Writing Basics: Final Checks for RPG Manuscripts
This is the third in my series of Writing Basics blog articles, designed for people who want to write game material (especially tabletop RPGs), and are looking to pick up some insights into how to be better at its weird mix of creative writing and technical writing. These are all lessons I didn’t get in any school or class, or at least that I apply in ways no class ever suggested.
In this entry, we’re going to talk about the all the work you should be doing after you are done writing, but before you turn over the manuscript. This stuff can be a drag, especially since the thrill of writing something may be gone once you are done actually writing it, but these last checks are often the difference between a polished manuscript that gets people’s attention, and a barely-useful mess that requires significant work from your developer/editor/producer/publisher to bring up to their standards.
The Cold Read-Through
Done with your writing project? Great!
Now put it down, and leave it alone for at least a few days. A week is better.
Then reread it all from scratch, beginning to end.
Yes, this requires you have some extra time between the completion of your manuscript and the deadline. This is one of the hardest things to actually arrange for in real-world conditions… but it’s also one of the most useful. One of the reasons I often do drafts of ideas here in my blog is that when I get around to wanting to turn them into full products, I’ve been away from them so long I can look at them with almost-fresh eyes.
It’s amazing, at least for me, how often I didn’t quite say what I thought I did. This is the most reliable way for me to find unclear rules, inelegant phrases, and run-on sentences. Besides, you ought to be shooting to be done well before your deadline anyway, just in case you get kidney stones while a hurricane affects your employer so they need to to work weirdly scheduled extra shifts.
Common Personal Error Checklist
Do you write affect when you mean effect? Do you often capitalize Class and Race names, when that’s not the style of the game you are writing for? Do you forget to italicize spell names and magic items, when that IS the style of the game you are writing for? Do you write x2 to indicate doubling something, when your publisher uses <<TS>>2?
As you discover things you do on a regular basis that are wrong, make a checklist. When you are convinced your manuscript is done, run through that list of common errors, and check for them. And make it a living document—if you stop writing “could of done better” in place of “could’ve done better,” you can take it off your personal error checklist.
Hopefully, we’re all running spellcheck as the very last thing before we turn over our manuscripts, right? Okay, good.
But just running the base program isn’t good enough.
Games often have a lot of string-of-letters that aren’t words any program recognizes off-the-shelf.
Deosil. Otyugh. Sith. Bloodrager. Starfinder.
You need to have a strategy for making sure you spelled all those correctly. If you just skip over these words in a spellcheck, “knowing” that the spellchecker doesn’t recognize them, you risk have a manuscript with a Starfidner ritual for Otuyghs to dance desoil around the Blodrager Circle.
There are two good ways I have found to fix this.
If a word is going to be used a lot in your writing, it may be worth entering it in your word processor’s dictionary. That’s generally not difficult, but when you do it make SURE you are entering the correct spelling of the new/imaginary word or name. Otherwise you can turn spellchecker into an error-generating device, and that sucks.
Alternatively, you can actually take the time to check the spelling of every weird word spellcheck flags for you. Is the god named Succoth-benoth, or Seccoth-bunoth, or Succoth Benoth? You can write down the correct spelling, or have it in another tab, and check it carefully each time you run into it.
If you have some common misspellings you find, you can search for those errors and replace them (one by one—NEVER replace all, it can seriously dawizard your credibility) before you make the word-by-word check for the correct spellings.
Different grammar checker programs have different levels of value, but most can at least be used to help find common writing problems such as passive voice, agreement errors, and sentence fragments. In my experience you can’t trust any grammar checker program, but it’s worth looking at anything it flags and double-checking your own work.
Check you Headers to make sure they still make sense with your final manuscript. If your publisher uses specific text style formatting (as Paizo does, for example), make sure you have the right formatting in the right places. If you aren’t sure about some specific formatting, it’s generally good to ask. Your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher CAN fix your formatting… but that takes time away from them doing more important work to make your manuscript awesome. Also, it generally does not endear you to them.
Most publishers have a file format they want to work with. Check with them if they don’t mention it. There can be important differences between .doc, docx, .rtf, and a Google doc. Remember that to get more work and be paid a higher rate (or to have people be happy to work for you, if you are self-published but not self-laid-out), you want to make your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher’s job as easy and pleasant as possible.
Once you really and truly are done and you turn your manuscript over, it’s time to think about how you can learn from it. With luck, your developer/editor/producer/graphic designer/publisher will give you direct feedback. But to be honest, time is money in this industry, and they often won’t have time to help you be better. In those cases, I find it useful to see what the final version of the published material looks like, and examine how it is different from what I wrote. This isn’t always about something being “wrong” when you turned it in, but about what changes the people who are paying you and that you want to give you more work thought made your manuscript better.
This is like the cold read-through or post-mortem, but it takes place months or years later. When you look at your past work, and consider what you might do differently now.
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