[Writing Tips] Focus Your Intent

Welcome to a Wombat's Writing Tips article. Check out the main page for more.

If you start a writing project without setting some boundaries, how do you know when you're done?

In other words, what belongs in a core rulebook and what should wait for a supplement?

Today's Problem: The Idea Cascade
I've seen this issue plenty of times, and I still struggle with it in my own writing. I start writing an article before I have a clear idea of what the heck it's about. More often than not one idea leads to another, and before I know it I have 3 or 4 ideas jammed into a piece in ways that make the editor in me cringe. Every idea can stand on its own, but I still decide to ram them together into one article.

An editing primer.
Recommended by
John Adamus.
With too many ideas in a single piece, two things happen. First, the word count gets blown out of the water. Articles slated for 3,000 words end up at 4,500 or more which makes publishers cranky. Second, when I trim words each idea gets so watered down or explained so briefly that none of them shine the way they could if they each became the central focus of their own article. In especially bad cases, none of the ideas even make sense any more, and I itch to toss the whole article and start over.

Your writing process may vary, but I tend to get lost down a maze of twisty passages all alike if I don't start with some sort of focus.

Solution: Focus on your Subject
Think about the intent behind what you're writing. The more thought you put into it before you start, the less rewriting and untangling of ideas you'll need to do later. I'm not advocating a written project plan for every article idea, but spending a few minutes to clarify your article's intent in your head will save you headaches down the road. Something as simple as "An overview of the Dwarven pantheon" will work. Just treat it like a Fate Aspect - it needs to have a negative edge so you don't keep adding topics that don't quite fit.

Here are a few things I keep telling myself to do. Maybe one of these days I'll actually listen.

1. What Project Parameters Do You Know?
Ideas don't come completely out of nowhere. Either you find an empty spot in the RPG Rulesverse that begs you to fill it, or you want to improve something that already exists, or you pitch a supplement to a publisher and get an assignment. In each of those cases, you can sense the rough shape of the project.

Check the current submission
guidelines for Dragon
If you're working for a publisher, usually you have a leg up. Either you've spent the time developing a pitch for something you want to write, or the publisher has sent you a list of requirements. Usually you'll get a word count to shoot for: 1,000 (1K) words for quick articles, 5-20K words for adventures and supplements, up to 100K+ words for a large supplement or campaign guide. Usually you know the subject and a working title. I've overused "usually" above because publishers work in many different ways, so you may only get vague handwaving to start from.

If you have no direction from your publisher or if you're doing something on your own, spend a few minutes to come up with some goals and parameters. Is this for your home campaign or do you want to try to sell what you write? We'll get into this more in the next article entitled Know Your Audience. How long (word-wise and time-wise) do you think it will take to develop this idea? Would it make sense to write it as a one-page PDF, a new setting, a new system, or an ongoing series of blog posts?

Contrary to popular belief size is important, especially for anything someone else will publish.

2. Limit Your Subject.
Even if you already have a working title, always ask yourself, "What is this project about?" Your answer becomes your subject statement, and you can keep track of it on a scrap of paper or in your head. I recommend paper, because it's much more obvious and deliberate when I change my subject statement on paper than if I just keep it in my head and change it with a thought.

Don't overload your poor article.
Image spotted at Papers & Pencils.
When you think about what your project is about, always consider what it's NOT about as well. Consider it like a Fate Aspect or a Marvel Distinction: your article's subject should have a problematic side to tell you what the article won't cover as well as what it will. Even if you don't refer to it while writing, you'll need that negative boundary for the next tip. For example, if you write an article about the ecology of Shangri-La, steer clear of Shangri-La's political scene; put that idea in its own article or your readers will get confused.

Now you know where to draw the line between what your article should cover and what it shouldn't. You can refer to your subject statement while you write to make sure you stick to the plan, but please ignore it if it keeps you from writing. If you slow down and debate every sentence you write because you worry about fitting your subject, set your subject statement aside and just write for a while. I would rather have words flowing into a first draft document than let my internal editor yell at me all afternoon and end up with nothing written.

If you can juggle the subject statement and writing, great. If not, just get the draft done. Don't worry, we'll cut out what doesn't make sense after you finish your first stab at the article.

3. Enforce Your Subject Limits. Be Ruthless.
After you complete your first draft (emphasis on AFTER), read back through your article and cut anything that doesn't directly feed your chosen subject. Yes, you've moved from writing to self-editing, but I advise you to get used to rewriting and taking criticism. Even Shakespeare rewrote his plays because very rarely does anything leap out of anyone's brain fully-formed.

Make no mistake: This Is Hard. Taking your ideas and cutting them because they don't fit your article hurts, sometimes physically. Self-editing can feel very much like self-flagellation: you reject yourself to drive out the demons of mediocrity. To soften the blow, save everything you cut and tell yourself that you'll develop another article around that idea later. Don't debate the value of everything you cut now or that's all you'll do; just save your cuts for later and move on. Changing my internal self-editing dialogue from "NO!" to "We'll come back to this idea later" helps to keep me calm. We can debate "sane" later.
Beware of pun fallout.
Original by Phil Foglio.

If you find yourself falling short of your word count, congratulations! Over 90% of RPG writers suffer from run-on ideas, but not you! Also: Don't panic. Read your draft and figure out where you can add more details, or better yet add examples of whatever you're writing about in action. If you write about Gnomish Pun Dueling Jesters, make sure to include a sample exchange with the worst puns you've ever heard, for example.

Your readers will thank you for clear examples, if not for Gnomish Pun Dueling Jesters.

I'll break the rules I talk about at least once in every article. To that end this tip fits more with self-editing rather than the overall topic, but I'm including it anyway.

4. Read Your Words Out Loud.
Speaking of Shakespeare, feel free to use the old playwright's trick: read what you wrote out loud. If nobody would ever say the words you wrote, change your words. If you repeatedly stumble when reading a specific spot, your brain can't comprehend how those particular words fit together, which means your readers will probably need to reread that passage a couple of times to understand it. Go back to the spots you stumbled and see if you can rework the text flow so your ideas come across more smoothly.

In Sum
Today's tips cover more planning and editing than actual writing, but that doesn't make them any less important.

1. Start with what you know about the writing project.
2. Write a Subject Statement to clearly define what it will cover and what it won't.
3. Self-edit your draft to remove everything that doesn't fit your Subject Statement.
4. Read your writing out loud to check for clumsy bits.

Now go out there and think about what you write before you drown in your writing assignment.

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