Jan 22

2018

How to Edit Yourself

Posted by: Mary Duffy | Comments (0)

As part of our support for the Choice of Games Contest for Interactive Novels, we will be posting an irregular series of blog posts discussing important design and writing criteria for games. We hope that these can both provide guidance for people participating in the Contest and also help people understand how we think about questions of game design and some best practices. These don’t modify the evaluation criteria for the Contest, and (except as noted) participants are not required to conform to our recommendations–but it’s probably a good idea to listen when judges tell you what they’re looking for.

If these topics interest you, be sure to sign up for our contest mailing list below! We’ll post more of our thoughts on game design leading up to the contest deadline on January 31, 2018.

In our previous series of posts on how we judge a good game for the Contest, the we wrote the following about the Prose Styling category, which represents 10% of the overall score:

Your writing should attempt to be as word-perfect as possible: that means correct spelling, grammar, and usage. While prose styling beyond those elements is subjective (How good is this writing? Does it engage me and do I want to keep reading?) we expect to see evidence that you’ve worked to submit clean copy to us.

Writing should conform to our Style Guide both in terms of text (second person games should use first person options) and punctuation (no smart quotes, correct em-dashes, etc.)

Games which are beautifully written, or that deeply engage the player with their prose, are likely to score higher in this category. Games which are boring to read, or that that contain odd, confusing, or difficult writing are likely to score lower. Games which are unintelligible, which lack proper punctuation, or that are otherwise very poorly written may receive a 0 in Prose.

To expand further on this idea, I’d like to talk a little bit about how to edit yourself, and polish your prose.

The most methodical way to edit for spelling, grammar, good usage and style is to read your prose aloud to yourself, and pore over each sentence, looking for correct punctuation and good sentence structure as you go. As you read, ask yourself whether the sentence sounds good. Does it make sense? Reading aloud will bring to light infelicities like ambiguous antecedents (“Wait, who?”), using the same word twice in succession (“Oh, I started the last paragraph with ‘suddenly’”), options written in second person rather than first (“That should be ‘I!’”), and others.

When you read aloud you can hear where commas go and where they don’t. Reading aloud, you’ll see that your semicolons are connecting two incomplete sentences rather than two separate, related ideas which are both complete sentences. Do you always start sentences with conjunctions? Do you have a lot of sentences that are fragments? There are solutions for that. (Add a clause to the previous complete sentence with a comma or an em-dash.)

While I strenuously recommend the first technique as a way to improve your prose, there is another way to polish. Do a final edit against our Style Guide by using find and replace. Sublime Text, for instance, has a very robust F+R function. Want to make sure all your ellipses are unicode and flush with text? Search for non-unicode ones. Need to find em-dashes that aren’t flush with the text? Search for “[space]–[space].” Do you use the word “realize” or “suddenly,” or the phrase “and then” to exhaustion? Find them, replace them. Is all your *page_break custom text in headline case? Just search for every *page_break. Do you always misspell certain words? If you’re not already using the Spell Check function in Sublime Text, for instance, find and replace them.

While it’s difficult to teach someone how to write prose that is engaging and beautiful, there is a lot of good advice about fiction writing. Kurt Vonnegut’s dictum that each sentence should either reveal character or advance the plot is particularly good. You can read more of his advice here.

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