As I’ve often said, I don’t like writing about writing as it’s not what people come to Electron Dance to read about. However, I know there are some writers here who might be interested in crossing swords on the wordcraft itself. So I had a stab at jotting down my thoughts about writing and some of the conundrums I wrestle with.

Only read on if you’re actually interested in a bunch of rambling notes unrelated to video games.    

I never attended any sort of writing classes beyond English in secondary school so as a writer I am self-taught. On the whole, this isn’t a list of rules I obey religiously but a snapshot of current thinking. Nothing is fixed in place.

  • Personal pieces. Writing The Ethics of Selling Children (TEoSC) changed everything. From then on, I decided to cut down on personal stories and concentrate on more “hard” subjects going forward. This doesn’t mean personal stories are out of the question and I posted a hybrid of personal story and analysis recently – The Long Road to Verona – which received a lot of love (a bittersweet reminder of the appeal of personal stories). I also wrote the super-meta piece The Labour of Love to clarify the reasons behind the August sabbatical. There is also a personal trilogy called Learning Curve in the pipeline.
  • Vignette structure. When I wrote TEoSC, I became aware of the prevalence of vignette structure in personal writing: here’s a scene, here’s a scene and now – here’s a scene. The purpose is to imply theme without revealing your hand, to ask the reader to prise it out from these little puzzle pieces you’ve made. But if used too much then it becomes just that thing you do instead of blowing away readers with its power. I’ve made a point to avoid this style although it makes a rare return in The Beast next week because it felt appropriate. This takes me to my next point.
  • Flow. Vignettes break up the writing into chunks, making the whole easier to write. You don’t have to worry about how to bridge from one topic to another, it’s like a hack for turning a stream of consciousness into something readable. You just throw these pieces together and voilà. Truth be told, it is harder to figure out how to string lots of disparate thoughts together into a coherent, unbroken whole. Thing is, using section headings also acts like a get-out clause for writing essays that flow. So as an exercise I drop sub-headings wherever possible whereas in the past they were practically mandatory. However, long essays are sometimes easier with headings as navigational aid (e.g. Faith of the Pilgrim) and help the reader feel like they’re making progress through a bigger piece.
  • Equality. I’ve never been one for writing too much on topics of racism or sexism but sometimes I just get the urge, you know? The last time, I think, was Crossing the Floor and I’ve made a few mentions via the late and lamented Link Drag. When I drafted a rebuttal to Amanda Lange’s Lara Croft piece last year, the online environment had become a lot more… trigger-happy. I’m not interested in courting controversy so I decided to bin the rebuttal. TEoSC was often framed in terms of shutting out minority voices and, although no one charged me with that particular crime, I found the association acutely uncomfortable. Even writing this note makes me uncomfortable, concerned that this entire article will only be known for this one bullet point… Anyway, I’m not penning anything on these topics for the foreseeable future.
  • Formality. I’ve been aiming for a middle ground which is accessible yet thought-provoking. I don’t want to write dumbed-down language but I don’t want to scare people off with language that looks, erm… academic. I’ve been trying to refine this as I’ve gone along and recently introduced a more formal referencing style e.g. “Sonic the Hedgehog (Sonic Team, 1991)”. I want to move away from the chatty, friendly style of RPS I was originally trying to ape, but not so much that my wordvoice turns grey and decrepit. It’s tricky and I’m constantly tweaking, but go back to Electron Dance in 2010 and it’s clear there’s a difference in my voice.
  • My vs The. In tandem with the previous point, I’ve been trying to minimise the use of “I” to be less about “my experience” and more about “the experience”. This is not easy especially as I’m a strong believer in the subjectivity of the game experience, so I fall off this wagon all the time. Work in progress?
  • Diaries. The Aspiration was really successful and I want to write something in that vein again. I tried The Alien Cortex Must Die and that did poorly – but then I also “fictionalised” some of that, and I’m not sure I was happy with the end result even though Michael Brough and Pippin Barr enjoyed it. Diaries need the right game, like multiplayer or a roguelike. Or something sprawling. I’m considering a sort of Mass Effect diary. I do small diaries all the time, such as The Worst Way To Die or next week’s The Beast. Diaries, though, are “my” stories not “the” stories, which brings us back to the tug o’ war between the subjective personal and the objective analytical.
  • Swearing. I’ve cut down on swearing because the effect wears off after too much use. I want you to sit up and pay attention when I finally write Jesus Fucking Christ of Awesome. Plus I worry that peppering something with profanity can undermine a serious message if I’m not careful.
  • Linking. I think, on the whole, I’ve stopped linking to my own pages when referring to a game. I used to link to myself because I thought I offered more information than the developer’s own site: but it probably wasn’t what the reader expected. Now the Electron Dance link is more explicit whereas a hyperlink on just the game’s name will go to the developer’s page.
  • Drink it neat. Do not use funky fonts when writing drafts. Cool looking fonts will convince you into believing the writing is impressive. I learnt this a long time ago when I started using Courier on manuscripts. Writing nude lets you see whether the words actually work.
  • Ranting. When I segue into a rant, I feel like I’m abandoning argument and it’s easy to make “mistakes”. The Kickstarter piece Oversight wasn’t as well-researched as it should have been and I was forced into an addendum to “fix” the article. The big series I am working on is effectively an eight-week rant, so this rationality vs rant conflict makes me anxious. Still, I became better informed about Kickstarter as a result of Oversight… so it can be instructive to set up weak arguments just to see how they get knocked down. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in an Electron Dance “newsletter” which can act as a clearing house for embryonic thoughts. Last month’s article on Twine and subjectivity You Complete Me generated some interesting discussion and that, in turn, has birthed an essay I’m much more excited about.
  • Danger words. I’ve dropped the word “art” because it’s a nonsense word: it rarely adds anything to the sort of articles I write and, at worst, comes across as needy, a plea for games to be recognised as more than just run-and-gun. I don’t like the term “indie” much either, due to the complex nuance of the word – and there’s no One True Definition – but it’s just too damned convenient sometimes. Other words you will struggle to find here are “immersive” (another cheap language hack) and “medium” (I now subscribe to Frank Lantz’s stance on the term but also check out Michaël Samyn’s essay on games as medium and a conversation between the two of them).
  • Conceptual conflicts. I have this penchant for leading an article with one idea but then later flipping across to another in an attempt to craft a “aha! you had no idea!” moment. In The Accidental ARG, I described the failed Xmaspiration ARG and related it to developers wasting players’ time. In You Complete Me, I dissected what I disliked about Twine games but sidestepped into the question of subjectivity. The trouble is, readers might not like what they see on the book cover and not get anywhere near the interesting denouement. I’m thinking it may not be such a good idea mashing two topics together in this way without telegraphing the climax. Assuming readers will always read an article, regardless of the opening paragraphs, is probably unwise.

No idea if anyone is interested in this, I’ve just done it on a whim. Questions? Disagreements? Let rip in the comments.

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10 thoughts on “Auto-Critique 1

  1. You know, it’s interesting; I might very well agree with your rebuttal about Lara depending on what you had to say. Keep in mind that when I wrote that piece, I wasn’t responding to the game, which wasn’t out yet, but rather what had been said ABOUT the game. My understanding is the final nature of that content was very different than the interview questions that explained it had implied. Honestly, what I thought was sick about the whole thing wasn’t that the game would dare to show a woman vulnerable or include some kind of potential sexual-assault depiction. What I thought was sick was how much of a selling point it apparently was for the dude explaining it, taking the “obviously, the gamer isn’t a woman” sort of angle. So I’m kind of curious what your take was!

  2. I’ll send you a mail with the details later today. It was never fleshed out into a proper article.

  3. All interesting points. Personally, I think your style, focus and ethos are all very well-considered. It seems like most of your “danger points” – personal narratives, subjectivity, how to approach flow – are things that can never be solved because they’re sometimes appropriate and sometimes not. Being aware of them is what counts.

    I’d love to see more academic analyses on here (and in gaming generally) but I’m pretty much academia-grown so I would say that.

  4. Thanks James. Yes, I think most of the above points are about finding a personal sweet spot as opposed to the “right answer”. There are some other topics I’ve omitted because they spell out writing I dislike and use as anti-examples – but I don’t want to get into that sort of conversation! But generally I want to be more concrete in some sense and far less focus on story (most games don’t really earn that).

  5. Interesting stuff, HM. I’m not surprised that your “rambling notes” strike me as being thoroughly thought-out. Me, I just feel out whatever article I’m working on. If I feel my approach doesn’t work, I’ll down tools and just let the piece brew in the back of my mind for a week or two, then try again.

    That isn’t so much a considered approach as the path of least resistance. That many of my articles achieve low numbers of views and garner zero comments may indicate that I should re-think this approach. Equally, AR is a lot more informal than ED and I’m comfortable with the idea of organic pieces of writing reflecting personalities (though I have sometimes, er, let’s say amended word choices in articles).

    Interesting what you say under “Equality”. Social justice/progressivism has been a topic that has driven me ever since I got on the internet, met people from other walks of life and started reading widely on such topics. It’s rarely crept into my own writing, however, for reasons that are similar though not identical to yours. Nowadays the debate has moved forward a significant amount, which is of course fantastic, though it brings with it new challenges.

  6. Hey Shaun. I think we all need to show off a bit of personality otherwise we’re just writing academic work. I want to maintain both The Five Stages of Starseed Pilgrim as well as Faith of the Pilgrim: one is something raw and the other is considered and deep. I’m usually more proud of the analytical work though (Faith, Survivorship Bias) even though there is no guarantee of audience.

    On the equality stuff, there’s no problem throwing words at horrible prejudice but I’m not just online to be a cheerleader. Sometimes there are questions to be askedBut we are in the era of privilege checking. I’ve read several pieces asserting that if you exist in a particular bubble of privilege then you don’t really have the right to comment. I don’t agree but the sentiment is strong and that’s not a fight I’m interested in engaging. It would probably destroy my interest in continuing the site.

  7. Hey HM. Oops, didn’t mean to vaguely imply your writing lacks personality. Quite the opposite: your voice stands out in both ‘strands’ of writing.

    The stuff I’m personally most proud of is usually what garners the least interest. A bit of a bummer, that, and the inevitable downside to the oft-spoken advice to write for oneself first. But anyone writing online regularly learns to be a cold, hard cynic about getting widely pretty quickly, ha.

    Yes, that is about it. The concept of privilege has bloomed into wider cultural consciousness. It was only a year or two ago that I was agog at a Louis CK set in which he incorporated the concept of privilege into a joke. One of the most popular comedians in America making jokes about male privilege? I couldn’t believe it. Today my surprise feels almost quaint.

    I entirely disagree with the argument you mention; it strikes me as sophistry that doesn’t reflect real social, cultural and other complexities and the (loose!) parallels with silencing techniques are not hard to draw. But equally I am firmly of the opinion that on a lot of subjects I, and the overall debate, have a lot more to gain by me listening/reading than by me talking/writing. Alas, a lesson that internet comment thread participants are unlikely to learn in my lifetime.

    Yes, it is easy for involvement with flashpoint debates to overwhelm everything else – another good reason to steer clear unless you want to commit to that. It is probably most sensible to remain on the engaged periphery.

  8. No, no, dude, what I read was a response to me trying to subjugate personality, less loose and more formal. As I wrote in another comment last week, Steerpike and I talked about the failure to become “successes” but Steerpike suggested we really knew deep down how to become successful, but it was the kind of success neither of us were interested in. Let’s start with Top Ten posts. After that, do some controversy just for the sake of it, go icycalm! I feel like I want to construct a new audience that doesn’t exist, rather than chase one that does.

    Intersectionality isn’t exactly mainstream but it depends which circles you run in. In videogame writing circles, it’s as mainstream as it comes. Incidentally, it’s not comment flame wars I’m worried about so much: you can always put a stop to that, a nuke as last resort. Social networks are a different story.

    You know, I was really hoping to finally a get a female developer in the Eurogamer Expo video, to break the male monotony (we are monotonous) but was thwarted (last year I talked to an artist from Arcade Kids and Helena Santos from Modern Dream). I couldn’t go in there and say I needed a woman, it might be misinterpreted.

  9. Putting in (unfortunately) not simple and fast terms of a internet commentary but not less aleatory I would say that I appreciate to see some theory discussion more than only critics in sites of games or anything else, the question sometimes it’s more interesting than the solution. In this subject I could not less say(ing [in the preterit of the imperfect future {i dont find it in english, but of course could be wrong}]) variable things that not only cross my mind but concern me in my academic studies aspects, such is linguistic, logic, ethic, epistemological, ontology, semiotic, literary theory, etc – in a philosophical scope. Not just because I would in some way force this topics but because it really have space for it. And I am referring about this article in general, not only about the word “writing”. This comment will not do any of that! no need to worry hahaha. Will just say that sometimes we have necessity just to express ourselves and not only for ourself, and write it’s a good way to do that. There are topics that not everyone talk so you may have the necessity to find some crazy with the predisposition to listen or just be incited to. But when we write, come some difficulties, in this simple case, different difficulties, i.e. when are write to yourself or for others. In case of that comment of mine I’m doing because I’m engaged by to do so for some reason, maybe for the article itself, maybe by context (-the mood?-) I’m in, not just to express myself but to encourage (with the the word’s intent of giving my encouraging vote to) you @HM to write more things like that or just to write, which I like very much, even so the content of this comment of mine make no sense, have no context or are not relevant – but I hope it not happen, not want such sad fate to my dear comment. In conclusion, I think go on experimenting it’s the right thing to do!

  10. Hi Pedro, thanks for commenting again! What I write will keep evolving and I just thought it was interesting to put out a snapshot here. The things I concern myself with change from year to year. I intend to do another one in the distant future. My personal plan was always to be accessible and more down to earth, but there’s this… siren call, encouraging me to write pieces that will only appeal to a few people. I’ll keep the mix in – with experiments here and there, while trying to retain the popular vote!

    (FYI, I know that Push Select write pieces from a philosopher’s perspective.)

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