So, I finally get around to starting this.
I’ve been wanting to write this for — oooh — at least six years, which was the point where I became a section editor of PC Gamer and started receiving regular e-mails from people asking me how to become a games writer. When I say regular, I mean about one every couple of weeks. By my shoddy mathematics, that means I’ve written well over a hundred mails on the topic, of varying lengths. And after the second, I realised “Christ — write a decent reply once, and then just link to it”.
This is what I’ll be linking to. As with my How To Use And Abuse The Gaming Press, I’m going to start with the absolute hard clinical stuff I don’t think there’s much room for argument about, and progress onto stuff that’s more twisted by my own insensible sensibility. And I will ramble, because I’m doing this for kicks. Put up with me, for I am an old man and broken. And I hope to expand this entry over time, probably moving it onto a separate page and so on.
But I wanted to post something today, just. well, because of reasons. Reasons. They’re the best reason to do anything.
Okay. So You Want To Be A Games Journalist.
Well, if we were having this conversation in the pub, I’d start with a “Why?”. Not in the “Don’t be a fucking tard. You’re throwing away your twenties on something no-one gives a fuck about” manner, but “What’s your motivation, punk?”. This is cheating and self-serving, and about me working out whether I’d want you to be a games journalist or not. Are you an infection or are you the cure, etc, etc.
But this isn’t that sort of guide. This is about /doing it/.
(Quick one: Before I start: I’m going to use “He” all the way through this for speed of writing, which is something I don’t normally do. And — y’know – only 1 in 100 applications to be a games writer I’ve ever read have been from a woman, which is all sorts of sad. I’m going to use “journalist” rather than “writer” or “editor” too, which someone out there will find more offensive. Screw ‘em.)
There’s two sorts of games journalists. Freelance and on-staff.
A Staff Journalist will work for a set wage, fulfilling the duties which he’s hired for (And probably a load more). They will usually work from the office of the magazine in question. Tim Edwards, currently Deputy Editor of PC Gamer, is an example of an on-staff journalist. Whether he writes no pages or fifty pages, he will get paid the same amount of money.
A freelance journalist fulfils a limited commission on an article by article basis. A commissioning editor — normally an on-staff journalist — will agree with a commission on the writer, which they will fulfil, and then get paid the agreed feed. Some magazines work on a word-rate basis. Other magazines work on a page-rate basis. Other magazines it doesn’t matter what you agree with, because they’re not going to pay you anyway. In short, the more writing a freelance journalist does, the more they get paid.
You become an on-staff journalist by talking someone into giving you a job. You become a freelance journalist by talking someone into giving you money for something you’ve written.
That’s all there is to it.
How do you do that then?
BECOMING AN ON-STAFF WRITER.
You see a job application. You mail them whatever they ask — CV, work sample, covering letter, usually. You get an interview. You ace the interview. You get a job.
Seriously, that’s it. That’s how I started my proper career in games writing. I saw an advert for writers in PC Gamer, mailed them my CV, work sample and covering letter, got an interview, and (apparently) aced it while wearing a green suit and a Slayer T-shirt and got a job.
I don’t recommend the Slayer T-shirt thing, but it didn’t seem to do me any harm.
If you’re reading a magazine, spotting an advert in it’s easy enough. Often they’ll hide it away somewhere in the news section, but if you’re not reading a magazine you actually like close enough to notice that, you’re probably screwed anyway. Most publishers have a website of some sort, to which jobs are advertised. In the UK, The Guardian has their media jobs on a Monday, which is worth buying if only for totemic value.
If you’re an entrance level person, you’ll be looking for a Staff Writer position. People looking to enter at a higher level than Staff Writer shouldn’t be reading this guide. You know the score. Stop wasting your time.
A few particularly pernicious publishers, rather than actually setting up a proper job advert, will actually run it as a competition in the magazine. This is evil on all sorts of levels. Being a games journalist is a great job, but it’s a job. A job isn’t something you win, or someone else decides to gift upon you. It’s something both parties agree to do. An interview is about you deciding whether you want to work for them as much as they want to work for you. A publisher doing this is deliberately trying to assert the dominance position before a writer even starts.
(I’ll stress that this isn’t a criticism of anyone who got their job through this route. The last three journos I know who got it via this are all decent human beings and decent writers. It’s a criticism of publishers who are trying to play mind-games. It doesn’t matter if it’s a mind-game that works or not)
The third route to being a Staff Writer is usually a freelancer who’s approached and asked whether they want to move in house. The fourth route is someone who’s done work experience at the magazine, and is approached in a similar manner. I’ll probably mention Work Experience later — or in a future edit — but the short version is that it’s not a bad thing to do, usually. The exception is if your personality will alienate the magazine with extended exposure, in which case you probably won’t get any work at the magazine ever again. Even Freelance.
CVs should be efficient. Covering letters should be enthusiastic. Your sample should be whatever they ask, in terms of length. If they don’t ask, do 400 words. I’d suggest writing it in the magazine’s style. /plus a bit/. The aim of the sample isn’t just to show you can write well and appropriately, but to show that you’re better than everyone else applying. In this case, style over content, because content can be taught while style is something you either have or you don’t. Also, for God’s sake, know what the magazine you’re applying to writes like, while not trying to just pastiche their best writers. You have to be them while simultaneously being you.
(A standard question: Is it better to be a gamer who can write or a writer who games? In terms of actually working on staff, the latter every time. Of course, the /ideal/ answer is both, but you can pick up knowledge about games with enormous velocity. If you can’t write, you can’t write, and you’re worse than useless.)
At the interview you may be asked to do several things. Some eds will trust the sample you’ve already written. Others will demand you do something else when you’re there. Play a game for 30 minutes and then write 400 words about it in another 30 minutes or something. This is cruel, but if *I* ever found myself — by some horrific accident — in an Ed’s chair, it’s what I’ll do. Being able to write competently and quickly under extreme pressure is a basal level skill of games journalism. Anyone can write when they’re inspired. Being a writer is a job, because it involves writing when you’re not.
In the interview itself, yet again, ask questions and be enthusiastic. The latter counts more than I can possibly explain. Editors know that while brilliant, the job is tiring and stressful and burns most people out eventually. Having a few layers of Giving-A-Toss will someone through most things.
Few basic things before I move on: Don’t be afraid to argue your corner. Don’t claim to be a New Games Journalist, even if you are. Don’t admit to thinking that the job is playing games all day for a living, even if you think it is.
You’ll occasionally see people advertise for reviewers. In which case, follow a similar procedure to above, except without a CV and even more attention paid to your sample. This is easy, relatively speaking. You have an opening, as they’ve asked for your stuff.
Going in cold is somewhat trickier.
This is how I suggest approaching someone about working for their magazine.
Find out who runs the section you want to write for. Let’s say reviews, because it’s the easiest. Check the reviews editor, phone up the company, ask for them. Politely explain you’re a freelance writer and you’d wonder if they needed any more reviewers. Would you mind mailing them a sample? They will probably say yes, just to get you off the phone. If not, listen to what they say and obey it, unless it involves jumping off cliffs.
Send a polite e-mail promptly, with one of the 400 word sample things. You could jump straight to this, but I’d suggest the contacting first just to get the idea into someone’s head that someone will be mailing them with a sample. A cold sent e-mail is more likely to just be deleted.
(I actually read every single sample I was sent, even if I didn’t always reply. Well. as much of the sample as I needed to know whether they were good enough or not, which was occasionally even more than the first sentence. Also, for the record, I gave work to every single person who I thought was genuinely good. This was less than 5 people in the five years I was on Gamer. It’s worth noting that persistence and enthusiasm is more easily exchanged for talent when going for a staff position rather than a freelance position. The requirements of working in an office are different from someone they may never ever meet, and may only exists as words on paper)
Wait a week. Or two. Let’s say two.
They probably won’t have mailed back. If they did, follow whatever they said. If they didn’t, call up again and ask if they’ve had a chance to read the sample yet, and what they thought. They will almost certainly say they haven’t had time.
Wait two weeks.
Repeat phone-call and see what happens.
Now, after this you can either carry on this two week thing or give up for a bit. I’d suggest the latter, as I hate fucking annoying people, but if you’re SURE your sample is great, feel free. What I’d do is wait six months, then send another 400 word sample, and repeat the process. Which is just as determined, but less annoying.
You are, of course, being a bit of a ninny if you’re chasing just reviews. You’re better off, as a freelancer, just writing something you think should be done for the magazine and sending it them. Magazines eat copy. If you know something that they have no knowledge of, written in a decent style, they’ll buy it just to fill the pages. Look at the magazine you love. Realise which bits in it are tedious to do and/or a lot of work. Write something to fill that space and pitch it.
This is currently the best way to get your foot in the door. And once you’ve proven you can write for one magazine, it gets easier for someone to listen to your ideas and they’ll start commissioning your ideas rather than just buying your pieces.
(Worth noting that even now I occasionally write something on spec to sell to someone for many reasons, from not wanting a commissioning editor to warp it into something else or knowing that they’ll never commission it but /would/ buy it when they see how good it is. The latter only happens when you have a crazy vision inside your head. Trust these crazy visions.)
Finally, never be late on your deadlines, unlike me, and unlike these gentlemen.