Thursday, October 18, 2012

More Freelancer Advice

By far, the article that's received the most hits on this blog was the one about freelancer advice. I don't know if you're a gamer looking to break into this business, or a seasoned pro just looking for more advice. I don't really care, because I'm an attention whore, so I've decided to do it again. Here's more advice for freelance game designers out there.

A couple of days ago, I received a chapter from a freelance writer for my current project. I opened the file and the first thing that jumped out at me was that it was properly formatted. Now, format may not seem like a big deal to you, but it's a big deal to me. Because, one of the things I'm doing, in addition to correcting your grammar and making sure everything you wrote is accurate, is prepping the book for layout. Someone's got to tell the layout guy where the sidebars and tables go, and what the header levels are, and a bunch of other things you've likely never considered. 

When I opened this file from this writer, it was almost perfect. It was obvious someone had told him the what-for when it comes to what line editors want to see in a manuscript. Contrast this to what I routinely get, and I realized that maybe you'd like to learn what to do and what NOT to do to make your editor's life easier. A writer who makes my life easier is more apt to get more work. Now, a caveat: Not all line editors are the same, so check with them beforehand. 

Double-spacing After Punctuation
Back in the day, when people used typewriters you had to double-space after punctuation. This is because it was a primitive machine that evenly spaced all the letters. So to denote the end of one sentence and the beginning of another, you put two spaces after the punctuation mark. It was another way, besides capitalizing the first word in a sentence, to say "here's the start of a new sentence." It also made it easier on the eyes. When I learned how to type in high school, the teacher drilled this practice into our heads. 

But now we live in the 21st Century. We may not have flying cars or food pills, but we've got word processing software. Modern word processing programs automatically insert a little space after the punctuation mark (in addition to not giving equal space to each letter); we no longer have to double-space. What once made blocks of text easier to read now actually makes it harder. So I don't know why I'm still opening up files and seeing double spaces after punctuation marks. We haven't used typewriters in, like, 25 years. You don't say "KLondike 5-1212" when giving out your phone number, do you? The odd thing is, I'm getting it from people too young to have actually used a typewriter...

Do you know what I have to do to every file I open? I globally search-and-replace for "[period] [space][space]". Then I have to do it for question marks and exclamation points, just to be sure. And I have to do it for every file, even if I don't see it when I open the file, just to be sure, because people are still doing this. Don't double-space after punctuation. 

I hate tables. I hate them because Quark hates them (Quark is a layout program), which means the layout guy hates them. I know it's a nifty functionality of word processing programs to neatly organize tables. But it's a pain in the tuchas for the editor, because he has to select the table, select "convert table to text" and set "tab delimited." I have to do this for every table you put in your manuscript. It's time consuming, especially for rule-heavy sections. 

Why not do this for your editor. It's simple. All you have to do is stop trying to make your table look like it does in the book, and delimit your tables using tabs yourself. It should look like this:

Annoying the Editor Effect Table
% Roll [tab] Effect
01-05 [tab] Editor fumes
06-10 [tab] Editor gets mad
11-15 [tab] Editor gets really mad
(and so on)

Notice a few other things about the table. It's got a title, "Annoying the Editor Effect Table." This helps the editor know what the freaking table is about. Notice there's only one tab space between the numbers and the effects. Yes, I know that when you type it, this means the table doesn't look all neat and column-y. That's okay. Moreover, this doesn't change for tables with three or four columns. Separate each entry with a single tab space:

Annoying the Editor Effect Table
% Roll [tab] Effect [tab] Consequences
01-05 [tab] Editor fumes [tab] Gets coffee
06-10 [tab] Editor gets mad [tab] Grabs a smoke
11-15 [tab] Editor gets really mad [tab] considers killing you

One other thing. Notice how I signpost that it's a table by putting a [[BEGIN TABLE]] and [[END TABLE]] at the beginning and end? My most favorite freelancer in the whole world automatically did this without having to be told. Which is why he's now my favorite freelancer in the whole world. This tells me, and the layout guy, what is table and what is not table. 

Some of you out there throw out sidebars like a Pez dispenser. First of all, if you can, try to put this material into the body of your manuscript. The more sidebars you put in, the more boxes have to be accounted for in the layout. I once had a situation where the layout guy came to me and said there were more boxes on the page than space for them. Sidebar boxes get treated like a piece of art, and the text gets flowed around it. This means your sidebar is taking the place of art. It also means that space has to be found for your sidebar on the page. Believe it or not, one of the things game companies do is define the words per page before writing even gets started. LUG's Star Trek was pegged at 600 words per page, for example. Each sidebar brings this count down, because it's treated as "art" not "text." Lastly, sidebars piss off the layout guy because he has to create a little box, then flow text in it, then place the little box on the overall page. It makes more work for him. Sometimes, this messes up his carefully designed layout, which really pisses him off. 

You know what else happens? For every one of your sidebars, and tables for that matter, I have to cut it from the body text, give it a label ([[SIDEBAR 2.1]]), then insert that label into the text to tell the layout guy where the box should go. So the layout guy gets two files for every chapter, one is the body text, the other is just the sidebars and tables. Quark just flows text; it can't tell what is sidebar and what isn't. If I leave the boxed material in the body text, it gets flowed into the body text, which is why I have to pull it out into a separate file. Needless to say, I love this like I love hitting my little toe with a hammer. 

Also, if you have to include a sidebar, signpost it with [[BEGIN SIDEBAR]] and [[END SIDEBAR]], so your editor knows what's supposed to be in the little box, and what is, in fact, body text. 

Paragraph Marks
When I open up a file, I've got Word set to automatically show me the paragraph marks, tab marks and spaces. That's just second nature (and how I know you've used double-spacing after punctuation). One of the things that ticks me off is the double hard return to separate paragraphs. This is something else Quark does not like, I'm told. Really, when you think about it, a lot of what I do is to satisfy this infernal program; it's like dating a high-maintenence girl. 

Here's what you do. Go to Format on the menu bar. Select "paragraph." There's a section that says "spacing." Set this to 12 pt. After. Every time you hit the return key, it automatically inserts 12 pts. of space between paragraphs. Then, I don't have to "select all" and globally search for [[paragraph mark]][[paragraph mark]] and replace with [[paragraph mark]]. Then, go to Format on the menu bar...

Formatting in General
Please, set your margins to 1 inch all around. Set your point size to a nice, even number, like 12. (Believe it or not, reading 9 pt. type is a pain. Ditto 11 pt. type). Single space; I keep getting files where the writer's messed with the spacing between lines somehow; I've got to tear all that formatting stuff out, because it messes with Quark (or could mess with Quark). Then, I and the layout guy have to figure out why Quark is doing what it's doing...

Lastly, I know you may think Optima or Arial are the greatest fonts in the whole wide world, but a font without a serif (sans serif) is harder to read than a font with a serif (like New Times Roman or Courier). Don't use color to set off text. 

This is not the same as headers (as in headers and footers). I'm talking about the heading levels in the text. Ours is a curious profession, where you have to keep track of the heading levels. If you look at any game product, there's a big heading, then headings of various sizes underneath, to signpost to the reader that material is related and thus falls under a larger heading. It looks like this in a published book:

The Land of Angry Editors
Who are the Editors?
What Makes Them Angry?
Nature, Really
Passive Voice

Looking at that, you can tell the relationship between the subjects. The problem is that, while this is what you see in a finished game product, which is often laid out in two columns, this is not what your editor sees. It might be four pages between a level 1 heading and the next heading. Is the next heading related to the first one? Does it fall under the previous heading, or are we introducing a new section? 

You try to be helpful and do what I did above, and what you see in games: You use point size, font type, bolding and italics to try to signpost a heading's level. Too bad I'm not going to see that in your manuscript, because I've "selected all" and changed the font to a serif in a point size I can read. And even if I don't, I still have to scroll between pages to figure out your particular heading system ("Does bold 12pt mean a level 2 heading, or is it level 3?")

Layout guys have the same problem. If I give them a manuscript with the above example, they're going to come back scratching their heads. So they've come up with an elegant solution:

<1>The Land of Angry Editors
<2>Who are the Editors?
<2>What Makes Them Angry?
<3>Nature, Really
<3>Passive Voice

Look at that. You can tell easily what the relationship is between sections just by looking at the number in front of the section's title. I know instantly that "<3>Nature, Really"is related to, and falls under, "<2>What Makes Them Angry?" It tells me we're discussing what makes an editor angry, by type. 

These are pretty much all the things your editor is looking for in an manuscript. Well, that I can think of for now. I'm certain someone will send me a file, I'll open it up, and I'll realize I forgot something. Again, each editor is different, so he might want you to use some other way to signpost tables or label headings, but he'll be happy if you at least make the effort. 


  1. Love it. I'll be using this in the next 24hrs :)

  2. Awesome advice. Thank you very much, this is some very useful stuff you are writing here.

    So, I have to ask, what is your opinion on plain text docs?

    It seems to me that most of what you suggest here are things that would work just fine in something as simple as Text Editor. The look at Quark suggests that really what you really need is plain text that you can use your high-maintainance girl friend to make look all awesome and shit. (Let's face it, we date those high-maintainance woman because when we give them what they want, we get what we want. >:D)

    As to why the new kids are doing the double space after punctuation is that they may be dealing with a mono-spaced font on their hand computers and it automatically does it for them. Funny thing about the double space that I too grew up on a manual typewriter, but I don't bring much more than remembering where the keys are to using computers and word processors.

    Speaking of typewriters, try using one of those tablet virtual keyboards sometime. If you like me are all about resting on the home row like we were taught, then it will drive you nuts. Did me. I don't know how these kids handle not having real keys to rest on. Messes with me quiet a bit, it does.

    So that is my just off of work ramble, I must go and catch up on the others now.


  3. As a layout guy who's worked with Quark (7 years) and InDesign (5 years), tables don't bother me that much for one wonderful reason: if something's best explained in a table, I'll bet you that table can be reused elsewhere—in another product, on a website, in a supplement—to great effect. And once that content's in tabular format, it's easier to re-purpose than plain text.

    For InDesign, a GREP replace does wonders for spaces after punctuation. Write one GREP replace, stash it in a file, reuse at will. (For young writers using outdated double-spacing rules, I've seen it come from English teachers, many of whom grew up with typewriters or were themselves taught by the typewriter generation.)

    Sidebars drive me up the wall, but I enjoy them when they're deemed optional from the start. On the rare occasions when I want to add to a story rather than cut from it, a sidebar is perfect; if it gets in the way, I like having the freedom to send it back to the editor (who'll ideally do something nice with it, like throw it back to the writer to wrap a blog post around it).