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You Need an Editor! (Part 1 of 3)

Posted By Cameron Harris, Sunday, May 3, 2015

You Need an Editor! (Part 1 of 3)

Adapted from my talk at GDC 2014: "You Need an Editor!" (video available to GDC Vault subscribers; slides available to all)

In this series of three blog posts, I'll explain what editors do, why video games need them, and why the entire industry needs them.

In a nutshell: editors make games better and save money while making them. We provide a necessary parallax view of content and smooth out snags in production, freeing developers to create their best work most efficiently. In practical terms, editors fix narrative and technical content on multiple levels; track organization, iteration, and publication of that content; and maintain a unified presentation of intellectual property for a game, a franchise, and a company.

This post focuses on an overview of editing and how it helps make game stories better. Subsequent posts will dig into non-narrative editing and, finally, my argument for how and why to use editors across the video-game industry.

What Is Editing?

But what is editing—in games, specifically? Traditional editing has been around long enough to specialize: books and newspapers, for example, have different kinds of editors with different responsibilities. Video-game editing is newer, not as established, but it uses the same principles, adjusted for the needs of an interactive medium. One principle is that of editing on multiple levels. An editor in video games can provide all-in-one service, from developmental editing (high-level structure, tone, and style) down to copyediting (spelling, grammar, and punctuation).

Regardless of the medium or the level, for me, editing has always had one definition: it is the art of invisibly refining the author's intentions.

  • Art. Editing isn't a science, or else we'd have computer programs that could edit everything perfectly all by themselves. A style guide's rules go a long way, but there are always exceptions, especially with creative work. Sometimes, you need to break the rules, and it's a person who's best suited to figure out when and how to do that without breaking anything else.
  • Invisibly. You should never notice edits; the writing should sound as if it had always been that way, straight from the author's mind. This seamlessness is even more important when more than one author is adding words to your game: multiple writers, a mix of writers and designers, and so on. An editor can nudge those voices closer together, making the writing sound unified and consistent without losing the individual authors' quirks.
  • Refining. Editors work with what's already there, shaping, preserving, and standardizing. Think of it as making the writing what it always wanted to be, like a statue emerging from a block of marble. That sculpting can include rewrites, but usually not wholesale additions, deletions, or changes without authorial input.
  • Author's. Editing is about the author, after all, not the editor. We don't insert ourselves into the writing except through collaboration, and it isn't a competition between author and editor. That's another reason why this is an art, not a science: I like to think that editing is only about 25 percent grammar and punctuation rules; the rest is relationships, working with authors, understanding and meeting their needs to make their work the best it can be.
  • Intentions. Editors sometimes work more from what an author is trying to say: deciphering subtext and digging out meaning hidden in the words because the author isn't entirely clear on it, either. That's where the relationship is vital and can really pay off; the better we know each other, the better our results.

Editors also work on higher-level intentions: what the game needs from the writing, not just what the author wants to do. For example, we may edit dialogue to include reminders of essential information that players learned two levels ago, or streamline text to stay under budget for localization. Knowing those broader needs requires the editor to have a game-wide understanding, which the author may not have because they're focusing on their own section or they're brought onto the project late.

Editing in Narrative

Editing makes a story better. Working on every level of editing, in every area (theme, character, plot, and so on), strengthens a story, with the editor guiding that process by acting as the player surrogate. We're standing off to the side of the content creators, outside their own heads, and watching the story—on every level and holistically—to see if it makes sense. Where it doesn't, we can point out what to add, explain, or remove so that the player will understand, too.

How do you help people understand something? By making it clear, consistent, and coherent. A story that's clear (you can understand it right away), consistent (elements appear in the same way with the same meaning or purpose every time), and coherent (it fits together into a unified whole) is a story that people can more easily consume. As I put it in the original presentation:

The four C's: clear + consistent + coherent = consumable

But not just paying customers benefit from this guideline. Keeping internal teams and external partners such as publishers on the same page can improve the development process. If everyone understands the game's story, they'll communicate about it more effectively, collaborate more efficiently, and produce higher-quality work. Editors support that unity by creating or assisting with story documentation and by conveying it across teams, from writing and design to production, QA, localization, and beyond. And, yes, on the customer side, too: better stories can get better reviews, better word of mouth, and (one hopes) better revenue.

Next up: What if your game doesn't have a story? No problem—editors can still help you!

Tags:  editing  gdc  you need an editor 

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