Getting Hired to Write IF

Over the past eighteen months or so, a couple of interesting things have happened.

One: there are way more opportunities than there used to be to write interactive text and receive payment in return. I hear about a lot of these because they tend to be documented on the intfiction forum or the euphoria &if channel, because people email me about them directly, or because author requests are pitched at the Oxford/London IF Meetup group. I also have a certain number of email exchanges where I’m offered a contract I don’t have the bandwidth to take, so the asker follows up with a request for a recommendation. I’ve started keeping a list of freelancers I know in this space.

(If you freelance and you want me to know that, feel free to send me a portfolio link. I do not guarantee any particular result, and I do exercise my own judgment about whom to recommend in any given circumstance. I do not ever make the full list available to prospective clients or employers. If I pass your name along, it will be because I think you’re a viable fit for what I know of the project.)

Two: there are lots of people interested in writing IF for money who are unsure about some aspect of how to get into it. Sometimes they message me in one form or another and ask for advice. I’ve written some advice about setting rates before, and also a bit about how my own situation works, though it’s not typical (see below).

Lately I’m getting questions about how to establish your skills in this space and make yourself appealing to employers, so I will write what I know about that as well.

Note that this is mostly about work-for-hire situations rather than working for specific IF studios and publishers such as Choice of Games, Failbetter/Fundbetter, Sub-Q, Tin Man Games, etc. Where you already have a target in mind, you’re best off looking closely at their own websites for their submission requirements or job postings, and familiarizing yourself with the work they’ve already published to see if you’re a good fit.

Ready? Let’s go.

Reasonable expectations. For the majority of people I know who write interactive stories for money, the money in question is somewhere between beer money and “helps out with the groceries but I have another job” money.

Moreover, many of the projects they do are not completely conventional IF: they might be about building text content for an indie game, commissioned projects for exhibitions, advertising content, or educational pieces.

I want to lead with those two points so that I don’t misguide anyone about the prospects and possibilities in this space.

I do have a full-time career in interactive storytelling, but that career includes work on non-IF game projects, coding, tool design, running workshops and publishing. The best-paid parts of that are not writing. The career itself is the result of many years of artistic practice, skill acquisition, and networking, plus a bunch of lucky breaks. For a long time before that I had part-time work and small gigs, and for years before that I was writing my own work for free.

Starting with freeware isn’t the only road in, but I don’t know any fast road from “I just downloaded an IF tool for the first time” to “I have a full-time job writing interactive stories.” I feel it’s important to put this caveat here. If you need a full-time income immediately, you’re much safer pursuing a more traditionally-structured job.

Skills and qualities. Here’s a list of abilities and assets, sorted in order from “completely mandatory, I would never recommend hiring you if you don’t demonstrate this” to much more optional things. The first three aren’t even IF-specific skills, though you should demonstrate them in an IF context:

Ability to finish things. I can’t recommend working with someone who doesn’t show evidence of finishing projects. In the best case, this would be multiple finished projects of multiple kinds, including one thing that’s fairly substantial: a parser game of an hour or more, a Twine piece that runs 50K+ words, etc.

If you’re not there yet: some publishers will take on previously unpublished authors, and that’s a good place to start. So is having completed work in an IF comp or jam.

Ability to turn work in on time. If for some reason you can’t hit your deadlines, then at least communicate about the things you’re going to turn in late. Also, be aware of which client deadlines are urgent and which are movable. Client load-balancing is partly about having some of each, and often charging your urgent clients more to compensate for the extra effort. Occasionally weird things happen, but the more you can establish yourself as reliable, the better. It will affect how much repeat business you get, and whether clients come to you when they’re in a jam.

It’s harder to give evidence of this one on a CV. Successfully submitting something for a comp with a deadline is only semi-relevant. “Has this person been hired multiple times by the same client?” is sometimes a proxy, though: if it doesn’t guarantee you were always on deadline, it at least suggests that you weren’t such a flake that they never came back.

Ability to function in a team. If you react badly to notes, changes, and feedback, freelance work for clients is probably not for you. Likewise, if you have tantrums, if you behave like you’re too good for the room or the job, or if you’re ready to act a bit unethical for temporary advantage, those are reasons that people might not want to work with you.

Honor your non-disclosure agreements, and don’t make a habit of talking down your previous clients — or your competition. This space is small, and if you’re successful, you’ll likely wind up knowing other freelancers. It’s good if those are friendly rather than antagonistic relationships. They may pass along work opportunities they can’t take, and you may wind up collaborating with them on multi-person projects. If someone has really done something beyond the pale and you need to mention it, go ahead, but casually dissing other writers is not a good way to promote yourself.

It’s hard to definitely show teamwork and interpersonal skills on a CV, but having been on some collaborative projects that got all the way to the finish line can be a good sign. Besides, it’s training in the actual skill.

Ability to incorporate notes and changes gracefully. Freelancing is about serving someone else’s artistic or marketing vision, quite a lot of the time: ideally you find a situation where their vision and your vision are compatible, but you need to be able to really listen to what they’re asking for, and not be so committed to your own aesthetic that you can’t deliver what they want.

None of this is to say that you should do something that you actually find unethical just because the client asks for it. If you can, though, avoid getting into this situation by talking at the commissioning phase about your values, if you think you and your prospective client might disagree. It’s way, way easier to say “I don’t do projects with objectifying pictures of women in them” at the pitch stage than to have that fight mid-project.

Ability to write solid prose. For our purposes, that means dialogue, narrative, and instructional prose about how to play a game. Some clients provide editors, but they’ll love it if you don’t put them to extreme efforts to get your writing into shape. Ideally, you’ll have a distinctive voice of your own, a particular perspective or style that makes something feel like it’s yours. Demonstrate this through the quality of your work.

Proofread your blog, website, or portfolio. Admittedly, I catch myself in typos here from time to time. Obviously, we are all human, and a few such problems aren’t fatal. At the same time, I’ve seen someone’s writing application scuppered because when the person hiring went to look at their blog, said blog was riddled with its/it’s errors, typos, and imprecise usage.

Ability to construct a plot. A fair amount of current hobbyist IF takes the form of vignettes and interactive poetry. There’s some very good work in that mode. I’d say most of my commercial IF commissions, though, require more narrative structure. That doesn’t always mean that the work has to be long, just that it needs multiple events and a sense of forward momentum. And, again, demonstrating this is a matter of having something in your portfolio that does have that type of structure.

Books on conventional fiction or screenplay plotting can be useful here. Just beware becoming one of those people who has read one how-to-write book and now insists that every story has to be the Hero’s Journey.

Ability to knit together story and mechanics. Can you communicate part of the story you’re telling through gameplay, through stats, through choices that the player is making? Can you look at a mechanical system someone else has already devised and propose a story that could fit around that system? What about taking a story or setting concept and proposing some good mechanics to bring it to life?

This I consider the core skill that sets a game or IF writer apart from conventional fiction writers. It only appears so far down the list because some jobs in this space come with ready-made mechanics.

Ability to communicate design concepts and story hooks. A lot of what I do is concept pitching. A client comes to me with a need. We have an initial meeting. Then I come back to them with a document of a page or two describing how I would address what they want. Sometimes I’m going to be working with other coders who are going to be implementing what I describe; sometimes I’m going to be doing all the implementation myself. Either way, communicating the concept in a way the client can understand and vet is step one to having a contract at all.

How do you practice and demonstrate this? Create blurbs for your finished works (on your website, on IFDB, etc) and make them sound appealing to play. Reviewing other people’s work or writing devlogs or similar posts can also demonstrate skill discussing design issues.

Ability to learn new tools. Sometimes commission work requires you to create something using the client’s own proprietary system. Having diverse platforms in your portfolio can be a useful pointer to the fact that you can master different toolsets. If all your work is raw Twine, that speaks to your writing. If your work is Twine enhanced with CSS and Javascript, that suggests you’ve got some broader abilities. If you have a stack of portfolio pieces in different platforms, that implies you can come to grips with something new as needed.

Experience with particular audiences or styles of writing. Being good at writing for specialized audiences (children, teens, groups with a particular background) or about specialized topics (mental health, world history, etc) is sometimes key to a particular job. A certain amount of commissioned game writing work is educational or nonprofit work, and that often has a different audience from mainstream games. This is a case where it might not be relevant to try to position yourself in advance — you never know what’s going to come along — but highlighting your outreach to specific audiences might make you stand out when the right job does come along.

Ability to produce a standalone game of some kind without help. Some commissions involve writing content that the client is then going to wire into their own system. Sometimes, though, they really want you to do end-to-end work and then present them with something they can just run. It’s nice to have a solution or two that you can offer.

That does not mean you have to be able to do all the forms of stand-alone game they might think of. Different clients want very different things. Barring special circumstances, I don’t encourage IF authors to feel they must, say, learn Unity in advance of some hypothetical future commission. (Though now that ink + Unity is a viable way to build a game, that has become a lot more plausible than it would have been a few months ago.)

Facility with a parser IF language. It’s rare that I’m asked about this — probably less than one time in a dozen. When it happens, the context is typically that the person doing the commission wants to tap into a real or perceived audience nostalgia. Often people asking also want some completely alternate interface from the usual interpreters and are hoping you can stitch Glulx together with some kind of alternative front end. Short version, there’s very low volume in these requests, while the technical requirements are high and unpredictable. I wouldn’t recommend pursuing this angle as a way to get employed.

Experience working with an artist, musician, et al. Are you used to setting art briefs and communicating about your concept? This doesn’t hurt, but it’s also one of those things that is possible to learn on the fly a bit.

Your own fanbase. People love to hire authors who will bring their own audience along with them. But if you have that, you may not need this anyway.


2 thoughts on “Getting Hired to Write IF”

  1. This is a really handy post. I’m not sure I have enough of a portfolio to be worth sending to you at this stage, but some of the links you’ve included will go a long way towards helping me build one up: I’d certainly like to expand my IF horizons a little further beyond Twine. Thanks for taking the time to share your expertise.

  2. I’m still hoping to find an author interested in helping me with my stories. At heart, I am a story-teller, not a writer. I know my characters and settings, but plot is nearly always a mystery to me. My intuition tells me if I actually wrote more, plot would come easier to me. Even so, I’d rather have a partner. When Mike Gentry and I worked on Secret Letter, we had an excellent rapport. I’d like to repeat that experience at some point. So add me to the list of potential employers. The time is coming near when I spend more time and money on my IF endeavors.

    Of course all of your points Emily are critical. Ability to complete projects, meet deadlines, write good prose, and (ahem) work with a sometimes cranky middle-aged guy…these are minimal requirements.

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