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3 Essential Tips to Improve Your Writing
Write a better story, store page, blog, and everything else your game needs
Video game writing encompasses a wide range of skills and responsibilities. Depending on your role and project, you may need to write lore, marketing copy, character dialog, patch notes, or a dozen other things. If you’re looking for help with something in particular, you probably can’t wait a month or a year until I cover the specific thing that you’re responsible for.
But don’t worry! For those of you who want advice right now, here are the three most helpful tips that I use on every single writing project I tackle, as well as some additional technical tips for new writers.
My Top 3 Tips To Level Up Your Writing
1: Write Fast, Edit Slow
I had a friend in college who took the phrase “write drunk, edit sober” literally and suggested I give it a try. One night I had a few drinks, sat down at my laptop, and began writing a chapter of a novel. The words poured out of me like never before. It was effortless and it was brilliant.
After a night’s sleep, I eagerly opened my laptop to find the chapter was a bumbling mess of nonsense. I deleted the whole thing and never tried this method again. It wasn’t until I read The Simpsons writer John Swartzwelder explain his (sober) process in a 2021 interview with The New Yorker that I finally understood the more profound wisdom of my friend’s method:
Since writing is very hard and rewriting is comparatively easy and rather fun, I always write my scripts all the way through as fast as I can, the first day, if possible, putting in crap jokes and pattern dialogue—“Homer, I don’t want you to do that.” “Then I won’t do it.” Then the next day, when I get up, the script’s been written. It’s lousy, but it’s a script. The hard part is done. It’s like a crappy little elf has snuck into my office and badly done all my work for me, and then left with a tip of his crappy hat. All I have to do from that point on is fix it. So I’ve taken a very hard job, writing, and turned it into an easy one, rewriting, overnight. I advise all writers to do their scripts and other writing this way. And be sure to send me a small royalty every time you do it.
Simply put: write fast, edit slow.
It can be very tempting to try to get it right in the first draft. After all, if you get it right the first time that saves you time in the next draft, right? Not necessarily. There are several problems you can create for yourself if you’re too careful and precious with your first draft, such as:
The first draft takes a lot longer to write when you’re busy trying to make everything sound nice
By the time you finish getting an idea onto the page and making it sound nice, you’ve lost any sense of flow and/or forgotten the next idea you wanted to write down
The first draft is so carefully constructed that it becomes too difficult to make necessary changes in the following drafts
There’s a reason the first draft is also known as the rough draft: it’s meant to be crude and messy. Throw every idea and whim you have at it as quickly as you can. Once that’s done, step away from the first draft for a while, return with fresh eyes, and take your time turning the mess into something beautiful. Alcohol not required — drink and write responsibly.
2: Less Is More
Let’s cut to the chase. Your final draft should get your message across as quickly and efficiently as possible. That doesn’t mean that you can’t go into detail in describing your next update, let a character tell a monologue, or go in-depth on your store page, it means you should only do so when it’s beneficial. When editing, carefully look at every word to determine just how much value it adds. Here’s an example of a first and final draft of a sentence from the previous HTWG post:
First Draft: Not only do I have a unique experience with the importance of writing in video games, but I also have seen time and time again why I was led to assume it was such an unnecessary addition in the first place — writing is often neglected in video games.
Final Draft: I've seen firsthand how powerful good writing can be to a game's reputation, as well as how many games lack it.
Both of these drafts are saying the same three things:
My experience in game writing has produced two strong beliefs
I believe writing is very important in games
I believe many games undervalue writing
My first draft got the point across and technically works, but it was kind of awkward. Especially considering that sentence was meant to be the thesis of the post, it lacked poetry and faith in the reader. By condensing it, it becomes stronger
Again, “less” doesn’t necessarily mean “fewer words” — there are times when it’s important to explain things at length. The goal isn’t to be brief for the sake of being brief, but to provide maximum value per word. To do that, you must understand what is important about what you’re trying to convey, redraft it about a dozen times, and be willing to kill your darlings to create a stronger final draft. Like an archeologist using a tiny brush to unearth a relic at a crushingly slow pace, you must set aside your pride and carefully remove everything obscuring the treasure.
3: Remember the Bigger Picture
In the game Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!, the silent protagonist is accompanied by two robot companions for a trip through a future dystopian USA. When they first meet the player character, one of these robots, named Whisk, recognizes them immediately and enthuses “I’m a huge fan!” Later, Whisk is completely ignorant of several very basic facts about the player character’s history that a self-proclaimed huge fan absolutely would know.
I realized this inconsistency too late. The script had already been written, recorded, and implemented into the game, so I anxiously waited for players to take to social media to make fun of our error.
As far as I’m aware, nobody has called this out. Looking back, it was silly of me to worry so much about such a minor detail because the strengths of the scene outweighed any weaknesses. I wasn’t thinking about the bigger picture.
You see, the scene in which Whisk appears oddly ignorant was designed to educate players on the events of the previous two games. Whisk’s role in the larger story is to provide exposition about each area the player enters. To make Whisk more interesting, we looked for opportunities for her to react to information instead of providing it. Thus, when planning this scene, we opted for the other robot to exposit what happened in the previous games while Whisk reacted like a captivated audience member. The result is an entertaining recap for players unfamiliar with the previous games, not an embarrassing mischaracterization.
It’s easy to get stuck on small details. Heck, sometimes I get so caught up trying to provide maximum value per word that I obsess over a single sentence for half an hour. Because writing is art and art is subjective, there is never a correct or flawless way to write something. Eventually, the thing you’re working on has to be finished.
When you find yourself obsessing over details, try to take a step back and think about the bigger picture. Ask yourself, what is the point of the story you’re telling? What is the intent of the news you’re sharing? What is the feeling you’re trying to create with your marketing? Sometimes it takes an imperfect piece to make a perfect whole.
Quick Tips for New Writers
Okay, so you’ve made it this far and what I said was super interesting but maybe you’re new to writing and what you’re looking for are solid technical tips. In that case, here you go:
Outline your plan: Before I do any writing, I create an outline. Whether it’s a short list of ideas or a detailed beat-for-beat multi-column outline in a spreadsheet, nothing makes it easier to write fast than to start with a plan. For larger projects, I update the outline to match the current version of the project for quick reference (and to keep the bigger picture in mind!).
Switch it up: Variety is the spice of life, so use every tool at your disposal where it makes sense. Use a combination of paragraphs, lists, and images in news posts. Include a mixture of comedy, drama, horror, and adventure in stories. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Take advantage of writing tools: Spellcheck is great, but it’s just a start. Use any of the many free writing tools like Grammarly or Hemingway Editor to analyze your writing and identify your strengths and weaknesses.
Don’t go alone: Writing shouldn’t be a solo endeavor. If you can’t get a co-writer, at least enlist the help of a friend or colleague to take a look at your writing and give their honest feedback. Think about any potential problems they identify (not necessarily their proposed solutions) and be ready to kill your darlings and learn from your mistakes.
Read about writing: Subscribe to blogs, follow writing communities that share articles, and read books to learn the technical craft. For storytelling, I gravitate toward books on screenwriting because they break it down to a science. I recommend The Anatomy of Story and Save the Cat (I’ve also heard great things about Story). StudioBinder also has a great explanation of Dan Harmon’s Story Circle.
How To Write a Game is a free publication written by Ryan Matejka, an organic human who loves to write. If you like this, please consider making a small donation.