10 Tricks to Balance Game Journalism With Your Day Job

Ever since I started writing a weekly column, I’ve gotten one question over and over from aspiring game journos:  How do I balance a full-time job and a weekly column?

Well now that I’ve left the full-time job I can reveal my secret.

I didn’t balance them.  Not nearly.  For the last six months I’ve been harried, under-slept and feeling three steps behind on everything.

There’s no such thing as Work/Life Balance.  Hell, I had a hard enough time with Work/Work Balance.

But despite all that, I survived.  Critical Intel has done well, gained an audience, and kept a high level of quality.  I got good reviews at my day job and was considered a don’t-know-what-we’ll-do-without-you asset when I left.  Despite burning every drop of midnight oil I had, I was at least functioning at a pretty high level.

So can I tell you how maintain Work/Live Balance?  Hahahahahaha no.  Yeah, nope.

What I can do, though, is tell you what makes putting out that much work  possible and a whole lot less painful.

1. Plan Your Content

Do you know what you’re writing about this week?  Sure!  No problem, right?  So ok – what about next week?  What about the week after that?  If you’re putting out content weekly, you need to develop a plan.  I never approach a deadline not knowing what to write about, because that’s suicide.  While it’s true that I’ve sometimes found myself a few days out not knowing which article’s going to go out that week, it’s always a question of which of these three articles am I going to write? rather than what am I going to write?  Ideally, I schedule content three weeks out.  I know what I’m writing this week, I have one or two possibilities I’m developing for next week, and a treasure trove of ideas I can use for week three.

2. Plan Your Week

For any article that requires an interview, I’m sending out emails two weeks out.  For anything that needs extensive research, I start reading sources and marking paragraphs at least a week before the deadline.  First draft starts several days beforehand, finishes the day before the deadline, and then a series of 3-4 edited drafts before it’s due.  And honestly, this is way too close to the wire for my liking, but I’m trying to be realistic about what actually happens when you’re carrying a full-time job and a weekly deadline.  Once you’ve hit that deadline give yourself a night off to recoup sleep and do it all again.

3. Get at Least A Week Ahead

If you don’t do anything else, do this.  I started Critical Intel with the first and second weeks of content already filed, kept an article in reserve as long as I could, and I was waaaaay saner.  Then Christmas happened and I basically lost a week – just couldn’t get anything written – and I was back to scrambling like a quarterback with no linemen.  Don’t do this.  When you’re starting a new weekly endeavor, be kind to yourself and have some extra articles in  your back pocket.  Less pressure, more chance to redraft and your writing will be better for it.  Think like a gunfighter – always have a backup in your waistband.

4. It’s Okay to Softball (Sometimes)

When I tell you the shit’s gonna hit the fan, buddy, I’m not kidding.  One week the shit will hit the fan, and it will get thrown everywhere and make everything shitty.  Also, presumably, your fan will stop working because it’s gears are caked with shit.  Maybe you’re fighting with your spouse and writing isn’t the uppermost thing on your mind.  Maybe your computer crashed.  Maybe it’s Christmas Eve and you’re spending time with family or, alternately, wandering drunk around Downtown Disney, reevaluating your life choices.  At times like this you can either use one of your backups, or you can write a softball article.  Now don’t misunderstand what I mean by “softball” – its not a bad article, or a rushed article.  It’s just an article that’s easy.  Something that’s been in the back of your mind, or draws on your own knowledge, something you don’t have to read forty pages of source material to write.  Strangely, in my experience these columns actually tend to become popular.  Desperate Housewives of Skyrim was one of these for me.  So was the recent The Perfect Non-Gamer Girl, which I wrote because my spare time was nothing but wedding errands.  Industry Secret Time: you know why there are so many top-ten lists at the end of the year?  Because game journos are tired and it’s Christmas and PR’s not returning emails.  Top ten lists are easy, that’s why content mills like Buzzfeed churn them out.  Have a few ideas in your notebook you can flee to in times of need.

5. Learn to Cook in a Crockpot

Or else learn to live off soup, sandwiches, and fast food.  If you’re writing as well as working, the writing is going to cut into your time, including mealtimes.  That often means shortening meals or, alternately, learning to cook dinners that require little attention.  I consider stews, roasts, curries, pulled pork, homemade soups, and the like writer food.  Chop some ingredients, dump them in a pot, and let it boil in the background while you write.  Also provides a good, mindless action if you need to think between paragraphs.

6. Insomnia is Not Your Friend, But it Can Be a Powerful Ally

Let’s me be straight about this one: you’re gonna lose some sleep.  You just will.  It’ll happen.  Best to come to terms with it.  I’m lucky to be one of those people who can drop off to sleep pretty quickly, so if I’m going to bed at 3:00 AM and waking up at 7:00 AM I’ve slept a half a night, but not everyone’s like this.  Frankly I could write a whole post on writing and insomnia and strategies to get enough sleep, but let’s just leave it like this: you’re going to end up pulling late nights, sometimes multiple times a week.  This will literally let you add more hours of work to your day, but if you push it too far you’ll have a breakdown or a car accident.  Be very, very careful about how much sleep you get.  Consider getting up early instead of staying up late, or starting your articles earlier in the week.

7. Limit Your TV and Videogame Time

Yeah, I know this one sounds counterintuitive, especially coming from a videogame journalist.  Here’s the thing though: you’ve got a limited amount of time in your day and can’t afford to burn daylight.  So instead of watching six TV shows a week, pick three.  Instead of playing the game you’re writing about and also ten hours of another game, maybe cut that extraneous game down to a couple hours.  Personally, I like to watch a TV episode while I’m eating dinner, since I can justify the time by multitasking.  Also, just bite the bullet and get TiVo or some form of digital cable, or else just work on Netflix and Hulu.  Watch TV when you have time, not when the TV tells you to.

8. Schedule Writing Time

My fiancée knows not to schedule anything on certain nights of the week.  Those nights are writing nights.  Figure out your own time and lock your environment down.  Shut off Twitter and Facebook.  Get out of the house if you have to – retreat to a library or cafe or a bar.  Whatever you do, set a time when you need to put your ass in a chair and just write.   This time could be every week, every day, or every couple of days.  It can be as long or short as you want.  Get up early.  Stay up late.  Knock out a page during your lunch hour each day,  on the C Train, or stay at your desk an extra hour after punching out – if someone calls you, tell them you’re still at work and will call back.  The last one really works well.

9. Make a Little Progress Every Day

Even if you’re not actually writing your article, just keep moving the ball forward.  Bookmark some research, do some reading, play a game.  Waiting for your girlfriend at a restaurant?  Take out your notebook or cell phone and jot down ideas for articles or interview questions.  Outline something you haven’t started on – it’ll take five minutes and save you an hour.  Correspond with PR or interviewees.  Above all write everything down.  To put out content every week you need to become a wellspring of ideas.

10. Be Kind To Yourself

You’re going to do better some weeks than others.  That’s just the nature of writing on a weekly basis and, frankly, writing period.  One week you’re going to put something out you’re crazy enthusiastic about and the next it might just be alright.  Serviceable but not soaring. Good stuff, insightful stuff, but not a world-beater.  Inevitably, you’ll put a lot of work into something you think is really fantastic that practically no one reads, the bastards.  You might write something people hate.  That’s just going to happen and you can’t get too twisted up about it.  Try harder next week.  The fact you met a deadline and have shown the world you can publish on a regular basis – and get paid – is a form of success in itself.  Don’t beat yourself up.  Falling short of excellence isn’t the same thing as being comfortably mediocre.  It probably isn’t even as bad as you think (probably).  Just keep reaching higher each week and you’ll improve.

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One response to “10 Tricks to Balance Game Journalism With Your Day Job

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