The Core of Developmental Editing
I have been trying to figure out how to write this post for months. See, editing–by which I speak of developmental editing–isn’t “clean up this passive voice crap” or “fix my typos” or even “rewrite this so that it makes sense,” even though in editing you do all those things.
Editing for texts meant to instruct and entertain, like roleplaying games, is entirely about strengthening that text. That’s all. Nothing less, nothing more.
But that’s a super abstract concept. To drill down, here’s a drawing I made on my train:
(Yeah, expect more of this. And maybe some occasional Stickbat.)
The group on the top is playing on a giant Table of Confidence. The goal of editing is to great a book that generates strong confidence in play. And that confidence rests on two pillars: text flow and ease of reference.
Text flow is difficult to define except by its absence. A text does not have flow if the reader has to stop and process confusion. When the reader is being introduced to ideas abruptly without context, that’s a lack of flow. When the text is boring as shit to read (which could alternatively be defined as feeling like it has an emotional cost/benefit ratio to continue worse than simply putting it down) that’s a lack of flow. Text that’s difficult to read because of awkward of alien sentence constructions or grammatical elements creates that lack of flow. Text that makes you feel like shit, an asshole or a pleb is also lacking flow. Text that assumes you’re deep in a culture of play that you’re not and using that as a vast well of context lacks flow for everyone who isn’t in that group–and totally kosher if you’re only selling to that group.
Along with copyediting to fix sentence clarity, the editor’s job of making sure ideas are presented in the right order so that context is founded before discussing elements that hang off that context. One of the comments I made about Elizabeth Sampat’s game, THEY BECAME FLESH, was that she was talking about what God, Humanity & the Fallen do to define the world in play before telling me what God, Humanity & the Fallen actually were (which is the name of the two GM roles and the collective noun of the players, respectively). Now, that was a playtest document, which she’s since made more kickass and flow-worthy as she’s developing it.
The context–who those roles were–was on the next page, so what I experienced wasn’t a total lack of flow, but a weak flow, a question hanging around my mind for some time. David Allen talks about this concept in Getting Things Done, and the limit to the number of simultaneous things you can hold in your mind. A question that is brought up in the text through lack of context becomes one of those things. Thus, impedance of flow.
Incidentally, she was able to pretty easily fix that. But that’s the example that was on the top of my head.
Ease of Reference
It doesn’t matter if all the information is in the book if, during play, a question comes up that threatens confidence which cannot be answered quickly by the book. That’s where ease of reference comes in.
Now, I know there’s a number of folks who would say “if a question comes up, just wing it and find out later.” And that’s true…if you have confidence in your guess. If not, if the table collectively feels lukewarm about how to proceed, the play experience is damaged. Thus, referencability.
This is easy to add to your book, though sections, callouts, art, graphic design elements, additional materials, etc. This isn’t hard, but that doesn’t make it non-crucial.
The Third, Invisible Pillar: Information
This assumes that all the information needed to play the game is actually in the book. If it’s not, then you have a much larger problem. :)
Breaking These Intentionally
Now, with every rule, the final stage of mastering it is knowing when to break it. That’s worth acknowledging.
Also, very few people have that stage of mastering. If you think you’re one of them, you probably aren’t.
The High Water Mark
One of the best texts in this regard is Dogs in the Vineyard. Why? Because Vincent is a great conversationalist writer, which makes for strong flow. Now, a conversation is the shittiest way to create referencability, because conversations aren’t referencable, but that’s what the references in each chapter in Dogs were for, as well as the references on the character sheets.
So, when I’m going over a manuscript, on every pages I’m pressing my weight down on the table of confidence, being a proxy for the various audiences I know this book will sell to, and see how it holds up. Because that’s what developmental editing is (in addition to calling out bullshit & intent).
 I’m not, but I’m pretty self-aware of that.