From time to time I write a commissioned story for Fallen London. Writing for Failbetter Games means submitting material for inspection by their editor Olivia, the most meticulous prose editor I know in the interactive story space. She goes well beyond identifying typos, grammatical errors, word repetitions, and continuity problems. She looks at the cadence of sentences, at the novelty of the imagery, at whether terminology is of the appropriate period or not. She finds dead spots in the prose, places where nothing is really wrong but where there’s not enough happening to justify the expenditure of precious words.
For instance, here’s a bit of draft text, designed to be shown to the player before they’ve clicked on the choice to see the result, together with Olivia’s note:
Ask about his family. // He evidently came from somewhere. <– a bit meaningless. I’m trying to think of something that feels less stating the obvious. He must have had friends, family, before? (But then that means a repetition of the title. Hmm.)
Writing for interactivity, one often finds oneself building an interactive structure first — where do the branches go? How does the world state change? What happens to the stats? And it’s easy to write text that does the functional job of explaining those mechanics, but doesn’t accomplish much else. It helps having an editor who will go through and find those and send you back to rewrite them into something more interesting.
The flip side — prose that sounds lovely but doesn’t make things clear enough — is also an issue, in both choice-based and parser-based contexts. This is an old article I wrote mostly about parser interactive fiction, but some of it still holds.
Editing is also useful on larger issues. I have an editor for the Choice of Games piece I’m currently writing as well: part of her job is to help make sure that I’m sticking to CoG brand guidelines about how to structure the work, that the stats feel balanced and clearly communicated, and that I’m presenting the progressive worldview that is part of CoG’s approach.
That phase helps make sure that I’m not inadvertently communicating something that I don’t mean or want to communicate. For instance, my Choice of Games WIP has an NPC on one optional path who behaves extremely badly, and the protagonist has the option to cover for that NPC and protect him from the consequences of his nasty actions. My editor pointed out that the first draft of this scene didn’t do enough to distinguish the protagonist’s possible motivations (protect this person because it prevents other negative consequences) from an authorial stance that actually approved of this NPC (protect this person because his misbehavior is okay). Having some external help to recognize that problem is very helpful.
Then there’s humor-tuning. Graham Nelson edits the examples I write for the Inform manual. Typically he’s helping ensure that my explanations are accurate and make sense, and that the code style is consistent with what he wants to have represented. When he suggests a change to the actual content, it’s usually to substitute a funnier word or a better punchline. (Fortunately we mostly agree. Occasionally I will veto a change as being a bit too arch, or more his style than mine.)
I know there are writers who find being edited fairly excruciating. I mostly don’t. Heaven knows I can be made sad by other kinds of feedback, but maybe I’m just unusually oblivious in this one area. Maybe I’ve been lucky in my specific editors. But very often I find that editors are telling me things I would probably have recognized myself if I’d had the luxury of distance from my work. I’d much rather identify and fix those things than not, so the editor is doing me a huge favor.
(And before you say, “couldn’t you spend more time and find those problems yourself, then?”: practically speaking, no. “Luxury of distance” sometimes means “if I came back a year or five later.” It sometimes means “if I could figure out which of my reservations about my work are justified and which are the result of personal hangups.” Writing in the real world, with deadlines and commitments, doesn’t allow for that.)
That’s not to say that it’s never gone wrong.
My worst editing experiences have come down to one of a few things (and I hasten to add that these did not involve any person or company named in this article):
- The editor made changes to the text without informing me. This has mostly come up when I was writing for a website rather than a game, and someone came through and tweaked my text. It’s disorienting reading back an article and thinking, “Why did I put a paragraph break there? It completely breaks the flow!” only to find that that paragraph break wasn’t in the original document I submitted. But it happens, and one can only be so precious about these things. I assume the editor in question felt that I was too long-winded and that the paragraphs needed to be broken up more for easy web reading. If alerted to this, I would have done something other than sticking in random carriage returns.
- The editor had a really different agenda from mine. Sometimes this meant being edited by someone who didn’t share my taste for how language should sound, and would suggest changes that regularized sentence structures at the expense of style and cadence. (In my opinion! I’m sure they thought they were fixing my reckless disregard for convention.) Sometimes it was that the editor envisioned a different audience for my work than the one I thought I was writing for, or had philosophical differences with me. Academic peer review is sort of a specialized case of this. Peer reviewers are generally not professional editors and aren’t exactly providing editor-style feedback, but they often have ideologically or politically motivated ideas about citations and terminology and what you should be saying in the first place, which can sometimes manifest themselves as line-edit suggestions. And since the whole system is anonymous, you can’t talk the thing out. Which brings us to
- The editing process didn’t have much time or provide much affordance for back-and-forth communication. As with beta-testers, editors can often tell you when there is something wrong even if they are wrong about (or don’t know) what the solution should be. Having an open channel where you can talk back and forth about what is going on, rather than just getting a line-edit suggestion, is immensely valuable.
- The editor had concerns but was unable to articulate them.
That last one is maybe a technical disqualification. Probably don’t try to be an editor if you are unable to express your reaction to a passage of text or to point out any specifics about that text that contributed to said reaction. But almost all the others are really human relationship issues rather than editing technique issues. The only thing better than an editor with skillz is an editor who knows you, your personal style, and your agenda well. These are not mutually exclusive categories.
Editors — as opposed to beta-testers or QA testers — are a comparatively new thing in the world of interactive fiction. The old parser IF community relied on volunteer beta-testers (typically also authors or frequent players of interactive fiction) whose job was to play through finished games looking for errors. Sometimes beta-testers would comment on the literary qualities of a piece of work — Sam Ashwell has given me a lot of feedback on theme over the years — but it’s very rare for volunteer beta-testers to read through every line of output text separate from the game itself and give feedback on its quality as text.
Meanwhile, some of the commercial IF written since has been developed according to game industry practices, with QA testers. Our Linden QA team for Versu was terrific, and hugely dedicated, but their primary job was to verify functionality. They would point out text errors or bits of writing that seemed wrong to them (and I’m grateful for a number of such saves), but this wasn’t anyone’s primary job, and the mechanisms for handling it went through the same bug tracker as everything else. Bug trackers are heavy-duty for reporting text errors, too: you don’t always need the same reproducibility standards because you can probably search the script for the words in question, so the extra labor of opening, filing, and subsequently having to verify a bug fix adds a lot of friction to the system and would presumably discourage close-reading levels of correction.
But now that more IF is being written commercially and more of it is being written with something approximating a publishing model rather than a game release model, there’s more editing going on. The new Sub-Q Magazine‘s editors both select work and provide feedback to authors: I haven’t worked with them myself, but I hear good things. Fallen London and Sunless Sea content chunks are rigorously edited, and the Failbetter Slack channel for contributors sees constant, ongoing discussion of style, voice, and theme. And (at least for me) that quality of editing is a positive inducement to write for a particular company or publisher.