Don’t Define with the Negative
One thing I see often from writers is that they’ll start talking about something that they’re passionate about…by talking about what it isn’t.
Let’s not call out anyone I’ve worked with, and instead take some old Mythender text (pulled out of my head):
Mythender is not a game about going from zero to hero, or a mystery about finding the gods to End. It’s a game about thunder and lightning across the landscape, striking fear into myth and mortals alike.
This is Bad Text. Why? Hey, I’m glad you asked!
- It wastes the reader’s time.
- It’s insulting to the reader. Remember this mantra: assume your reader is smart.
- If your reader happens to like what you’re negating, you’re distancing yourself from your reader, even if he or she would also like what you actually mean to talk about.
If you do this, don’t be surprised if some readers stop after that first sentence and don’t get to the second, where the actual meat of your idea lives.
Now, I see this happen because people find their old explanations run up against the misconceptions of people playtesting, and the designers have to say “no, it’s not like X.” So, the gut reaction to lead with that is there. I totally see that, and if I hadn’t edited it out of many manuscripts, I would probably still do it.
When that happens, resist the urge. Go with describing your idea in the positive. Maybe people will still get the wrong idea initially, but that’s what more text is for, to refine and to inspire someone down the same path you’re thinking. And if not, if people still get misconceptions, ask yourself: is that really so bad that your game’s text inspires ideas in someone else?
(Sometimes it is, if the idea really does entirely clash. People who want to turn Mythender into the zero-to-hero game will Fuck It Up, period. That game just won’t be fun, and will completely miss the point. On the other hand, for at least a year, people asked me if they could play mythic creatures as Mythenders. I kept saying “no,” until one day I said “fuck it, the idea really doesn’t break anything” and did some mental judo to make that idea instead flow. So, know where your breaking points really are, and loosen up elsewise.)
Here’s what my text above should have said:
Mythender is a game about thunder and lightning across the landscape, striking fear into myth and mortals alike.
Notice how I didn’t try to work in “not a game about going from zero to hero, or a mystery about finding the gods to End”? Yeah, that goes to one of the many things I’ve learned from journalism, “show, don’t tell.” (I’d show you how I do it, but that’d involve showing off a barely-written GM chapter.)
Don’t define with the Negative. The Positive is a stronger ally.
 Want to be a better writer? Be a hard-ass editor, and watch for the things you do that you call out in others. Oh, also, fucking write. Butt-in-chair, people.
 Of course, what I say today is much, much better.
 I read on Paul Tevis’ blog a commenter asking for him to stop doing footnotes, and referencing having to stop reading Rob Donoghue’s blog because of that. Point of note: footnotes are where I get to be a bit tongue-in-cheek and, frankly, are one of the little joys I get writing these posts. So they’ll stay here. :)