Game Writing

The basics of looking for an online game reviewing job

(The following is an excerpt from the e-book Getting Started in Freelance Video Game Journalism)

The online game journalism world is filled with thousands of publications. The vast majority of them are small blogs dedicated to a few specific topics, but there are mid-sized and even a few large outlets who keep the writing world alive and kicking.

When you’re just starting out, you’ve got to aim for the little guys. It’s disheartening, we know, but it’s how things work. Actually, the reason VGJobs exists is to showcase gigs for freelancers who are just starting out. Dozens of openings appear on the front page each week, ranging from volunteer to paid, hobby blogs to sites like HubPages, Gamezebo and EGM. It’s a good place to start your search. Honestly, it is!

A quirk of the online journalism world is that websites tend to post job openings on their own sites, not necessarily on job boards. This is partly out of sheer convenience, but it also lets publications target people they know will be a good fit for their site. Namely, people that already read it!

This makes your job hunt a little more complex. You can’t just sit on VGJobs or Monster and click “apply” on every game writing job you see. Instead, you’ll need to keep tabs on your favorite gaming sites for that fateful day they put out a call for writers. You should be reading a bunch of news/reviews sites anyway, so this problem takes care of itself.

Blind Google searches sometimes yield great results, just plug in phrases like “hiring game writer” or “game writer wanted”. Most sites don’t specifically ask for “game journalists”, so stick to phrases that include writer/writing. Also keep tabs on generic freelance writing job boards and places like craigslist. Competition from actual game writers on these sites is low, so you might be able to grab a great job without much effort.

Like what you see? There’s plenty more in the complete e-book. Check it out!

Misconceptions about being an online game writer

(The following is an excerpt from the e-book Getting Started in Freelance Video Game Journalism)

The number one misconception about video game journalists is that we bathe in free games sunup to sundown. Copies of all the latest blockbusters are stacked in the corners of our home offices because, hey, we’re game writers. Gotta have games to write about!

While it’s true that getting free games does happen in game journalism, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. Putting the sometimes questionable ethics of the “freebies practice” aside, it’s not like publishers are lining up to hand out games to every writer on the ‘net. More often than not, press copies are only obtained by direct e-mails with publishing companies. Begging, in other words. Even then it’s not like you get to take your free game and run.

Games to a journalist represent one thing: work. Yes, you get to play them, but you’re not paid to play, you’re paid to write. When you end up with a freebie you’re obligated to do something with it, namely playing it through and writing a review. That’s fine when it’s a game you enjoy, but you don’t always get to pick the games you write about. Think a cheesy Wheel of Fortune game will never be on your assignment list? You just wait. You… just… wait!

Turning gaming into a job carries the threat of making you hate games as a whole. Who wants to play a new Mario game when you’ll have to write a review when you’re done? Your brain will stay busy making notes about the gameplay or mentally evaluating the graphics, not giggling each time Mario squeals as he slides down the flagpole. You’re not guaranteed to learn to loathe games, but it’s a possibility. Turning your passion into a career always carries that risk.

Like what you see? There’s plenty more in the complete e-book. Check it out!

Words to use or avoid in your freelance writing resume

A recent study by ZipRecruiter analyzed words used in resumes that were rated highly by employers. The resulting list of dos and don’ts seems a little vague at first, but once you read over them you’ll see what they have in common.  Good advice to keep in mind when creating or updating your own freelance writing resume:

Use these words in your resume:

  • Experience
  • Management
  • Project
  • Development
  • Business
  • Professional
  • Knowledge

Don’t use these words:

  • Need
  • Hard
  • First
  • Chance
  • Myself
  • Learning

Notice the pattern? Most of the avoid words display a striking lack of confidence. You can just picture phrases like “give me a chance” or “first time writer” or “having a hard time finding a job”. There’s absolutely no reason to mention any of that to an employer. Ever. When I hire writers, I automatically delete e-mails that contain phrases and words like that. It’s an easy way to weed out first timers who don’t have a clue what they’re doing.

On the flip side, the “power keywords” display confidence and success. They’re a little generic for my taste, but the worst that can happen is the hiring manager ignores them as background noise, allowing the skills you wrote about to take center stage.

powerkeywords

Which narrative style is best for game reviews?

It isn’t something non-fiction writers think about often, but is there a preferred narrative voice for online video game reviews/articles? The “good” news is that you probably won’t have a choice! While some sites aren’t as concerned with which voice you use, others insist upon first, second or third person narrative voices for everything from reviews to news posts and editorials. Even if an editor never specifically mentions it, it’s always better to stick to stick to the most common article style on the site in question.

First person – This is the most casual-sounding narrative voice and isn’t seen too often outside of personal blogs, which is why so many publications avoid it. It’s good for conveying personal experiences, but because it’s associated with amateurish writing and off-the-cuff Facebook posts, avoid it unless specifically asked to write in this style. A good practice when using the first person voice is to adopt the editorial “we” instead of saying “I”. As long as it isn’t in every other sentence, this should class things up a notch and make your article sound less like a LiveJournal post.

Second person– The most common narrative style on the internet, and possibly the easiest one to write in. The second person voice has a casual familiarity with the reader, referring to them directly as “you”. It draws people into the narrative without distilling the author’s own experiences and thoughts out of the text, making it a great fit for game reviews.

Third person narrative – A professional and neutral narrative voice used in print magazines, newspapers, and any publication looking to establish itself as some sort of authority. Third person never refers to the author or the reader, opting for terms like “players will notice…”. In inexperienced hands it can come off as awkward and stilted, but with practice you can do a lot with it. News posts almost always use the third person narrative style.

Polish your writing resume with a few quick tips

Resume writing isn’t an easy task, even for a career writer. It’s tough to pick which jobs and experiences best represent your skills, and it’s even more difficult to arrange it all so it captures the attention of a potential employer. Use the following tips to refine your online writing resume and give yourself a leg up on the competition.

Keep all information relevant – You want to stay as focused as you can when creating your writing resume. Most publications don’t care that you used to wrap fish in cellophane for a living. They do care that you ran your own blog for a year and updated it three times a week without fail. Hone in on your target and only talk about your relevant experience.

Talk about your passion for writing, not gaming – If you find yourself writing a phrase like “I’m passionate about gaming”, go ahead and delete it. Playing games isn’t the hard part, writing about them is. After all, it’s good writers that get game writing jobs, not good gamers. Sell that side of your persona to really get people interested in hiring you.

All writing experience is relevant – Personal projects, unpaid gigs, single articles and everything in-between all count as writing experience, and they’re excellent points to mention in your resume.

Gaming experience isn’t relevant – Unless you’re looking for jobs that require experience with a certain genre or game, you don’t need to talk about how long or how much you love playing games. It’s kind of a given, so just skip over that part unless you have some extraordinary accomplishments to mention.

Don’t talk about what you want to do – A resume is a place to talk about what you’ve already accomplished, not what you think you’re capable of doing. It may not be easy to write an impressive resume when you’re just starting out, but that’s where writing in your spare time comes into play. If you love writing so much you do it even when you don’t get paid, that’s a big plus in an employer’s eyes.

Proofread, proofread, proofread – And then proofread again. We can’t stress enough how important it is to have a flawless resume. Even a tiny typo will look bad in an employer’s eyes. Check over every word and make sure it’s perfect.

Video game writing niches you can fill

One sneaky way to success in the video game journalism field is to fill a niche market, those tiny corners of the business that don’t exist or are poorly represented. The goal isn’t to pick a niche and shoehorn yourself into it. Instead, write about what interests you on your blog. Eventually you’ll notice you lean towards certain topics. Follow that lean, and as you gain knowledge and experience you’ll begin to master the niche. Then it’s time to push your talent like there’s no tomorrow.

Examples of niche markets in video games:

  • Independent gaming (this is less and less true with each passing year)
  • Genre-specific (RPG, JRPG, fighting games, etc.)
  • Retro gaming (not the most lucrative niche, but it’s there)
  • Casual gaming (enormously lucrative and growing every day, great potential here)
  • Hardware blogging, such as tweaking PC performance or drooling over the PS4 GPU
  • Visual novels
  • Interactive fiction
  • Engine-specific (writing exclusively about RPG Maker games or Love2D releases)

One of the best ways to claim a niche is to create it with your own unique style. Some people write lengthy articles about the games they complete, some rant about things on YouTube, others write articles filled with exclamation marks about Lara Croft. If you’re doing something different from the rest of the gaming publications out there, you might get noticed.

Finding your style is a simple matter of writing on a regular basis. With time and attention you’ll discover which topics you prefer covering and how you like to talk about them. Not everyone can write a good rant. Maybe you’re more of the cheerful video game writer? You won’t know until you have a few dozen (or, more likely, a few hundred) polished articles under your belt.

Want to be a game journalist? Consider volunteering.

One common misconception I see with aspiring video game journalists is they assume as soon as they write their first review they’ll be rolling in cash and free games. This just isn’t true for any job, writing or otherwise, so why would it be any different in the field of video games? If you want to get your foot in the door, you have to start small. Very small. Like, working without getting paid small. It may sound like a waste of time, but if you aren’t willing to sacrifice a little for your craft, you might as well hang up your video game writing hat right now.

This elephant has nothing to do with being a game journalist. It's just kinda cute.
This elephant has nothing to do with being a game journalist. It’s just neat.

Volunteering with a fan-run news site is an easy way to put published reviews under your belt and get a feel for what video game journalism is all about. It helps you hone your writing skills, teaches you to be prompt with your articles, thorough with your research, and timely with your news bites. It also drops a weighty truth that early writers need to get through their heads: writing about video games is work. It’s not just screwing around all day, it’s real work that can be extraordinarily demanding at times. The sooner you learn that the sooner you’ll know if you’ve got what it takes to walk the long path.

I gained invaluable insights with my first few volunteer writing jobs, and when I started applying for paid positions, these served as excellent references to show that I’m dependable. Editors want more than anything someone they can put their trust in to deliver articles and reviews on time. Volunteering at a fansite, even a small one, helps shape your work habits into something more presentable to the career-oriented press. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. Send queries to several sites at once, shout your accomplishments from the hills, run your own blog, and after you’ve built a foundation of writing for the sake of writing, you can easily jump into the field of writing for the sake of paying the bills.

More game review writing tips

We deployed a handful of tips on writing video game reviews not too long ago. How about some more?!

After you get the basic structure of a review down, it’s time to expand. Your writing style is what sets your work apart. It’s why editors seek you out as opposed to your fellow journalists. Once you get the technical aspects of reviewing down, it’s time to start relaxing and breaking the rules. Use the following tips (and George Orwell’s rules in the image below) to help expand your craft and turn run-of-the-mill articles into your personal best!

  • After writing your review, read over it and ask yourself if it makes sense to anyone but yourself. Then ask if it makes sense to a five year old. If it doesn’t, keep writing/editing.
  • Don’t be clever. At least, not at first. Focus on simplicity and communicating your experience. Witty phrases will come later.
  • Avoid cliche metaphors and phrases. They add nothing to your reviews.
  • Never start your review with “(Insert dictionary name) defines (insert word) as…” I will personally hunt you down if you do.
  • Get a good grasp on grammar. Only after you’ve put in a few years of good writing can you start breaking the rules. When applicable.
  • Write for the non-gamer. Mentioning an obscure game makes you seem pretentious and can alienate your readers.
  • Link liberally. Web users are notoriously lazy. Link to your own articles when possible, and be sure to link to any games you write about.
  • Read your final draft out loud. Sometimes this is the best way to catch obvious mistakes. If it “sounds good”, it probably is good.
  • Avoid using the same word over and over again. English has one of the largest vocabularies of any language. Take advantage of that, but at the same time, don’t abuse the thesaurus.
  • Eliminate unnecessary words. If you can kill a word, do it. This is especially true for adjectives. The result will be a tight and well-written review.

It’s as important to master the basic structure of a review as it is to branch out and add your own personal flair. Once you feel you have a grasp of the foundation, let your own writing style be seen!

Orwell's rules for writing

Tips on writing video game reviews

Just like any piece of writing, a video game review should be concise, logical, easy to understand, and above all, interesting. No one wants to wade through paragraphs of dull text. Game reviews are essentially a conversation about a game put into writing. They have an identifiable beginning, middle and end, and they convey information about a title that screenshots or videos can’t communicate. Here are a few quick tips to help give your game reviews a little boost.

Writing video game reviews

* Start with the most basic aspects of the game and build up from there. Reviewing Excelsior Phase One: Lysandia? In the first paragraph you’d better tell me the game is a 20 year old RPG. Once I have that knowledge, add another layer of detail. Assume no one reading your review has heard of the game, but at the same time, don’t hit them over the head with boring details.

* Only hit the high and low points of the game. There’s no need to force a discussion of the graphics if they aren’t anything to speak of. Tell me what the games does right and why you enjoyed it. Also tell me what’s wrong with the game and how that affected your experience.

* Get to the point. Telling anectodes is fine, but that’s not why people are reading. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use humor in your work, but keep it short, and if you use it, make it integral to the piece. Rambling is a sign of poor writing/editing.

* The intro and closing paragraphs are of monumental importance. Each one should summarize everything the reader needs to know about the game, including your overall impression.

* Edit. Edit. EDIT! Your first draft will be terrible. Your second and third drafts will also stink. Keep hacking away at your article, trimming excess wordage, moving paragraphs to more sensible locations, and refining the review until it’s gold. Both readers and your editors will love you to pieces.

* Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Almost all editors will be happy to coach you on your work. We hate correcting the same mistakes time and time again, and usually they’re small things you can fix without a second thought.

* Watch your grammar and punctuation. Avoid common mistakes such as the use of its vs. it’s, fewer vs. less, and so on.

Each review is a miniature story. You’re taking the reader on the same journey you embarked upon when you first played the game through to the end. Communicate your experience as clearly and simply as possible, writing interesting reviews that have the potential to get noticed.

Common mistakes writing query letters for online game writing jobs

Applying to an online game writing job? Better make a good first impression! The query/cover letter is the e-mail you send to a publication that introduces yourself, outlines a brief history of your work experience, and convinces them you’re writer for the job. Here are a few common mistakes freelancers make when crafting cover letters for online job openings. Avoid them and you’re one step closer to a perfect query!

Applying to online journalism jobs

Focusing on the negatives – A perfect example of this is the all-too-common “I’ve never written anything exactly like what you want, but…”. Know what else you haven’t done? Lived in a dome on the floor of the ocean. Nobody cares about what you can’t or haven’t done, especially not employers. If you see a phrase like this in your query, get rid of it.

Displaying a lack of confidence – Similar to the above, this is commonly seen in phrases like “I’m not sure I’m the right fit for this position, but…”. You know what? You’re right. Go find a game writing job elsewhere.

Too short/too long – As a general rule, your query letter for a freelance journalism job should be around 250 words. A little over is fine, a little under is better, just don’t deviate too much. Editors don’t have time to read a novel from every applicant, and if you only write a sentence or two, it’s obvious you didn’t take time to prepare your query.

If..then statements – You should never query a game review site and say something like “If you’re interested in hiring me, just e-mail and I’ll tell you about my experience”. No. No no no and no. Why would anyone be interested in hiring someone like that? Also, what do they even know about you?! Send a potential employer the information they need to know how good you are. Wow them with your awesomeness right up front!

Not following directions – Did the ad ask for a 150 word writing sample attached in jpg format? You should send a 150 word writing sample attached in jpg format. Not 151 words, and not a png file. Read the ad carefully and follow all of the directions.

Talking only about themselves – Sure, this is your query letter, but in order to sell yourself to the employer, you need to show how familiar you are with their site. Read some of their articles, find out what style they prefer or which games they love/hate. Working these things into your cover letter will go a long way to getting you the job.

How to Apply to a Freelance Game Writing Job Online

Getting a freelance game writing gig isn’t the same as putting on a tidy suit and strutting in for a job interview. You have to convince the video game publication that you’re the right person for the job in under 300 words. Good thing you’re a writer and this kind of thing comes naturally to you!

The most basic element of getting a freelance game writing job is the query letter, which is roughly the same as a resume cover letter. Writers have used them for years to sell their talent and educate editors as to why they’re the perfect fit for the gig being advertised. Now that you’re hopping into this world, it’s time to write a good query letter.

apply-freelance-game-writing-job
This guy knows how to game writing job. Maybe.

Query letters are like a directed resume rolled into an interview. They can be tricky, as not only do you have to push your accomplishments while skating over your shortcomings, you also have to cater your words to your editor so you don’t come off as a no-talent creep. Show some confidence, but avoid arrogance. List your greatest achievements but leave out the lesser ones. Create a short but punchy text that’s easy to digest and can be scanned over in three or four seconds. That’s all the time you have to impress the hiring editor, so use it well.

Freelance query letters should always include:

  • Brief opening paragraph summarizing yourself, your career experience and your intentions.
  • List of relevant publications you’ve worked for, starting with the most recent.
  • Link to any special articles you’ve written. Show off related content you feel is your best work.
  • Link to your resume.
  • Sign off and include your contact information.

Freelance query letters should NEVER

  • Be a few sentences long and say something like “I think I’m a good fit for this job”. Tell them why you’re a good fit!
  • Have a weak opening line like “I might not be a good fit for this position…”. If you aren’t, don’t bother e-mailing.
  • Include the phrase “e-mail me if you want more information”. The purpose of a cover letter is to provide that information!
  • Attachments or anything else the job ad didn’t specifically request.
  • More than 350 words.

Only a few of your query letters will lead to new game writing gigs, that’s just the way it is. Keep plugging away, carving out a sleek and attractive query letter that’s sure to impress.

More about applying to freelance writing jobs:

How to Request Review Copies

How to Request Review Copies of Video GamesWith all the deadlines, harried last-minute edits, and lazy mornings where you just can’t seem to string words together, one upside to being a video game journalist is this: you get (some) free games. Requesting review copies doesn’t mean you get a no-strings attached version of whatever game you want, but it does mean you might not have to drop your own money on a game you’re going to write about. It’s easy to request review copies, but it requires you do a little legwork and actually contact another human being, which isn’t as painful as it sounds!

Step 1: Developer, publisher, or PR firm?
Are you going after a copy of Borderlands 2? Looking for free GTA? Maybe you just want the new Nifflas release. Depending on which types of games you’re working with (indie, casual, mobile, mainstream, etc.), you’ll need to sniff out who is in charge of dealing with the press for your particular game. The best place to start is the game’s official website. There’s usually a press/contact e-mail or page somewhere. Failing that, look for the publisher of the game and look for contact info there. If it’s a smaller indie studio, the official website is your first and last stop.

Step 2: Compose a succinct, informative e-mail
Once you’ve figured out who you need to get in touch with, sit down and get that e-mail written. Include the following bits of information:

  • Who you are and who you work for
  • What game you’re e-mailing in reference to
  • What you want to write about it (review, analysis, etc.)
  • When you intend on publishing the article

That’s it. You don’t need to write a novel, just a few sentences of polite, semi-casual talk. Here’s a sample review copy request e-mail to get you started.

Step 3: Wait
The tough part: waiting. You aren’t guaranteed a review copy, and no one is obligated to send one your way. Wait for a few days, and if you don’t hear back, you can either try the e-mail again, or get the game through your own means. Your article wasn’t conditional upon receiving the game for free, was it? If so, shame on you.

Step 4: Deliver your content in a timely manner and e-mail links back
This is probably the most crucial step in the whole process, as it solidifies a good relationship with the people who just gave you something for free. As soon as you’ve had time to play through the game, get your article written. The moment it’s published, send a link back to the person you’ve been in contact with, thanking them for their help. As evil as we like to pretend PR reps can be, they’re just people with jobs, too. They want to get the word out about their product, and knowing their efforts are working is both satisfying and good for future review requests.

There you have it. Requesting review copies of games isn’t challenging, but it can be a frightening task the first few times you do it. Handle it professionally and be accountable for your work, though, and it’ll turn out just fine.