Co-Authors and Sharedthink

There’s something deceptive about co-author projects with folks who are new to producing works. There’s a sense that because they can do one form of editing with each other–namely copy-editing (grammar, typos, etc.)–that co-authors don’t need an editor. I can usually tell which co-authored books didn’t see an one, because they’re disorganized, full of assumptions, and all around poorly communicative.

Why? Because there’s no mental separation of context. There’s no one in the process to call out the sharedthink.[1]

This is, in some ways, worse than a single author not getting an editor. Two or more people working on a project for a significant length of time create shorthand terms and learn to read the other’s implicit thoughts. In reviewing the work, sometimes they’re able to call out “hey, we should probably explain this,” but just as often an idea is skipped over–it’s grammatically correct, so it doesn’t warrant further attention, yet it’s missing explanation and other material.

Co-authors gain institutional knowledge–context–so all the ideas are in their heads. Again, you get copy-editing, but not a realization that these ideas are presented in a very poor order from the perspective of someone trying to learn, understand, and play a game.[2] Between frontloading and organization, the book needs to build context for learning & playing. Already have that context in your head? Then you’re likely to miss these problems and frustrate readers.

Where it gets really frustrating is when someone from outside of this hivemind points problems out, and said authors either actually get defensive or just plain feel confused, because they’re able to make sense to each other. An understandable situation to be in, and it’s unfortunate when these games go to publication with all the signs that they didn’t pass a “can someone outside of our sharedthink understand this” test.

So if you can, get an editor outside your immediate play culture. Those editors will find loads of issues high-level organization and sharedthink assumptions that getting a friend to edit will miss.

(This also applies to people who get their friends who have playtested the game with them to “edit”–and again, you pretty much just get copy-editing from them. But then, it’s unfortunate that amateurs equate “editing” to mean copy-editing.)

And now, this post makes me realize I have a second high-level point to developmental editors (alongside an author’s intent), which is to reduce the gap between what an author is saying and what he or she means. That’s so hard to do internally if you’re untrained in separating yourself from that sharedthink. I’ve met few people who are good at doing that.

This is something we were constantly on the lookout for in working on the Dresden Files RPG. That we were all aware of it helped the editorial staff (namely Amanda Valentine) suss out issues. Wasn’t easy, but we did the work.

– Ryan

[1] Or would that be “groupthink” in this case? Anyway.

[2] I call this the “where the fuck did that come from” problem. As in, “Where the fuck did this term come from?” or “Wait, why am I suddenly seeing a section about something completely different.”


10 Responses to Co-Authors and Sharedthink

  1. Amanda Valentine says:

    I agree that developmental editing requires a bit of distance – this is part of why I don’t GM, I don’t write, and I don’t design. I want to minimize the assumptions I bring to a project, so I can approach it more like the readers will.

    Obviously I’m not saying that people who GM, write, and design can’t be good editors. But I think that if I was bringing that perspective to it, some of the clarity would be lost in the things I edit. By the time the text has been revised to the point that it’s clear enough to me, it should be clear to most readers.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      I totally get you. I’m on the other end of the spectrum — I like to run or play games I edit, because that sort of contact causes clarity issues to click in my mind. But when I said there aren’t make who can separate themselves, I know that because I’m one of them.

      I’m not sure if it’s because of my experience in editing A Penny For My Thoughts or was just revealed then, but one of the things I learned was how to separate my context from an expected reader’s context. And that game’s text turned out pretty well. There was some “I know the next things I need to read is X…so why is it Y?” thought trains that have since been part of the reason Fred keeps me around for EHP stuff. :)

      – Ryan

  2. Jonathan Grimm says:

    I hate to call out specific games in a negative light, but this was Burning Wheel for me. I felt like they had a great game for them, but they hadn’t told me how to get at it. I was left with the feeling that I was doing it wrong, without being sure of how or why.

    If you game needs to be played in a specific way, PLEASE tell me. If that takes outside eyes or outside playtesting, your game will be better for it.

    Burning Wheel is on the ideas shelf, rather than the run shelf because I don’t know how to make it fun.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      As I understand it, Burning Wheel wasn’t co-written. Thor Olavsrud has worked with Luke as his editor for years. Luke’s certainly gotten better at it — Mouse Guard shows that.

      But I feel that way about Burning Wheel Revised’s text. I hold out hope that Burning Wheel Gold will be better.

      – Ryan

  3. Jacinta says:

    Big yes and no here.

    I’m reading a new system atm. It started with a ‘basics’ section, which I found I couldn’t make head or tail of. I’m now reading the rest of the book and hope to return to the basics once I understand their shorthand.

    However, I’ve heard it said that the more nuance definitions a person is able to provide about a subject, the more they understand about it. This is why l stuff is full of jargon, they need to be able to talk about finely detailed issues within the topic. I’d offer this is the same within a system.

    I don’t know the name of the colour that’s mostly yellow, but has a bit of green in it. I’ve got chartreuse, but I can’t close in on it any more. So I have “sort of chartreuse / yellowish”. But I don’t talk about colours often enough to need any more. I’d expect an artist to know that colour though.

  4. Jacinta says:

    Trying again. For those new to a topic, it’s hard to understand the jargon and shortcuts unless the author has unpacked it.

    For those already knowledgeable about a topic, or similar topics, jargon is a handy shortcut to get detailed amounts of information across.

    So, yes, authors should unpack the groupthink assumptions when they are first offered. But no, they shouldn’t stop using them as it is only in use that people will get used to them and understand them more clearly.

    • Amanda Valentine says:

      I think this is one of the biggest challenges when writing a book for a (hopefully) broad and varied audience. A lot of the stuff I work on is licensed – there’s the explicit hope that the license will introduce people to the world of RPGs and that they won’t know the jargon, etc. They won’t bring in the same assumptions that long time gamers/designers/writers do.

      And yet, we still want people who are familiar with RPGs to come see what our game is all about. And if we’re condescending and repetitive, they’ll be put off.

      So how do you strike that balance of not excluding either group? It’s a constant challenge.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      You perhaps misunderstand the post. Look at how I focus on words like “organization,” and never say “jargon.”

      – Ryan

  5. Amanda Valentine says:

    Right – but not unpacking jargon is one of the organizational issues that a set of outside eyes should take care of. One of many issues, but one that’s often overlooked. It’s easy to assume everyone knows what you mean when you say X.