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.