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Prerequisites - Know the basics
If your goal is to write about games for a living, you're probably well versed in games. You know the difference between an RTS and FPS and you've played most of the hits.for your system of choice and you've got a bit of knowledge about the history of gaming. Knowing about games is a good start, but it's secondary to your ability to write.
You don't necessarily need to be a m aster of prose, but you do need to know how to get your ideas across using the written word. You should know how nouns work, what a verb is, and the difference between there, they're and their. You should know when and when not to use apostrophes- the incorrect use of "it's" can drive an editor insane.
In Steven King's "On Writing" he says that bad writers can never turn into competent writers, and good writers can never turn into truly great writers. Competent writers though, can polish their skills to become good writers. You need to be competent at the least.
You also need to enjoy writing. If you're looking for a way to play videogames for a living, but the idea of knocking out 1,200 words on the latest MMO sounds torturous to you, this isn't for you. If you're really good at games, consider trying to become a professional gamer.
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Know What to Expect
You've probably seen and heard coverage of some of the biggest events in gaming, and it all seems incredibly glamorous. The E3 poolside podcasts of 1up Yours and the interviews on G4 from TGS and Blizzcon make the events seem incredibly exciting. They are, of course, but it's not all fun.
Writing about games is tough, and it's not the most rewarding profession. If you get hired for one of the major magazines, you're going to make between $30-$40 thousand a year starting off. It's not exactly bad pay, but consider that you'll also be living in a big city with a high cost of living. There are exceptions of course, but don't expect to make much more.
But what about all that swag? Game companies are constantly springing for cool stuff to send to game writers. They pay for trips and for experiences you'd never get a chance to have normally. Depending on who you work for though, you won't actually get any of that. Most companies see it as a conflict on interest for you to accept a free trip from the same company that you're reviewing games from.
You'll still get free games though. And you'll have an endless supply of T-shirts and key chains.
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Remember - It's a Job
It's important not to mythologize anything too much. At the end of the day, writing is a job. In many respects, it's just like any other job. There are days when you don't want to work, days when you don't get along with your boss, and days when showing up at the office, or the desk, seems like a drag. You'll have assignments you hate, and you'll play games that make you miserable. I still remember the all-nighter I spent getting through Too Human and then writing not one, but two reviews the following day.
I'm not trying to talk you out of it by any means. I write for a living and wouldn't give it up for the world. It's the best job on earth, but it's still a job. Beautiful summer days are still hard to work through, and Fridays still drag.
If you're still reading, you just might have what it takes to make it in the games writing business. It's time to talk about the two very different pathways to getting there
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The "Safe" Route - Getting a Staff Job
It used to be that getting a staff job - especially at a game magazine - meant that you were set. You'd have a steady income, a nice office environment, and most of all job security. 2009 was a shakeup for the industry though, and the amount of newsstand magazines with actual staffers has dwindled. Don't get me wrong, getting a staff job is still a good way to go, but there are fewer of them to go around than there used to be.
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Get a Degree
If you're not yet an established writer and you want a staff job, a college degree will help big time. It doesn't have to be in journalism or English, though that might be a bonus. You just need to be able to show that you got through four years of schooling. In fact, having a degree in another field can be helpful too.
If you're a psychology major, for example, you've got the advantage of a point of view most gamers won't have. A theater major might be able to supply better insight on the construction of a game's story. A history major could compare a videogame's account of history to what really happened.
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Put Together a Portfilio
One of the other requirements you'll find listed on job openings for major outlets is experience. After all, they want to know that you can do the job before they hire you to do it. If you're good enough, samples from your college newspaper or a smaller games website may be enough to get your foot in the door. Every little bit helps though, so you'll want to try and get as much writing experience as you can.
Even if you're not writing about games, nabbing some writing gigs with your local newspaper or weeklies is a great way to build a portfolio. Sure, covering 2010 International RV Show isn't exactly E3, but it's event coverage, and it's great experience.
Once you get some clips together, it's easy to get together a porfolio on Wordpress.
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Get a Job
It may sound obvious, but you need to get a job while you're waiting for all the applications you've sent to pay off. After all, it's a small industry, and if there aren't jobs to be had, it doesn't matter how good you are.
If you can nab a job that's close to the industry, so much the better. If you can get a writing job anywhere, take it. Even if it's not the job you really want. Think of it as a stepping stone. GamePro is much more likely to hire someone t hat's got experience at Cat Fancy than someone who's got experience running a Sbarros.
Similarly, you can stick close to the games industry. Managing a GameStop may not be the most impressive piece of history on a resume, but a significant number of game journalists, such as 1up alumnus Garnett Lee, started in retail.
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The "Scary" Route - Going Freelance
Let me start by saying that I absolutely love being a freelance writer. Every day there are new opportunities, new challenges to overcome, and new rewards. Being a freelance writer is exciting and a bit romantic; you're a drifter, living free and chasing the money where you can.
The great thing about freelancing is that there is that the only limit to the amount of money you make is your own desire and ability. If you can successfully pitch and write dozens of great features in a month, you'll be raking in the dough. If you're not ready to take the plunge, this could easily become the downside to freelancing.
There's a reason I called freelancing the scary route. There's absolutely no guarantee that next pitch will be accepted. You've got to create your own home office, which is a challenge in and of itself. You don't have a severanhome officece to fall back on if you stop getting work, and no one's taking care of your health insurance,401k, or your taxes. It's hard work, but it can ultimately be much more rewarding than a staff job.
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Just Start Writing
Ever since I quit my day job to write for a living, people have asked me how I got started. I'll let you in on the big secret. You don't need a college degree, you don't even need to have finished high school. The big secret to getting started in freelancing is to just start writing.
I started my own blog back in 2007 and updated it three or four times a week with thoughts on gaming. Most of it went completely unnoticed, but I kept plugging away anyway. I even used my little blog as a way to get into the Consumer Electronics Show. It was fun, but it wasn't getting me paid. From there I moved on to writing free for several websites, which gave me enough cred to get my first review copies of games and access to E3.
It's really easy to contribute to a smaller website, and most of them would be thrilled to have you. Some sites are better to write for than others, but you'll learn what the difference is as you go along. One important tip that I'd like to share is to avoid getting too involved. If you're spending all your time writing for free sites, you'll eat up all the time you could be spending pitching to editors.
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Time to Get Paid
Once you think you're ready, start applying to some paid sites. I'm a big proponent of the "Run before you can walk" ethos, but you're probably not going to nab GameSpot on your first day out.
Contributing at more general purpose sites is a great way to get started. Sites like About.com, The Examiner and (my personal favorite) Bright Hub are fantastic for introducing yourself to the concept of pitching articles and working with editors. You'll get experience while getting paid at the same time, which is a big step.
From there, it's time to start pitching to bigger and bigger sites. Pitch an article, write the article, get paid. Pitch an article, write the article, get paid. Once you get the cycle down, it's really not as scary as it seems.
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Tips for Aspiring Writers
If you're just getting started, it’s important to establish your style, and what it is you want to do. Thinking about what you read may be the best way to figure it out. Do you subscribe to Edge for their long and thoughtful features, or are you a newshound, hitting F5 on Kotaku and Joystick every ten minutes? Do previews thrill you, or is it the final review that really gets your blood moving?
My personal favorites are news and feature writing. I love being on the pulse of what's happening, and any time that I can spout on for a few thousand words about a nuance of game design or the latest piece of hardware is a good time to me. The important thing is to know what you love to do.
Features make the best bait for pitches. Magazines and websites already have staffers to handle reviews, and they probably get their copies before you. You'll do a lot better writing about how Bioshock changed game design, for example, than trying to get IGN let you do their Bioshock 2 review.
Try not to pigeonhole yourself. One of the best jobs I've gotten to date has come from some work I did for a home theater site. It's not games writing, but it's regular work that I really love doing. If I were only focusing on games, I would have missed a great opportunity.
Read as much as you can about writing. There are great tips for freelancers online.
The single best piece of advice I can give you is to be consistent. If you have an article due by a certain date, get it in by that date. If you need extra time, let your editor know. When you turn in an article, you should have a new one ready to pitch. There are a lot of good writers out there, but surprisingly few of them are good with deadlines.
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There are a lot of things that have helped me out through the years, though only a few of them are specific to games writing.
On Writing - Steven King
This is an amazing source of advice and inspiration. Half of the book is an autobiographical account of King's writing career and the rest deals specifically with writing. If you're only going to read one book on writing (but why would you only read one?) this is the one to get.
Elements of Style - Strunk and White
it was written many years ago, but it still doles out some of the best writing advice I've ever read. Every time I read through it, I pick up something new.
The article is five years old, but the advice is solid. Dan Hsu has gotten about as high as a games journalist can get; he was the editor in chief of EGM for seven years. Any advice he doles out is worth taking.
For all those technical questions. Is it Xbox, XBox or X-Box? Should you write Playstation or PlayStation? It's got some great advice from some of the biggest names in the business and it's absolutely free to download.
It's still a new podcast, but it's directed strictly towards those that are looking to do freelance videogame writing for a living. They have a guest on every show and they talk in depth about things you won't hear anywhere else. Definitely worth a listen.