Sitting on the How Not To Succeed As a Freelance Game Journalist panel was the first time I had to stop and think about how I pitch, research, and write articles.
You’d think I’d know my own process, wouldn’t you? I didn’t, though. After riding the Find Story-Pitch-Research-Write carousel around and around for over a year the exercise had become second nature. I asked myself why I had succeeded when so many others hadn’t, and mainly it boiled down to this: I accidentally developed the necessary skill set by pursuing things other than game journalism. Occasionally, I’ll be talking about these skills here on RobWritesPulp under the heading “Game Journalism U.”
“Say what?” you say. “You’re barely in the industry yourself, and here you are trying to teach?” That’s a fair assessment. If you think you know more than me, you probably do. Go, I release you, run free to other blogs!
WHY FOCUS ON RESEARCH?
Research skills were one of the main things that separated me from the sad little box of adopt-a-kittens that is the aspiring freelancer population. Oh sure, when the editors looked at Kitten-Rob they thought, Well, he seems well-trained, he won’t scratch the drapes and pee the carpet, but it was also obvious that I was a good mouser — that I knew how to stalk, catch, and disembowel stories to leave at the Escapist’s doorstep. Basically, I wasn’t just well-behaved and professional, I was useful. Being a good researcher will get you further in journalism than being a good writer. Editors can smooth out and gloss over shoddy writing, but there’s not enough gloss in the world to hide poor research.
Research is the skeleton of every article you write. They are the facts you can’t get wrong and should add up to a truth you’re trying to express. Long-form journalism is case-building. As a journalist, you’re a prosecutor laying evidence out before a jury of readers, and your goal is to bring them around to your point of view. Sure, you can make pretty courtroom speeches, but if your facts don’t hold up the case will fall apart, the jury will turn on you, and the story will get away scot-free. You don’t want a dangerous story roaming the streets: collect your evidence, verify your sources, build your case, plug the logic holes, Book ‘em Danno!
THE RIGHT TOOLS FOR THE JOB
Part of researching well is getting yourself the right tools. Carpenters have their hammers, chefs have their knives, assassins have their piano wire, and researchers have these. Do you need an accordion file? Technically no, but it helps. Organizing your information is just as important as finding it in the first place — that amazing quote or statistic doesn’t do you any good if you can’t find it in the heat of writing and rewriting.
Why printer ink? Do we not live in the days of the Internet? Ink is an expensive ointment made of gold dust and mummified pharaohs. We don’t want to waste it by printing stuff out, do we? Yes, yes you do. If you find a source, print it out. Having your resources in hard copy is important. What if your computer crashes? What if someone alters or removes the information? Also, research shows that people may not do their best critical thinking looking at a screen, partially because the light does weird things to your brainwaves, but also because links can be distracting when you’re pulling quotes and reviewing sources while writing. Many writing hours have been lost to the blue, come-hither coyness of an interesting-but-unrelated hyperlink on an article.
So now you’ve got all those lovely articles, corporate earnings reports, academic studies, and crime scene photos that prove Hideo Kojima masterminded the Watergate burglary. You’re going to need a way to organize them and keep them separate so they don’t breed when you’re not looking (paper breeds when it’s not corralled, this is a fact of nature). Start off with some clearly labeled manila folders kept in an accordion file or bucket file, separating your research by article. Also consider keeping the business cards and contact information of any interviewees in the files. (And when the article is published, keep a copy in the file too. If an online publication goes out of business, your work my disappear.) When you fill that file up, upgrade to a plastic file box. When you fill that, it’s time to level up and get a file cabinet baby! At that point, you’re a success by pretty much anyone’s rubric. Congratulations, have a scotch.
These are referred to as flags, page markers, or in my personal parlance either sticky tabs, or daddy’s little lifesavers. I wrote two research-intensive theses back-to-back with these bad boys, on similar topics, with nary a crossed wire. Mostly I use them to flag information so that I can find it later, but that would be like saying I use my iPhone to make phone calls. I use them to take notes, I use them as reminders to reference another part of a text, and I use them to set goals for how much I need to read before going to sleep. When I wrote my theses, I used an intricate system where different colors of tabs denoted what part of my thesis the information related to. I LOVE sticky tabs. They’re my go-to secret weapon and one of my favorite things in life. If a girl I’m dating ever answers the door wearing only sticky tabs, I’ll probably propose on the spot. Our wedding will be sticky-tab themed and sponsored by 3M.
I’m going to take a stand and say you should absolutely buy it. If you’re planning on actually living and working as a game journalist (or any journalist) it’s a good idea to speak the lingo. After all, you wouldn’t move to a foreign country without picking up a local phrasebook, would you? The Associated Press Stylebook is basically a 400 page cheat sheet that gives you the standardized spelling and grammatical structure of common words and phrases, along with a glossary of common terms. For example, I just opened my book to a random page and found that “checkup,” without a space, is only used as a noun (as in “Janet is seeing the doctor for a routine checkup”) while the standard verb usage is “check up” (as in “I should probably check up on Janet — that’s a lot of screaming for a routine checkup”). The Styleguide also gives you the proper capitalization rules for unfamiliar words, tables for the Heat Index, metric conversion charts, and a briefing on business reporting and media law. Seriously, buy this book. It’s updated regularly to cover new buzzwords, but at this point if you wanted to save money and go with the 2009 guide, you’ll probably be fine. Oh, and did I mention you can get it for around $13? That’s the price of a movie ticket.
This is optional, but it’s great to have and you can come by it cheap. Go to a college bookstore and I almost guarantee you’ll see Diana Hacker’s little jewel somewhere. A Pocket Style Manual is a quick-and-dirty guide to proper grammar usage, citation formats, and bibliography-building. “What?” you say. “Bibliographies?” Yep, bibliographies. When you’re a journalist of any stripe you deal with information, and being able to marshal and organize that info on one sheet of paper is a huge advantage. Sure, the reader won’t see it — in fact, your editor won’t see it — but it should be there in your file should a fact get challenged or you need to check a source. It also gives you a lot of credibility in a pitch or article if you cite sources in a consistent, correct style. I’m not telling you to bog your pitches and articles down with citations, understand, but if the source for a fact is something like a book or magazine article that you can’t link to online, it’s best if you lay the smackdown with a good-ol’ Chicago-style footnote.¹
Access to News and Information Publications
As a journalist, you’re the Doctor Frankenstein of information: it’s your job to scavenge disseminated pieces of knowledge and sew them together into a living, breathing whole. You’ll have to hunt down stories and get different angles on a situation–and some of those will come from (gasp!) non-gaming publications. Start developing a familiarity with both traditional and gaming media. Read your local papers for news of gaming studios, set up Google alerts on Gmail for gaming-related stories, consider a digital subscription to the New York Times to know what’s going on in the world. (Do not steal it by getting the stories through Google. Don’t start your journalism career by screwing over your fellow journalists.) Learn who does the best international coverage, the best tech coverage, the best domestic coverage. If you’re really hardcore about international coverage, start subscribing to private intelligence newsletters. Develop a similar knowledge of game publications. Haunt Games Industry International for business coverage, GamePolitics.com for politics, Polygon, Penny Arcade Report and Escapist for compelling long-form features. Read your gaming news and comment–you’ll learn more technique than you will passively watching a video. One exception: listen to NPR. You can learn a whole lot about nonfiction storytelling by listening to NPR.
A Library Card
Shhhh. Here’s a secret: all across the country there are ancient buildings the public has forgotten. These buildings are the home of an arcane order, and to access them, you have to be a member of their society. Should you join their brotherhood, their temples can give you knowledge beyond your imagination. Newspapers! Magazines! Microfische morgues! Books by the thousands! Learn to use a library and you’ll become an unstoppable research juggernaut. Your Google-happy competitors will cower before you and you’ll slay Wikipedia-citers with a word. The moment you read a nonfiction book for research, you become part of a very select club in game journalism and your article will vault over roughly half of your competition.
Handy Dandy Notebook
I’m always shocked when I meet game journos who don’t carry a notebook. Notebooks are a must-have at a conference or on assignment. I use mine to jot notes on panels, ideas for stories, and names of people I meet — along with biographical details and what subjets they know well. That way, if I’m researching an article about a topic I’m not familiar with, I have someone who can provide a quote or recommend sources. Notebooks are essential for keeping interview questions in order. And no, taking notes on your iPhone or tablet is not “basically the same thing.” See the above section on printing things: hard copies are better. iPhones can do in a pinch, but transcribe your notes to something physical when you get home. Writing by hand is also faster than typing on a phone and requires less mental focus. I like Moleskine notebooks² and their knock-offs, but you can use anything you want — even index cards or slips of paper kept in your wallet. Just have something to write on. I’d also recommend a keychain pen in case you have an ink failure.
Digital Voice Recorder/Voice Recording App
I can’t tell you how much my interview skills improved when I switched from writing quotes to recording and writing them. It keeps your focus on the interviewee and frees your mind to ask follow-up questions. I use a $5 iPhone and iPad app, but you can get a perfectly good one for free. Make sure it can record at least an hour of speech and picks up phone conversations well. Beware of “voice memo” apps. Some will only record 60 seconds to five minutes of speech. It’ll put you in transcription hell for sure, but your misquotation rate will drop to near-zero. Remember that you always need to ask for permission to tape a conversation or interview — even when it’s assumed, it’s just good manners.
- Sorry English majors, MLA sucks and Chicago style reigns supreme. I don’t understand why English departments, who theoretically teach clear writing, insist on using a citation format so textually invasive. Though I will admit that as a double major in History and Religion I’m unabashedly partisan when it comes to Chicago style. We all are, every one of us. One day, the American Historical Association will summon all History majors to their banner, and we’ll storm the Modern Language Association and put everyone to the sword. I know I’m unreasonable on this point, but Chicago is just better and doesn’t make your writing ugly.
- Pro tip on Moleskine notebooks: I love them but those damn elastic bands tend to give out with extended use. If the band starts to stretch out, cut it out and replace it with one of those Livestrong-type wristbands. When you open the notebook to write, just put the wristband on. Easy! You can do the same thing with a flat-sided rubber band.