5 Tips: Breaking Into Freelance Games Journalism

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I’ve been working steady as a games journalist for better than two years now, and occasionally I’m asked about how to get into the industry. There are no hard and fast rules, unfortunately — nor is breaking into the industry at all easy for anyone. I wound up here by a confluence of lucky circumstances and persistence.

However, it’s definitely possible to get work as a freelancer, in any segment of journalism. But freelance work is as much about playing salesperson as it is writing, and you have to be able to handle both in most circumstances. The bad news is that being your own salesman as well as writer kind of sucks. The good news is, you can distinguish yourself if you’re a little bit savvy and willing to work for it.

(Full disclosure: These is a post of tips I’ve cobbled together from working as a freelancer and as an editor, but that doesn’t mean I’ve done all this stuff. My path through my various work experiences has been a strange and jumping one. Sometimes I’ve pitched things around; most of the time, I’ve wound up with writing jobs by starting with editing jobs. So keep that in mind.)

5. Be prepared, do research

If you intend to write about games, you need to be an expert. That doesn’t mean knowing everything about every game — far from. There are plenty of games that plenty of journalists aren’t experts in on any day of the week, and you’ll be a better journalist if you’re really strong in a specific category of game than trying to know everything about everything. That’s next to impossible.

But you do need to be familiar with lots of things, and what’s more, you’ll want to be capable of making yourself an expert. That doesn’t mean having a ton of games knowledge pouring out of you, that means being willing to put in the work to learn things. Do research. Talk to people who know more than you. Learn as much as you can when you approach an important writing topic. The reason you’re the person writing about something, and bringing it to readers, is to act as a filter. That means knowing enough to speak in an informed way on the topic at hand. In the age of the Internet, that’s not really all that difficult.

It also means that just being a “gamer” is not credentials enough. There are plenty of amateurs and hobbyists in games journalism — too many, really. You want to be a professional. There’s no shortage of Call of Duty players who would love to “play games and get paid for it.” (This is only the most surface-level understanding of what we do — it’s a job, it’s not playtime.) You need to distinguish yourself from them. The best way to do that isn’t through some gift of intrinsic talent (thought that helps) — it’s through working your ass off.

4. Work your ass off

This is not to say you should work for free. I’ve thought and talked a lot about the situation of freelancers giving away their time and talent. A lot of sites are willing to take advantage of you if you’ll provide them with content for free. They promise things like “exposure” and “experience.”

Here’s the thing about that — you don’t get exposure. You have to be phenomenally successful for people to start recognizing your work, and the fact is, the majority of writing you do in games journalism isn’t that kind of stuff. Unless you’re a breakout star or kicking an incredible amount of ass, people aren’t going to recognize your name from a byline they read. There’s way too much noise out there for that. It’s exponentially harder to be awesome when you have to work some other job to support yourself.

However, in journalism, work ethic is almost always more important than talent. Talent is nice; hard work is nicer. Hard-working people get shit done, man. I formerly worked as an editor at a number of newspapers, in college, as an intern and professionally. A hungry reporter who was willing to put in the time and effort to do research, run down quotes, talk to the right people and do it all in a timely manner was far more valuable than a fancy writer. Any decent editor can whip a story into good shape — reporting is the hard part, and the part worth doing.

It’s very possible to distinguish yourself by being reliable and working hard. Even if you’re not working regularly, or snagging only occasional assignments from different outlets, pounding out the work means people will remember you. And that means more assignments. You don’t have to be a genius writer if you’re willing to work.

3. Read good stuff (even if it’s not about games)

There’s a lot of good writing out there, both in video games and outside of it. Read as much of it as you can. Inside games writing, there are a wide range of perspectives from a wide range of different writers. Seek out people with different viewpoints from you, and read their stuff. Look for angles, pay attention to what communities are saying, and find things worth writing about.

There’s a lot more to the gaming subculture than just talking to developers and finding out what features they’re putting into the next Call of Duty game, even though that is important. There are plenty of stories out there and plenty of people willing to tell them to you, who aren’t blockaded by PR folks. Find those stories.

And read outside of games journalism, too. What kind of journalism you practice doesn’t really matter so much, because there’s good stuff everywhere. Reading powerful features on music sites or in newspapers can show you solid work that you can apply to your craft. You can find new approaches to old stories. Reading widely when you can will also lend new ideas for articles and angles to take, and that’s invaluable. Because generating ideas on your own is key to freelancing. You’ll want to collect them, no matter where they come from.

2. Know journalism, even if you’re not a journalist

Surprisingly, there aren’t really all that many journalists in games journalism. Many consider themselves “bloggers,” and that can have different meanings. For the best of these “bloggers,” it’s merely a refusal to try to elevate some of the lamer work done in this business on a day-to-day basis to the “importance” of real journalism — and that’s certainly a valid viewpoint. Catching stories on other sites or jotting down the relevant facts from a press release is not real journalism.

For the worst bloggers, however, calling themselves as such is a handy cop-out for doing substandard work. These bloggers don’t report, they regurgitate. They have opinions and they judge things, without putting in the work to make those opinions and judgments substantial. Don’t be that kind of blogger, even if you are a blogger, because there’s really no shortage of knowledgeable gamers who can string together two fine-sounding sentences and might even have a contact or two in games PR. Literally anybody can do that job, and many do. What’s more, they usually do it for free. This is not you.

You want to be a part of a much more elite class of writer, respected for what you do. This means doing journalism, whenever you can. Don’t just write down a column making a judgment about what’s going on in gaming — talk to people, get real information, read widely on the subject. Learn to do solid interviews. Bring more to the table than your competitors.

It’s possible to be a solid journalist without ever going to journalism school; it’s a profession in which hands-on experience is incredibly powerful. Take advantage of internships if you can get them. Make contacts wherever you can.

1. Don’t wait for a job to come to you

I was never given a job in games journalism. In fact, I’ve never wound up in a job as a writer from an interview ever, and I’ve been doing this in some form or another for years. Always I’ve come through other avenues — page design and copy editing in newspapers, walkthrough writing in video games.

The point is, breaking in is hard. This is an industry flooded with applicants. Cutting through is by no means easy. So don’t wait for someone to say, “Hello! Loved your sample, here’s an assignment!” You’ll never get anywhere. In fact, I’d even advocate abandoning article pitches, those suggestions you send to editors to see if they’re interested, when you’re first starting out. Instead, find yourself a good idea — then write it. You don’t need to have a publication standing at the ready to publish most features in games, and if you’re going to pitch an article, you’re better off just writing it in most cases.

When you send an editor a complete article, it’s no longer a situation in which you’re asking someone to trust you to do the work or to believe that your idea might be a good one. It’s done: work is finished, idea is realized. It can be a lot easier to sell a completed article than to farm around a pitch. What’s more, if you send a completed article to an editor and she or he doesn’t want it, oh well — on to the next person. The point is, you’re doing the job, you’re creating the articles, you’re making the contacts. As a freelancer, you’re probably not going to be tethered to a single publication, so it’s important that you find ways to be independent. The person you work for, ultimately, is you — for better or worse. You can write good stories on your own accord and find someone willing to pay for them later, and it’s only beneficial for you to do so.

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As I mentioned above, the stuff mentioned here, I think, are a few best practice-type tips that can help new people. However, I can’t claim that I came from a straight freelance background; I’ve seen the game from the outside, and my path inside was an indirect one. In my experience, though it boils down to really caring about what you’re doing. Freelance (games) journalism requires that extra spark of willingness to put yourself through a hellish nightmare of both journalism and sales, and so requires an additional spark of masochism in order to be successful.

Got freelance tips? Disagree with my assessments? Leave them and let me know in the comments. Other future writers will be grateful.

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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