Considering the Life of a Freelance Games Writer

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Search “how to write about video games for a living” and Google will return nearly 200 million results. It’s a question that many have asked, and more still have attempted to answer. After all, who wouldn’t want to get paid to write about the things they love? Thus the competition is fierce.

With that in mind, assuming you want to enter the ranks of paid games writers, why wouldn’t you buy Nathan Meunier’s Up Up Down Down Left Write: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism? In fact, how can you afford not to? A few hundred people have no doubt already read it since they were the book’s original backers on Kickstarter, and now that it’s been released into the wild, I’m sure many more have as well. Can you risk not being one of them?

If you’re reading this review you probably already have an answer to that question. Let’s not belabor it then. What follows will instead  focus on the ways in which Meunier’s book is and is not helpful, starting with the title.

Contrary to the subheading, Up Up Down Down is not a guide to being a video game journalist. While it explains how to go about pitching articles, the importance of organization, and how to network at conventions and PR events, the book is more of a “tips for getting started” than an all-out guide to writing about games for a living. Where Stephen King’s On Writing might be a Brady Games walkthrough, Meunier’s Up Up Down Down is the booklet that came with the game in its box.

What Meunier accomplishes in a modest 64,000 words could have been achieved much sooner if the author focused more economically on what an aspiring games writer needs to know and the examples that best illustrate that. This is another way of saying that Up Up Down Down feels padded out, even for its short length.

Meunier likes to write about the amount of coffee you’ll need to drink, as well as the likelihood that this and other tasks, including playing video games and writing about them, will take place in your home, at strange hours, and partially naked. Yes, the life of a freelance games writer is the epitome of rugged, self-actualizing entrepreneurialism. This we know–that’s why we bought the book about how to obtain it.

coffeeAnd on the subject of how to do just that? Meunier has more than a few worthwhile recommendations to make, including but not limited to: how to research, prepare, and draft a winning pitch, the dos and don’ts of setting up the right playing/writing/working space, and how to maintain a work schedule such that the writing assignments keep coming and the money keeps flowing.

The book follows a three act structure, first addressing how to get work as a freelancer, then discussing how to finish it, and finally the best way to wash, rinse, and repeat in order stay a successful games writer. The advice included in these sections ranges from four paragraphs on how to track down the person you should contact for pitching a story to an extended chapter on how to develop PR contacts (hint: be persistent but professional when begging for interviews, review copies, and general access).

Examples are always key when it comes to “how to,” and yet despite his wealth of experience, Meunier could not be stingier with them. One notable exception is a part near the middle of the book where Meunier actually does give real examples of article pitches, ones he actually sent to real editors, in order demonstrate how to correctly go about submitting potential story ideas to potential employers.

However, this exception only goes on to prove the rule, which is that Meunier would rather tell than show, a fact that’s only excruciating because of the number of interesting anecdotes and experiences that you’ll never get to hear as a result.

For example, I would have loved to know what different days are like for Meunier. And not just the short version he happily provides on a number of occasions (out of bed, coffee, email, write, email, coffee, food, write, coffee, email, play games, coffee, email, etc.), but something more like “Freelancer’s log, stardate 11.11.12…” at which point Meunier would list every single thing he did that day, at what time, and in detail. Rather than just tell me over and over again what the successful freelancer’s life is like, and how enjoyable it can be, why not let me read with my own eyes what any number of different days were actually like?

Up Up Down Down is also notable for something else it barely mentions: how to write about video games. Aside from general advice about avoiding cliches and consulting style guides like Strunk and White’s, Meunier offers little instruction on how to avoid or remedy the common pitfalls that beset most games writers. Instructions for improving your writing are limited to things like “ax the pet phrases” and “buy a dictionary and thesaurus.” Even considering content more generally, the book doesn’t spend much time delving into the key tenets of certain games writing genres like previews, reviews, profiles, columns, or the longform feature.

Instead, Meunier focuses more on the business side: how to snare gigs, how to manage income and taxes, and how and when to make the jump from freelancing on the side to freelancing for life (or until you end up out on the street). Of course, each of these things is crucial to know, but they only make up one half of the “freelance writer” marathon.

The second half includes, among other things, ethical quandaries and coping with failure.

blind typingWhile Meunier does acknowledge the “ickiness” that can accompany working directly with PR, he doesn’t provide much guidance on where to draw the line between what’s okay and what’s not, other than somewhere between “play[ing] ball” and “hold[ing] folk accountable.” He writes that “It’s OK to be firm if you have to be,” and to not “be afraid to ask the hard questions.”

But what are the “hard questions” and how do I know if I “have to be?” As a journalist and critic, you want to be gracious but honest, constructive but challenging. Whereas staff writers at an outlet can be shielded from PR blowback, freelancers are often on their own. In situations where it comes down to sticking to your principles or putting food on the table, where are you expected to draw the line? Where should you draw the line? I have my own answers to these questions. I would have liked to have read Meunier’s.

And what of those inevitable setbacks? Perhaps you were too honest with a PR rep, and now they’ve stopped returning your emails. Or maybe you refused to acquiesce to a particular editor’s rewrite because you felt it was sleazy or just not what you meant to say, and now they’ve stopped throwing assignments your way. Meunier is good about offering constructive advice for when occasions like this inevitably arise, but doesn’t take time to preview these trying times by way of his own personal experience.

While Up Up Down Down includes the requisite “stick with it” and “stiff upper lip” sections, Meunier forgoes another opportunity to be reassuringly personal and connect with the reader on a more intimate level. Think a small chapter called “Everybody fails.” The biggest question on any aspiring freelancer’s mind is usually some variation on “Am I the only one?” Freelancing comes in all shapes and sizes, and though Meunier admits of variations to the overarching game plan, he never goes so far as to back up his optimistic pep talk with a few stories of actual writers that struggled through tough times but still made it to the other side in one piece.

All that being said, Up Up Down Down maintains a certain rhythm throughout, with Meunier’s punchy prose pulling the reader from one helpful hint to the next. I felt energized after reading it, full of ideas and optimism. Indeed, this is probably what the book does best. Like the booklet that arrives with a new game, dotted with over zealous concept art and pulsing with the anticipation of what’s yet to come, Meunier’s book excels as an inspirational device.

Even if you already know most of what Meunier is prepared to tell you, the book will undoubtedly help propel you to actually get off your ass and start doing the work. Up Up Down Down might not be the last book on games writing you ever read, but few will give you a better start.

  • // NMeunier

    Thanks for the critique! Helpful indeed. Don’t quite agree with every point, obviously, but I appreciate the write-up and feedback. This is just the first of several books, so stay tuned…as many of the questions you raised are destined to be covered in upcoming projects.

    If folks are wondering where they can get the book, it’s avail in Print or on Kindle here: //

    Also, my next book: Interview Fu: The Game Journo Guide To Conducting Killer Interviews will be out soon, and it has a lot more of the personal stories and other elements you felt were lacking in UUDDLW. Cheers!