Fellow One-A-Dayer and journo-type Sir Mark of Brown gave a funny look via Twitter to the latest in Dan Hsu’s Bitmob series on good games writing tips. Like Mark, I find myself increasingly going ¬_¬ at his suggestions for potential site contributors on how to write the best possible articles about videogames. Rather than a content/ideas focus, he’s talking about straight-up use of the English language. And each time, while I agree with a few of his notions, I find myself intrigued by our difference in opinion in some cases, and baffled in others where what he’s saying seems to be plainly inaccurate.
Brief disclaimer: I don’t know Dan Hsu. I’ve read his work, and it’s good. I know that he is a well-respected games journalist, and that he’s earnt that. In no way do I think I’m a better writer than he is. Quite the opposite: he’s the sort of guy whose work I’d read for ideas on how to improve mine.
But take, for example, the following, which is what got Mark’s goat tonight.
Buildings loom up from the abyssal gloom, connected by Habitrails of pressure-proof glass that span neon-lit boulevards patrolled by sonorous blue whales and other life aquatic. This is the city of Rapture.
This, from an Electronic Gaming Monthly preview of BioShock some years ago, is cited by Hsu as a great example of how to vividly portray a scene and its quality without saying “the graphics are good”. Is it, though? I mean, my first response is to shout “MODIFIER CULL ENGAGED!” at that and hack it to bits. I had to read it a couple of times before I could make much sense of its structure. In Hsu’s last piece on good games writing, he advised budding journalists to avoid the passive voice. In the very next paragraph of this latest piece, the one in which he’s just called the above great writing, he urges games journalists to be concise, and to cut out all the waffle.
In Hsu’s previous piece, he urged potential Bitmob contributors not to “blow off [their] introductions and conclusions”. I’d be more inclined to side with Quinns, when he suggested writers do just that, as the openings and endings of articles tend to be the bits in which you’re showing off how well you can write rather than just doing the job. He also asked contributors not to use Roman numerals in game titles – even if the official title is, for example, Final Fantasy XIII. And, to illustrate his already questionable suggestion that writers avoid the passive voice, provided an example that – um – wasn’t a passive, but an unaccusative.
As a PS to his latest article, Hsu does acknowledge that these are his tips for writing on his site, and are not necessarily applicable elsewhere. And that’s fine – every editor has his or her vision for the publication, and needs to ensure that is maintained throughout contributors’ writing. But they’re still some odd language choices to make, made more alarming by his prescriptive use of words such as “correct” and “incorrect” throughout, when actually he’s not talking about anything of the sort. And – unless it’s just an American/British dichotomy – getting some of the nitty-gritty syntactic stuff (and the associated terminology) pretty far off the mark in terms of what’s considered grammatical or otherwise.
In some ways, I’m cringing at myself for writing this post. I’m criticising an established writer for criticising other writers – which is worse? And ultimately, he’s not really criticising as such, but advising people on how they’re most likely to get stuff published on the site. And that’s great, and supportive. And just generally, picking apart other people’s work is petty and nasty.
But if you’re going to set these rules, it seems to make sense to set them in a way that seems reasonable, that is consistent, and that “gets it right”. So, sorry to Crispin Boyer, whose BioShock prose that was. Because if he’d submitted that to me, that would have been rephrased in a second.
What are everyone else’s thoughts on this stuff, then?