On Being an Editor

Jeremy Morgan emailed me to ask about being an editor:

Hey, Ryan, I’ve got a question. Increasingly I feel pull of editing instead of writing. Suggestions on cultivation of this?

Next, let me give some context.

I noticed it first at work. We were working on a technical document AND a system design. We started having to define terms. I found myself evangelizing for using one word over another. I became the unofficial technical editor before it went off to the professional editors.

Around the same time, I started on a really ambitious blog project (detail of it isn’t important) involving RPG system conversion. I’ve since lost steam on it.

I’ve never considered myself a writer. I don’t really know if I’m cut out for RPG game design. I do find myself weighing the importance of the written and spoken word. Terms / semantics are important to me. Effective communication relies on them.

Does this mean I have some latent editor screaming in my head trying to get out? If so, how do I go about cultivating him? I have no experience in this whatsoever. Your blog posts on editing have spoken to me, but it’s information I enjoy but don’t know if I will / can use.


So, you want to be an editor? Cultivate this talent? Friend, I hate to break it to you but what you speak of is no mere job or skill. It’s a sickness. It’s a memetic disease, one for which there is no cure. And I don’t mean that in some sort of cute way. I mean it will infect many avenues of your mind and change you in ways you won’t anticipate.

But it sounds like the sickness has already set in, and it may be too late for you. So much like the hideously deformed[1] seek out the circus act in hopes to turn their ailment into an asset, I will share with you how to try turning this unfortunate condition into one. There are other ways than what I’ll say here, as this is from my own background.

First, be known for something other than editing

I was a podcaster before I was an editor. That’s how I got on other folks’ radar.

Second, be loud

Be not shy of speaking your opinion about things you read. Talk about the effects of word choice and organization and all those great things.

Expect to be viciously hated for this. People loathe it when their darling authors are ever talked against. Authors and artists have some vicious cults of personality and everything you say, which would sound like non-inflammatory “duh”, will feel like a slap in the face to them. And because they are ignorant of this craft you’re starting to hone, they will throw feeble bullshit at you in response.

Ignore those people. They aren’t worth your time, and you’ll no more convince them that you’re right than they will convince you that whatever text you’re talking about is “perfect”. Seriously, ignore them. Do not make the mistake I did of trying to treat them like they actually wanted to have a conversation. They don’t, not on the Internet.

You’ll discover that other people share your opinion, but have to good sense to keep it to themselves because they have better things to do than spend time and energy on pointless nerd arguments that crazed fans make in order to prove their status in said personality cult. (And to be totally fair, some authors don’t actually create the cult, but are more a victim of it. And those authors are worth talking with, because they’ll engage you like a human being.)

Those people are folks you’ll be able to converse with. They’ll share ideas and find in you a kindred spirit.

Third, get involved

The community is always looking for folks to playtest & comment on games. Get involved. Play games, and comment about how your play was affected (bad and good) by reading the text. If the person you’re playtesting for is worth a damn, he or she will be interested in your comments because more playtesters will give vague ideas of did or didn’t work and often not be able to articulate why.

Do all that, and you gain peers

To start out with any field where your role is that of support structure (editing, layout, software development, etc.), you need peers to work with that create the initial clay, be it writing or art or whatever. In this case, we’re talking about authors with ideas they want to publish.

Those people who find in you a kindred spirit? Those are your peers, your connections. Some of them may also be writers or know someone who needs some editing they don’t have time to do. People who read your comments and ask you to look over future text or future games are also new peers.

My first job as an editor was for Paul Tevis’ A Penny For My Thoughts. Paul & I had been friends for years before that, and my being loud about my thoughts on editing and several emails about playtesting & thinking about his game was eventually responded with “So, let’s make this official. What’s your editing rate?”

My first job with Fred Hicks was when I brought him on to layout my first book, where I learned how to be an editor, Finis: A Book of Endings. A year or so later, I would be talking with him at Dreamation over a meal, and he would pitch to me the idea for Don’t Lose Your Mind, the Don’t Rest Your Head supplement. Before the words “I’d like to write for it” could leave my mouth, he asked me “Would you like to edit it?”

That’s how this starts.

Finally, profit?

By which I mean spend over two months trying to get a response about payment from a publisher, only to finally get a short, sharp email indicating that that you’re a pest for bothering them and to expect it “sometime.”[2] And be despised in a community because its most celebrated authors read like twitchy monkeys. Have writers pissed off with you because you killed their darlings. Oh, and did I mention being underpaid when you get paid at all?

There is a good side, though. I’m an editor because I believe people deserve to clearly understand the games they buy without bullshit frustration. And when I see one of my games on the shelf, I beam. I’m a craftsman as much as any author; just as the blank page and pen are a writer’s tools for making words, those words are my tools for making flow, for creating information constructs that set firmly and referencably in the minds of the reader. You are the shepherd of ideas.

When that succeeds, fuck yeah. It doesn’t matter than the author will get credit for my efforts, because that’s not the point of being an editor. (If credit for ideas is important to you, you really want to be a writer and not an editor. And few things suck more than an editor that is really a frustrated writer. So don’t do that.)

Given all I said, would I go back and keep myself from being an editor?

No. Because by being this loud, “Internet rockstar” editor, I’ve been able to do some pretty cool shit, and it’s caused me to meet and get to know some really amazing people. It’s presenting paths in my life I never expected. And right now, I’m writing on the bus to a video game designing gig because a few years ago Paul Tevis asked me if I’d like to edit his book.

Plus, it’s not like I could anyway. The disease was already inside of me. I just turned it into a circus act.


There are other ways to do this “be an editor” thing, sure, and I hope other editors will share their stories. If you do, please comment on this post so I can read them! :D

– Ryan

[1] There’s my non-politically correct term for the year.

[2] I’m pretty fucking bitter right now over this, because I turned down one cool gig to do work for a publisher that’s now treating me like I’m an asshole. While that’s coloring some of my response, but it’s not like this is an uncommon one to have.


7 Responses to On Being an Editor

  1. Is it a bullshit move to comment on someone’s blog with a link to your own blog? Oh, well. I’m doing it anyway.

    In case anyone’s interested, I discussed my own path to becoming an RPG editor through 3 posts:

    In particular, Ryan, I agree with your comment about frustrated writers becoming editors – I’d add frustrated game designers, too. Editing is something you do because you have to do it – it is a disease in so many ways – not because you’re hoping it will let you do something else like write or design. You can do those things *and* edit, but don’t edit hoping it will let you do those things.

    • Ryan Macklin says:


      Nah, I asked for it. It’s cool. Also, since you rock, yay for people knowing more about you!

      – Ryan

  2. Wayne says:

    I’m not using an editor right now (aside from my wife being a grammar highlander, it’s like a grammar nazi but her parents are from Scotland). I have two pages of rules for my card game, and I don’t think it’s critical at this time. Having said that, I’m assembling art for version 2.0 of my game, and now I’ll probably hire an editor after we get all of the art together and have a semi-final layout of the cards.

    The problem is the same problem as I had getting art: I have zero up-front money. I pay my artist by having my bank send him a check for $75 (was $50) every two weeks and he gives me X pieces of artwork. He’s good with this, and I’m not on a schedule for getting 2.0 out: it’ll be done when it’s done.

    So my question is: could this be a acceptable model for paying an editor? Agree on a price, do a brief contract, start funneling money to the editor, when X amount is received, say 25%?, the editor starts working on the project as they’ve received some promise of payment in the form of actual payment.

    Thoughts? I think I’ll probably try to get an editor/layout person for a final touch of my game (108ish card count, no other components) before I start production.

    (and sorry you got burned, Ryan. that sucks.)

  3. EZ says:

    So, you’re down with the sickness?

    Very illuminating. Also pretty solid case for me that I really am a writer, not an editor (though I do often play one on TV).