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 My best friend from college has written novels (as yet unpublished) and screenplays (one was made into a movie).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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