to be repeated it still wouldn’t be entirely the same as the first instance of its playing or telling.

    To my mind, an editor exists in kind of a shadow space where they can happily contribute to a creative endeavor without having to be in the limelight. Perhaps I’m uncomfortable with the idea of drawing attention to myself.

    Anyway, I will cease my ramblings. Thanks again, will look forward to reading more. :-)

    • ayvalentine says:

      That’s a good point, Matt – sometimes that lack of attention to your work is exactly what you’re looking for. There is definitely a certain neurosis that comes with putting your work out there permanently. In fact, I tend not to read my books post-publication because I don’t want to know what I missed! :)

  2. My journey (still in some ways ongoing) into being an RPG editor was just as accidental as yours.

    It happens that I became a user of Boardgamegeek before the “good old days” came to an end, and as a result i have a pretty decent relationship with most of the “old timers” there. One of those old timers is Seth Ben Ezra. I started following his personal blog at about the time that Dirty Secrets began rounding into shape, and he asked for people willing to take a look at the game and comment on it. I was stoked about the idea of a Forge-philosophy RPG about hardboiled (or as Seth keeps insisting on, noir :D ) detective fiction and eagerly offered my perspective.

    My perspective ended up with comments on organization and presentation, and even sentence structure and grammar. Once I realized what I was doing, I sent my comments on the first chapter to Seth and asked if I should continue on like I was. He said “yes, please” and I had my first editing credit and an RPG publisher eager to use my editing talents again.

    • ayvalentine says:

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Gerald! Later this week I’ll try to get another post up about the more practical side of how I got into RPG editing which has even more in common with how you did it. As much as I hear people say that writers are people who need to write, I think the same is true about editors – we can’t help it. We’re going to do it anyway, so it’s a matter of finding a situation where people actually value that.

      • Yep, definitely. I’ve done the same thing a couple of times uncredited. Seth was just the first one to really appreciate my approach enough to come back for more.

        I’m really looking forward to part 2 :)

      • T.W.Wombat says:

        “We can’t help it.”

        Wow. That resonates with me like a church bell. I can’t help trying to improve whatever I’m reading, and homophone typos really make my brain twitch. Especially in mass-market paperbacks. I mean seriously, you’ve had 2 cracks at catching it and you still relied on the spell checker?

        I think I’m headed down the Editor’s Path myself (finally!). I find it really comforting to read an account like this and know that A) There =is= an actual path that other people like me have chosen before, and B) Editing is not “settling on second best” nor “giving up on writing”.

        I’m excited to figure out what’s next, and to find situations where natural nitpickiness can lead to rewarding work. I can’t wait to read the other (n-1) posts in this series.

        Thank you!

        • ayvalentine says:

          I taught rhetoric to college freshmen for about 10 years, and one of the assignments was an ad analysis where they had to look at every aspect of an advertisement, including making educated guesses on why each aspect was included in the ad. It’s a level of nitpickiness that most had never really experienced. I always had several who at the end of the semester would tell me that they still couldn’t watch TV without tearing all the ads apart. I’d just grin and say, “Welcome to my world.”

          It’s sometimes an annoying place to be, but overall I appreciate my instinct to look at things and see where arguments start to fall apart and how things could be done more effectively. It’s a valuable skill and one that I hope is becoming more important as small publishers and self publishing seem to be taking off – freelance editors may be in high demand!

          • T.W.Wombat says:

            I find great value in something as simple as questioning assumptions. Like, “So what happens if the PCs try to go under cover? How does the cult recognize their own members?” I hope authors will welcome those gentle challenges and think about how to incorporate that information. An editor’s job is to make things better, and sometimes that’s a painful process.

            Anyway, thanks for editing out loud for the rest of us to read.

  3. Pingback: The Lucky Road to RPG Editing | ayvalentine.com

  4. Brian T says:

    Thanks for the advice. I’d love to be an RPG editor, but it seems that unless you want to move to where the head office is, with no promise of pay, or even a position after an internship, it is hard to find a position with any promise. Oh well, I’ll keep hammering on my own system and one day topple all the big ones who seem to be making ever more detrimental mistakes in their product design and target markets. It’s already catching on to the local groups and with my experience as a publisher it’s only a matter of time before it’s showing up at cons.

    • ayvalentine says:

      Since there’s no way I can or would relocate my family for one of those jobs at a head office, I’ve found freelancing to work out well. It takes a lot of self-management and it’s taken me nearly 7 years to get to the point where going full time makes sense, and even that is only possible because my husband has a job that pays the mortgage and provides benefits. But if part time work or hobby work (i.e., the kind that supports your game habit and but doesn’t provide much money otherwise) is an option for you, freelancing work is definitely out there.

      It’s a complicated path – discussing how I got there ended up covering three blog posts (with this as the first one) – and I’m sure there’s still a lot more that could be said and discussed, but there are some options out there if it’s something you want to do.

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