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Freelancing Is Not For Free

Essential Tools for the Craft

by Lloyd Brown
Nov 10,2005


Essential Tools for the Craft

Lately I've been fielding some questions from freelancers with specific concerns about their proposal or work in progress. Not all of this advice has not been advanced discussion designed to spruce up a close query or fine-tune rules wordings. Some of it has been basic advice on writing and pitching work.

No amount of discussion on contract negotiation, query letters, standard formats, or font style will matter if your writing fails to meet publishable standards. While some small publishers don't know a gerund from an appositive, if you want to sell to a broad range of decent-paying clients, you need to master the basics. Let's discuss what RPG publishers expect from their freelancers.

One question new writers ask is "What are the odds of being able to sell my work?" Writing isn't a lottery; not all entries are equal. If you follow these guidelines, your odds are good. If you don't, then don't bet the farm.

Reference Materials

You should have one or both of the two main style guides: Strunk & White's Manual of Style (Longman, 4th Edition 2000) and Chicago Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, 15th Edition 2003). As you would expect, some publishers prefer one, some the other, and some publishers choose elements of each in their own style guide. Owning them is not enough. You must read them and use them.

If you write D20 material, you should have a copy of the D20 license. My personal preference runs to the hyperlinked D20 resource found at http://www.d20srd.org/.

The Writer's Market is a helpful reference. You can purchase a physical copy or subscribe to the online version at www.writersmarket.com. While the WM doesn't list all of the RPG publishers, it does have useful articles concerning query writing and other freelancer topics. The online version has a helpful submission tracker that you can use to keep track of what you have sent to whom. If you freelance outside of the industry, this resource becomes many times more useful.

You need your publisher's submission guidelines, including a style guide. Your publisher might offer these on the company's website, or they might send them to you personally after you have an agreement for work. Store the guidelines in a safe place and refer to them before making your submission.

Having a backup of what you write might seem unimportant until you have a hardware or software problem that destroys a 150,000-word manuscript. Whether you simply copy your work to a CD or you store it on an online server, you should have a copy of your work available on short notice and even if your entire home is destroyed. Devise and implement some plan that allows you to recover your work if it becomes lost.


Publishers expect you to recognize and avoid common foibles in your own writing. Namely:

  • misspelled words or misused words. Make sure you spell everything correctly and be especially conscious of homonym errors. "They're" is a contraction for they are; their is a possessive pronoun, and there is an adverb. Some spellcheckers won't catch the difference.
  • punctuation errors. The comma and the apostrophe are the worst offenders. Learn how to use them correctly.
  • parallelism errors. A writer who doesn't keep their subject and verb parallel makes their publisher twitch. Hint: writer is singular, while their is plural.
  • future tense. While many RPG writers break this rule routinely, you should not take frequency of error as support for a misuse of language. "If the characters enter the room, they fall into the trap," not "If the characters enter the room, they will fall into the trap."

Writing Skill

Going a bit beyond the basics, the skill of writing is largely the skill of writing strong sentences and tying them together well into a larger work.

  • passive writing. This sentence is written in a passive voice. The author wrote this sentence in an active voice. The clue lies in phrasing like "is verbed" or "was verbed."
  • conciseness. Say what you're going to say and just say it. Don't use repetition to say the same thing over and over and over. Saying it once should be enough; twice is redundant.
  • pronoun references. In rules-writing, repeated use of the word you intend to reference can seem boring, but clarity requires it. Avoid missing antecedents, vague antecedents and multiple antecedents.
  • transition. Articles and chapters have a clear beginning and an authoritative end. Summarize what you intend to write in an introduction to a section, and then write it until you're done with it.
  • inconsistent POV. If you switch from second person to third person, you should have a strong reason for it. For example, you might use second person when speaking to a player and third person when discussing a character. Only switch your POV intentionally and consistently.
  • purple prose. Pointless, rambling description might seem like a good way to show off your ability to write. In reality, excess description distracts the reader by drawing attention to it instead of the subject. In other words, it shows that you don't know enough to avoid purple prose.
  • "Stay on target! Stay on target!" Each sentence within a paragraph directly supports the paragraph. Each paragraph directly supports its chapter or article. Chapters within a book follow a logical sequence that supports the book's topic. If you write a great piece that doesn't merit its own section (or a sidebar), remove it.

Pitching Errors

Your query requires more than your word count and a deadline. It must interest the publisher. It must appeal to the publisher's sense of fun and sense of finance.

One easy way to make a mistake is to use the word "original" indiscriminately. You might think your work is entirely new, but it probably isn't. With well over 500 publishers producing RPG works within the past 30 years, "original" material is rare.

In the same vein, avoid subjective superlatives. "The best" or "the most exciting" might be true for you, but let your publisher decide for himself if the same is true for him. Concentrate on landing a full manuscript on his desk.

Following these rules is like counting cards in a casino: perfectly legal, and if you do it consistently and accurately, you really improve your game. Unlike a casino, nobody kicks you out if they catch you. In fact, they might even throw a few chips in the pot for you.

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