P.S. If you’re wondering how I know this works, I lived it. Still living it, in fact. And I look forward to letting you know what steps 11 through 20 are, someday.
Photo credit: David Joyce
If you’re a geek writing about geeky things, I’m already inclined to love your writing. I don’t think anyone makes a better guide into a community than somebody who is already a member of it.
For instance, I’d rather read a guide to fanfiction written by a fanfiction reader or writer than an article by somebody who has just Googled the definition of “fanfiction” for the first time. That sounds like an exaggeration, but oh, it exists, it’s on a sports site of all things, and it’s not pretty.
Being a geek writer will help you avoid the major pitfalls that come with writing about fandom. You won’t belittle your subject or your readers. You’ll be less likely to flub major parts of the community’s lexicon or mythos. And you’ll actually know what you’re talking about!
It’s that last advantage, however, that can be as much of a curse as a blessing.
Which brings me to my premise: the number one mistake that geek writers make is assuming that everyone knows as much about their fandom as they do.
We geeks have some pretty obscure knowledge, and that can lead to some unfortunately obtuse reporting if we don’t rein it in. It’s the written equivalent of when I’m sharing my love of Gundam modeling with somebody at a party and their eyes glaze over. “So I’m building a model of the RX-78-2 that’s 144th scale when my Tamiya cutters… oh you have to leave? Already?”
My Forbes editor, Helen Popkin, she of the ConAir method of reporting for clicks, has a theory for niche journalism, too. Not surprisingly, it has a name that’s just as pop-culture relevant as the first one. It’s the Dursley Method of Writing For Muggles.
Most Harry Potter books, Helen’s method goes, reintroduce Harry and his story for readers who may have forgotten the story so far—or even readers who are just now joining the tale. It does this by putting Harry back with the Dursleys and recanting his history to this point.
However, J.K. Rowling manages to do this without boring more knowledgeable readers to tears. Even if you just read the previous Harry Potter book yesterday, you’ll still want to read every word of the introduction. At the same time that it is filling in the backstory, it’s also sharing new information in the form of Harry’s current misadventures with the Dursleys. By putting Harry’s history as a backdrop to his story right this moment, everyone stays interested and informed.
In a niche article, this can take the form of an anecdotal introduction. You can begin instantly drawing in both geek and outsider readers alike by beginning immediately with somebody’s story. People love to read about people, so you’ll keep everyone interested by peppering in the relevant factual information in between the lines of an anecdote about somebody you’ve interviewed.
You’ll notice that this is the technique I use over and again in my Forbes stories about fandom. Forbes has the most mainstream audience of anywhere I’ve written since CNN, so it’s reasonable to believe complete newcomers are stumbling on my articles here. Even for niche sites, however, it’s better to assume that not every reader is as well versed as you are in the nuances of a particular fandom.
For example, your reader may love the Mass Effect video games but be totally ignorant of Dragon Age. Since the games share many similar elements, your article could be the difference between somebody drawing a connection and discovering her new favorite game, or remaining totally confused by your jargon. In an article about Dragon Age, I might begin with a narrative about a gamer I’ve interviewed who professes it to be her favorite game, and fill in the blanks as I go.
If your niche interests are as interesting as you think (and I think they are), then it’s worth going the extra step to keep your geeky stories inclusive. Start your article with the story of a person, instead of a concept or a thing, in order to get everybody on the same page.
Last week I skyped with Zac Bertschy, one of my editors at Anime News Network. As the executive editor of ANN, he pays quite a few people to write about anime.
When our business was finished, I asked Zac if he had any advice for Otaku Journalist readers looking to get a job writing about anime. He listed a few things I expected to hear about writing competency and knowledge. And then, he said something that I sometimes neglect to mention:
“You need to be easy to work with.”
It’s not just how good of a writer you are or how well you know your subject. Like any other job, writing is one where you need to be somebody your colleague doesn’t dread working with.
No, this doesn’t mean you need to be your editor’s best friend. Or somebody who has a lot in common (though in niche writing, you’ll find that you and your editors often like that same niche.) Let’s break down what editors mean when they say they want a writer who is easy to work with:
Editors want to work with a writer who listens to them. When your editor asks you to avoid passive voice or adopt a more conversational tone, they don’t want to have to see the same issues in your next assignment—that indicates you’re not listening. A good writer takes an editor’s suggestions seriously and offers their reasoning politely if they disagree.
A good writer knows that “this story needs work” doesn’t mean “your skill as a writer needs work.” Even the best writer can learn from an editor, and after years of professional writing, every piece I write still needs an editor’s touch. Getting your feelings hurt every time an editor makes a suggestion means you’re missing the point of what critique is for.
A good writer is willing to adjust their writing style to the tone of the site they are working for. They are adaptable, and can tackle different types of stories. It’s less about your skill and more about having a can-do attitude toward the editor’s suggested assignments. Editors want to work with a writer who is enthusiastic, responsive, and communicative about assigned topics.
A good writer is somebody the editor can rely on. They finish earlier assignments before pitching new ideas. They consistently deliver their assignments at the deadline the editor has instructed. If something comes up and they can’t, they communicate early and openly about why an assignment will be late instead of giving the editor an unpleasant surprise.
Notice that none of this relies on your personality. Whether you’re shy or outgoing or anything else, anybody can learn to be a good listener and communicator.
Zac said that when he’s choosing people to hire, he considers “easiness to work with” on the same level as he would consider “writing ability” or “knowledge about anime.” It’s that important.
In small niche subjects like anime, video games, or comics, there are only so many editors in the field. Give yourself a leg up by being somebody they’re thrilled to work with.