Every writer’s journey is different and if I’ve learned nothing else, take this as read: there’s no one guaranteed way to succeed in this business.
What I offer here is an insight into how I got my break, but that doesn’t mean other routes don’t work… or even that this one will definitely work for you. Life’s fickle like that, I’m afraid. I know. It sucks.
Luckily for you, I’ve developed six easy steps to get you on the path to games journalism success:
- Read a lot.
- Write a lot.
- Read more.
- Write more.
I know. It looks so simple – insultingly simple, really. But seriously; you can’t expect to be a writer if you don’t a) write or b) read, and waaaay too many people think they can be a writer without being a voracious reader first.
And I don’t just mean you reading your usual haunts, either. Developing a valuable critical voice is as much about knowing how to write about what you don’t like as much as what you do. This means you not only have to read things that interest you but also read the things that don’t. Keep mental notes of what does, and doesn’t, appeal to you as a reader. It’s okay to have personal opinions about reviews you write – reviews are not objective, and you’re being paid for your unique perspective, after all – but not when it comes to reporting news or writing guides. For those, you need to keep your pesky opinions out of it.
The hardest thing? I think it’s finding your own voice without emulating others. Personally, I tend to write how I talk; most people who know me IRL can – for better or worse – probably hear my voice saying these words. That slips over into my critique work, too. Games are emotional things, so that’s what I focus on; not just how it looks and plays, but how it makes me feel, too.
But how did YOU get started, Vik?
I have no formal training. No journalism degree. I have never held a staff job. I am entirely self-taught, and built my contacts entirely myself with zero industry knowledge. And yet I’m a freelance reporter and critic with 12+ years experience for places like the BBC, IGN, Eurogamer, NME, MTV, GamesRadar+, Red Bull, PC Gamer, Destructoid, Ginx TV, Apple, Official PlayStation and Xbox magazines, and Stuff magazine.
To be honest, I hate listing my bylines like that. I try not to look at that list much. It completely overwhelms me because honestly? I’m not entirely sure how I pulled it off.
But if I can do it, you definitely can.
Starting out, I found it valuable to polish up my skills at an “enthusiast” (i.e. not-for-profit) site first. After doing that for a year or so, I set up my own games blog, employing a small but fabulous team of like-minded writers which gave me the experience of managing a team and liaising with PR and publishers, and it’s from there that – for want of a better term – my writing was noticed.
This is not a prerequisite, by the way. I know several writers who’ve never written a free word in their lives, and I’m in awe of them. I suppose for me, that enthusiast site was a place to experiment and improve, but there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t just set up a blog someplace and do that; I just used an enthusiast site as they had established links with PR agencies.
I don’t have a traditional career and (struggle to) balance what is essentially two full-time jobs, but if you can, use the skills and links of enthusiast sites to learn from others, maybe score some free games, and showcase your work. Be polite and respectful, never demand anything, but believe in yourself even if it feels like no one else does.
I found it useful to always follow up job applications, even if I wasn’t successful, to find out how I could strengthen my application for the next time. I made sure my cover letters were professional but personable; your words are you, so you need to make them shine. I know I’ve scored at least two writing gigs by politely chasing applications and gently seeking feedback.
Tips ‘n’ Tricks
Play to your strengths. Are you good at interviews? Is there a genre you’re particularly knowledgeable about? What makes you stand out? Why should an editor give you an assignment instead of someone else?
Be fair. Be professional. Adhere to your deadlines. Stick to your word count. Yes, I’m afraid squeaky clean grammar and spelling are important. LISTEN TO YOUR EDITOR. Take critique on the chin and know that there are some amazing editors out there, but also some really shitty ones, too. There’s something you can learn from them all, though.
Read your work aloud (I use text-to-speech software to hear my words) – does it still flow? Does it make sense? Learn to use sentence structure and a love of language to paint a story with words. Avoid cliches, but respect them; they’re cliches for a reason. And if you’re writing a review, back up every single thing you say – be it positive or negative – with tangible evidence. Just because it’s your personal view doesn’t mean you don’t have to evidence it.
If you can, study journalism formally. I didn’t – I’ve never taken a writing class in my entire life – so that bit’s not a prerequisite either, but I suspect it might be easier if you do.
Pre The ‘Rona, a gaming career was easier if you lived in London or Bath because it gave you access to events and PR offices, but I lived in neither and managed okay. It did mean I spent too much of my time standing on trains with sore feet, though (and had to manage the associated costs, too). I’m not sure what the future holds – before lockdown, the game industry’s carbon footprint was grossly excessive – so it’s possible these kinds of things won’t be as important in the months and years to come. We’ll see, eh?
You’ll have to network. Again, I don’t do it a lot now, but I did when I was starting out and it definitely helped. No one likes doing it, not really, but if it’s not something you’re naturally good at, just do what I did and fake it until you make it. I got a lot of work from just being ballsy and chatting to people at events and DMing others on Twitter (yeah, really.)
The good news, though, is the games industry is full of the most wonderful people – people passionate and enthusiastic and supportive and kind. We love what we do. Consequently, it’s not hard to find people you look up to in this field. Honest. It’s just up to you to make a connection and reach out.
Don’t die of exposure
Finally: don’t give your work away to outlets that should be paying for it under the guise of “exposure”. If it’s a profit-making publication/brand and they want your words for free, walk away; you’re undervaluing yourself, and the rest of us, if you think it’s worth it to get a foot in the door. DON’T MAKE ME STAMP ON YOUR FOOT, FRIEND. Things are tough enough out here with some muppet giving their work away.