Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Undervalued and Often Overlooked Art of Editing

One of the overriding tenets of playing OD&D back in the very earliest days of the game (mid to late 70’s), particularly if you were the DM, was that anything is fodder for the campaign. Let me clarify that; good campaigns were a pastiche of every neat idea someone else had back then. As we were groping our way through the dark tunnels of ignorance then, we cobbled together every good idea we had read, seen or heard into our campaign’s framework.

I “borrowed” from Tolkien, Leiber, Anderson, Carter, deCamp, Burroughs, Howard, the Grimms and any other writer that had an idea I liked. We did not consider ourselves thieves as what we were doing benefitted no one but ourselves and harmed no one.

There were no pre-packaged adventures (or modules) until Judge’s Guild started publishing; we did not value them very highly at TSR and we were content to let them do so under our license. We did not even approach the idea at TSR for some two years, give or take, and then it was for a different reason, but also the same underlying reason: money.

We did not see the money-making potential at first. We only did the G Series so we could continue to make money with our huge convention tournaments.

I take a little flak now and then for being something of a fly trapped in amber; I play OD&D as I played it in the 70’s. Even though I mid-wifed AD&D, I stuck to my “little brown books” (the digest-sized original three and the four supplements) and have seen no reason to change.

In the two decades I was out of the industry, I was not reading any of the RPG stuff coming out. I stuck to boardgaming and minis, refusing even to run an RPG here in Cincy for my friends. I did a Rip VanWinkle; I missed out on all that transpired during that time. I missed all the “Edition War” crap. I missed scads of bad “next-best-great game” hopefuls. I also did not read anybody else’s ideas. (When I wrote Curse of the Weaver Queen, my partners were leery because of previous Lolth modules which I had never seen, let alone read. I did it anyway.)

Recently, I briefly relented and thought to see “what the other guys are doing”. I can tell you something they aren’t doing: they aren’t using skilled editors. It has recently been my displeasure to look at a couple items by a couple of respected authors/designers who have had wide success in the past, as well as a handful of efforts by newcomers that looked promising based on the settings. Where is the editing? For that matter, where are the proofreaders or copy editors?

I will not make the claim that either I, or my companies Eldritch Enterprises or Celtic Studios, are perfect in this regard. I am sure that someone has found a typo or two by now that we missed. We peer-review every EE release; that means that all three of the other partners vet every manuscript, proof every galley and scrutinize every layout.
Some of the recent products I have tried to read look like they evaded SpellCheck; the idea that anyone that knew what they were doing edited them is risible.
Yes, as most reading this know, I am/was an “Editor”. I hold the skill in high regard. The first job of an editor is to understand what the writer is trying to express; if he or she can’t “get” something, chances are scores more won’t either. This is not ego or hubris; this is what editors do first. They seek the germ of the idea and then ensure that it is understandable. If, or when, they find a rough (or missing) patch, their second-most important skill is to be able to smooth out the rough patches and create new ones to knit them all together, in the author’s voice.

Some of the articles I published in my various magazines (Dragon, Little Wars and Adventure Gaming) are as little as 30% author and 70% editor. Some of those early authors learned from what we had done and later became really good writers; others never noticed. In all cases, we strove to keep the articles in the author’s voice.

(Secret: Some of us writers don’t always write well on any given day. We might think it was good, but not that day.)

I see this appalling trend as bringing down the level of the whole FRPG field; the crap is outweighing the good stuff and threatening to suffocate us all in mediocrity and banality. I haven’t seen stuff this sloppy (some, certainly not all) since the heyday of the over-enthusiastic, sloppily edited and self-proofed fanzines.

This is THE DARK SIDE of self-publishing. Any tool with a printer can call himself a writer. Any tool that can work InDesign can now call himself a designer or layout specialist.

What they lack is well-written, easy-to-understand-and-play content. Just chucking a handful of ideas, some thoughtful and some not thought out at all, and a garbled setting into a manuscript won’t cut it.

The purpose, or usefulness, of good editing is to provide or ensure clarity and understanding. You simply cannot hope to have the latter without the former. The biggest pearl in the world can remain hidden in ordure if you can’t see it. For myself, I prefer not to rake my fingers through it to find the pearls.


  1. This cannot be restated enough. You are right, especially on the separation of proofreading versus editing. Professional quality products need both and they need to be done by different people with different perspectives. This is a worthy grumble.

  2. I wholeheartedly agree that editing for content is just as important as proofing for typos. If I'm trying to run something that has omitted words like "of" or directs me to the wrong page for reference, I'm not likely to recommend it. I take the editing projects I'm given very seriously, taking my own standards into account. I may be a bit of a perfectionist, and spend a bit too much time/energy on the project, but it's worth it to see the final product in print with everything in its proper place. Sadly, I'm finding more and more small publishers who only want something proofed ("the content is non-negotiable") or who find it easier to ignore my post-layout suggestions because InDesign is "really difficult to edit in."

    1. InDesign in easy to edit in for proofread fixes. Real editing should be done by an editor, you for example, in word. Long before the place button gets clicked. . I love the moxie behind the excuse though.I always appreciate moxie.