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Good Writing

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?


11 responses »

  1. Its also jumping in at the deep end a bit; people have got to get a hand on structure, flow and message before flexing their vocab.

    No amount of frilly words and Microsoft Word synonyms can mask poorly thought out articles and awkwardly flowing pieces.

    But yeah, Shoe is an absolute veteran, but these pieces always shock me, sometimes they sound like out-and-out parody.

  2. Nice entry.

    Whilst I have an immense amount of respect for Dan’s work, I too must disagree with some of what he said in that article on Bitmob.

    It is nice to see someone standing up for using proper grammar though, even if the American’s can’t use the English language properly.

    It is true what they say the US and UK ate two nations separated by a common language.

    • Y’see, one of the reasons I cringe when I write stuff like this is because I *don’t* want to look as if I’m a horrible grammar-whore.

      I don’t in any way think there is a “proper” way of speaking or writing, and in no way do I agree that Americans can’t use “our” language properly. It’s all just variationist theory. Languages evolve and separate into different branches, different dialects. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s totally natural.

      But… well, scroll back and read what I read about the “which/what” thing. It’s about ensuring what you’re communicating isn’t ambiguous.

  3. I find it far too easy to obsess over style guides- and only wish I spent as much time on the content of my writing as I waste agonising over how to use semi-colons and whether a paragraph of more than three sentences should be split into two. Yet there’s something wierdly compulsive (and just occasionally reassuring) in reading someone else tell you how it should be done.

    Ultimately though the “what” a writer says is more important than the “how”. As long as the grammar isn’t distractingly wrong and the words have a decent rhythm to them, a reader will perservere if the words say something original or interesting.

    And as someone even less qualified to critique “proper” games journalists than you, I’m in total agreement that the quote from EGM is over-written flowery crap.

  4. I like Hsu’s writing, most of the time – I engaged with bitmob when it was small and managed to gain a teeny following, before opting out once it became ridiculously weighed down with submissions – essentially, N4G with less links and provocative imagery.

    As for this:

    “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.”

    That… that is some of the most pretentious fucking bullshit I have ever seen in the opening to a review. I love Bioshock, mate – you should know, I did a good 2500 words about the “feel” of places like Rapture for my first Reso piece – but that opener sounds not too far off from “it was a dark and stormy night.” Life aquatic? Sonorous blue whales? What fucking blue whales? What the fuck would a whale be doing at the bottom of the fucking Atlantic (I’m aware some whales dive to ten thousand feet, but they’re not blue fucking whales)? And if it’s not the error of the journalist, then why hasn’t he done his fucking research?!

    Jesus. What a poncey opener. If I wanted to read shit like that I’d buy a science fiction novel. Either give up games journalism and take up authorship, or stop mixing the two, whoever you are, bad reviewer.


    Been a long time since I got that irritated. Might also be to do with the fact that Crispy Gamer has just been stuffed in the same cowardly bastard way as 1UP. Another talented roster hit the dirt while talentless morons at larger sites continue to rein in the hits.

    • Man, Christos! Man! Down, boy.

      I don’t know if that was the lead of the article. It was a preview, rather than a review, not that it makes much different. And I’d tend to shout very loudly at the word “pretentious”, as – to steal a line from Emily Short – it says nothing of the work and everything of your assumptions of the author.

      And to be fair, there was a whale in the introduction to BioShock. I remember some incredible pedants getting uptight about that when the game was released.

      But yes, it is spectacularly shit about Crispy. Even worse for the staff, of course, but on a selfish note, it means I need a new daily games read on the web.

    • Indeed, RIP Crispy Gamer. It apparently came as a surprise to Jon Radoff too. He heard about it when Pat Garratt asked him for a comment.

      • True story: this is the first time I realised who Jon Radoff was. We’d been following each other on Twitter for ages, and I couldn’t remember why, as he just seemed to be a corporate type talking about business models. Feel a bit bad for unfollowing him now…

  5. See, I love when you talk about this stuff, because I don’t know anything about linguistics. I think this Dan Hsu guy is some sort of good writer, who’s then assumed the mantle of Editor and decided that he’s a good editor and gets to make up the rules.
    Sometimes the passive voice works, right? I mean, sometimes it’s quickest and easiest and gets the job done to say ‘is’, especially in print where the word count is law. He’s just read that bit on wikipedia about e-prime, or used too much MSWord 98, and got it into his head that passive = bad.
    What do you reckon, is he just addicted to making up rules? Because it seems like the best games writing just sounds like the normal conversation of a smart, authorative person telling you what they know and what they think about it.

    • Basically, yes. The minute the written word stops sounding like the spoken word, it’s failing, for me. What other purpose does it serve? So yeah, if you wouldn’t describe something as “the abyssal gloom” or “life aquatic” in a conversation with someone, I’d say avoid it in print.

      Again, it’s worth mentioning that these are *his* rules for contributing to *his* site, and he’s not claimed them to be universal.

      On the passive thing, my counter is always: release dates. How do you do those and not make them sound weird, unless you use the passive voice?

      I mean, which of these sounds better?

      “BioShock 2 will be released on 9 February.”
      “Electronic Arts and 2K Games will release BioShock 2 on 9 February.”
      “BioShock 2 releases on 9 February.” (Releases? Releases what? Toxins?)
      “BioShock 2 comes out on 9 February.” (Well, that will be a relief for it.)

      (Of course, passive has many uses beyond that. What happens if you want to remove agency from something? This happens all the time in journalism. It’s an effective way to push an opinion about something without explicitly stating it. “The window was broken” says something very different to “I broke the window”, right?)

      • I’m going to disagree with you, Mr Denby.

        “The minute the written word stops sounding like the spoken word, it’s failing, for me. What other purpose does it serve? So yeah, if you wouldn’t describe something as “the abyssal gloom” or “life aquatic” in a conversation with someone, I’d say avoid it in print.”

        I agree that it helps to adopt a certain familiarity with the reader and communicate ideas succinctly. However, text is not the same as the vernacular, and I don’t feel like it should be treated so. There are things you can do in either format that you wouldn’t do in the other. You wouldn’t expect a video review to be the same as a written one, would you?

        That said, I thought much the same as you when reading Hsu’s article, and I also agree that the Bioshock quote is fugly.

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