Five Lessons from Writing Magic

It’s no secret that the world of Magic writing isn’t a glamorous land of premium amenities and all your wildest wishes coming true. Every writer has a different story, different experiences and lessons. Some of the experiences that are a part of my story have yielded powerful lessons that fundamentally changed me.

Today, I’m taking you into my looking-glass as a writer, and sharing my greatest triumphs of wisdom from my darkest moments of wordsmithing.

History of My World: Part 1

I’m nobody. I certainly wasn’t anyone prior to writing for Wizards of the Coast, and I’m still no one by my definition. Although our community is just a fraction of the slice of the larger pie of networks, cultures, and societies, every Tweet that lists me as a “pillar” or “leader” makes me reflect on what I’ve done so far.

I find what I’ve done disappointing.

I’m self-deprecating because I internalized a lack of self-confidence. I could blame environmental factors, or having learned poor social skills. The stories I could share would persuade some of you to a more sympathetic view.

The fact is, I recognize my issues. I’m aware of what I am. The environment has long since become something of my own creation, and my social skills aren’t critically debilitating—I’m happily married and we own our house, after all.

I’m the only one responsible for who I am today, yet I’m not particularly pleased with who I am.

Writing is an identity I push, and that is why writing Magic articles is still emotional for me. I started writing at a famous online Magic forum. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to audition for writing Serious Fun, contracting for Wizards directly. That prominent spot led Trick to offer me a weekly slot here, with Kelly Reid’s “Quiet Speculation” following that. The sequence is clear, but don’t know how this happened, exactly.

My background is mathematics. My day job is in marketing. I’m an ordinary man with ordinary habits and desires. Where in this mix of mathematical and mundane did a writer emerge?

I still don’t know, but here I am.

My early e-mails to editors were about feedback, support, and concerns—all fluff that implicitly urged “Say you approve of me!” The fact that I’ve been re-signed repeatedly, given a wide berth to explore as I choose, and asked to join more projects has been the approval I sought.

But even now I still really want to receive just those three words: “This is good!” “I like this!” “You are great!”

I’ve learned. Silence is, generally, golden. Evoking a positive emotional response in readers is orders more difficult, and more rewarding, than a negative response. Trying new things is the path to evolving your writing. It takes effort to ignore the bad apples to see the entire orchard of a quiet, pleased majority.

The positives of writing are things you can, perhaps, find best described in “Learn to Write” books and seminars. I haven’t really looked into any of those things beyond Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style; until I can internalize proper grammar, punctuation, and composition structure—all things I still struggle with—I feel my efforts are best directed there.

It isn’t my successes that make me nervous, anxious about each new article. It isn’t hitting deadlines that glues me to the screen through to the early hours in the morning. It’s isn’t the confidence of a seasoned content-provider that makes me refresh my articles’ comments every hour. I certainly don’t feel that I have positive features, despite logic concluding otherwise.

It’s my mistakes, missteps, and misses that haunt me.

History of My World: Part 2

I won’t lie and say that I haven’t gotten better at writing. But I won’t hide behind fading memories that the articles I’d rather forget aren’t forgotten. I didn’t carve a neat path to stand here today: I tore through the dregs, and have the scars to show for it.

This is also where I show you what not to do through my “portfolio” of bad examples. I do have shame. I’m sharing it with you so you might avoid my mistakes.

Lesson 1

Keep the scope small; keep the subject within your expertise.

Prominent examples:

You can read them if you want, but you probably shouldn’t waste your time. If you’re really up for some dogs of articles, skim the body, and the general gist becomes crystal-clear: I had no clue what I was talking about.

If I want variance (the randomness that is built into Magic), I have Commander, Cube, Type 4, and many more casual formats. Competitive Magic is where variance is fought tooth and nail, and I have no idea how to do that within the context of winning “real” games. I don’t play competitively, I don’t practice “tight” Magic, and I don’t think about and discuss it all the time.

I’m fairly certain that my article on Magic strategy theory referencing Anthologies was equivalent to blackballing myself from the entire world of competitive Magic. Why would anyone want to associate in any way with the guy who clearly knows nothing about it, let alone perform any work in the area of it, but is presumptive enough to ignore more than a decade of discussion and learning?

I can’t think of a single reason.

As a writer, there are risks that should be taken, and there are edges that need to be pushed. Sliding a steaming pile of uneducated noninformation in front of an audience is as foolish as it sounds. Don’t do it. It’s my biggest regret, and no amount of delicate dancing around it removes the mark I put on myself.

Lesson 2

Editing isn’t for someone else to worry about.

Prominent example:

Sloppy content turns readers off. I was genuinely excited when I was requisitioned to assist coverage for U.S. Nationals 2010. I have some incredible memories and moments from the time I spent in Minneapolis, and I know I left an impression on those I worked around and with.

The impression was negative: I bombed the entrance exam into the world of traveling for more Magic.

Read my recap of the runner-up match. You’ll notice it’s riddled with obvious errors and uninteresting content. This wasn’t an issue of audience/content misalignment. I did an extremely poor job that isn’t truly representative of what I can do.

Except that it is. That’s what I delivered at crunch time. That’s what I signed off on to go live. That’s my name attached to a small piece of Magic history. That was my responsibility to deliver professionally.

When you fail in the clutch, you don’t always get more chances to play, and you only have yourself at fault.

Boring, painful, tedious, and necessary things that are a part of writing include:

  • Reviewing content, structure, flow, and the general feel of the piece.
  • Editing, reviewing further, and refining ideas to distill them into a more compact, efficient core.
  • Proofreading and dedicating scrutiny to spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

I’m still learning how to effectively “recast target sentence” and internalize these rules, and I still regularly submit work with errors despite my honest attempts otherwise. These principles are incredibly important, and aren’t simple or intuitive.

We play a card game with thousands upon thousands of pieces—and I can’t focus on getting some writing right far more often than not? In that moment in Minneapolis, my answer was “no,” and that was the worst answer I could have given.

I haven’t been asked to be part of a coverage team since.

Lesson 3

Read thrice, write endlessly.

Prominent examples:

There’s too much Magic content out there for any one person to read. I’m only referring to current content produced weekly from dozens of sites. Factor in over a decade of historical work hidden away on the Internet, and the difficulty becomes orders more challenging.

I’m not making a judgment about which content is worth the effort. I have my favorites and places; you should have yours. When there’s a buffet of options, it makes sense to hit what tastes good week after week.

It’s attaining that stickiness that’s the essential issue at the heart of Internet content. You’re competing with everyone who’s willing to compete. If your dish is improperly prepared, poorly seasoned, bland, or even just plain ugly, you’ll find far fewer willing to give it a try.

Good writers don’t magically appear. You should not only be willing to learn the trade, gradually internalizing more and more skills, but also to fight hard to make your work the best it can be. It isn’t a competition—although there are certainly competitions—but a desire for delivering a flawless, highly consumable product that makes those who partook want more.

I don’t have very many recipes, but I certainly feel the pain of failure when I miss the mark. The idea that no writer can deliver 100% week in and week out make me uncomfortable. We expect chefs, surgeons, and others employed in high-skill positions to deliver consistently. Why should expectations be any different for writers?

This is about properly managing your resources to hit it where it counts, when it counts. If you aren’t already planning your next article as you work on your current article, you’re behind. If you aren’t at least rereading your work multiple times, tweaking the text to shift it into an ever more refined form, you’re behind. If you aren’t earnestly devoted to performing at your fullest, you’re behind.

This isn’t easy. I cheat. Every writer I know cheats. We’re human, after all—another clichéd generalization that makes me uncomfortable. The idea that we have permission to “phone it in” is exactly why we end up phoning it in.

Lazy apathy is a disease, and I occasionally, inexplicably resist taking medication:

  • Develop consistent themes and narrative flow. Find the themes that work, then further refine and adapt those themes to suit a particular need.
  • Indulge in all constructive feedback, not just positive. Even the “trolls” may be speaking the truth. Find and face those truths.
  • Be unafraid to pitch what you’ve started when you see it’s doomed. Some ideas simply cannot be executed—or cannot be executed by you. Patiently work at it over time.
  • Accept that you will fail, despite all effort toward success. Trust that readers will be unafraid to share what they found as failures.
  • Writing requires time, a sacrifice you must commit to making weekly. This includes both actual time spent writing as well as the research or field work to write about.

Lesson 4

You are a faceless entity until you earn otherwise.

Prominent example:

It takes a very long time, and a significant amount of dedicated effort, to create a bond with an audience. Mark Rosewater is the perfect example of this. People are passionate, visceral, and engaged with him. He’s cultivated a heck of an audience.

I’m not sure what I’ve been cultivating, but it isn’t on the order of Mr. Rosewater’s crew. I know that I have a long way to go. When I shared my intimate history with Blue, several readers posited that it was a Wizards conspiracy to “justify the perceived state of Blue in Standard” . . . as if allegory-by-article is the correct method of communication for sharing Wizards’ views on Standard, not via specific and critical articles penned by brilliant minds employed internally.

Today, far down the road from that article, I’ve worked to humanize myself online. I’m active on Twitter, make small comments in the forums, integrate quotes and feedback from readers into my work, and jump onto any podcast/self-promotion vehicle I’m allowed. I’ve made headway, but I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be.

Like almost any qualitative feature, there are ways to measure how successful a writer is at building loyal fans:

  • Followers, “friends,” and other social-media metrics. When you have to create your own personal fan page on Facebook because you’ve hit the cap of “friends” for a personal page, you’re doing something right.
  • How often a writer is mentioned or referred to, has his or her work linked, or is offered work opportunities. If other writers, particularly the recognizable leaders of the craft or niche, come to you and your content, you’re doing something right.
  • Hits, advertisement/sponsorship deals, exclusive content-production offers, and other “normal” writing metrics. Most Magic writing is one voice blasting into the darkness. When you are asked to blast on behalf of someone else, you’re doing something right.

I haven’t figured out how to move to the next step. I’m working my way there, and the connections held by Mark Rosewater and Evan Erwin are lofty goals of recognition and community investment to achieve. I’m still just a faceless creep to most of you. It doesn’t mean I’m not trying to be otherwise, and it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t work as hard as you can to humanize yourself, either.

Lesson 5

Shorter is sweeter.

Prominent example:

Overwriting is easy to do. You have lots of ideas. You’re excited. There are a dozen different hooks for this sweet thing. You have a lot to say because you’re intense and passionate about it.

Let them stand as unique hooks for different, unique articles. In general, keep it short and sweet.

No one really trudges through 3,000 (or more) words unless you’re firing on all cylinders and crafting something really epic. Since I assume I’m as interesting as paint drying, I keep a reasonably close hug to a smaller word count. Too much content, with too high of a density, makes readers drop off. Most of them came for something relatively digestible. A heavy, seven-course reading meal may be what’s needed, but that’s also what multiple-part articles serve best.

Readability, on the whole, depends on many more factors than length:

  • Bullet points (like these I’ve been using throughout), shorter paragraphs, subheaders (the one for each idea shared today) all break things down into smaller pieces.
  • Cut extraneous words (and most of the other style tips you find in Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style).
  • Avoid niche Magic idioms and neologisms when possible. (This is actually audience-dependent, but opens your work to a wider audience.)
  • Grammar, spelling, and overall structure. See Lessons 2 and 3 above.
  • Treat your readers how you want to be treated, but better and more often. You can’t please everyone, but you can deliver something that can be read. Without executing the latter, you can never achieve the former.

Deliverance

These lessons all point to one indisputable fact: As far as I’ve come, I still have forever to go. Mistakes do happen, and all of our best efforts seem to crumble at some point. I don’t have the panacea for bad writing, and I don’t think it exists outside of constant cognizance of where you’re weak.

It takes more than “trying” to gain ground. Daily practice is something I’ve been running for months now, and I’ve noticed a change almost immediately. Mental exercise is important, but following the lead of your spotter (editor) and keeping an open, honest dialogue of opinions will lead to an easier lifting session as well.

Which is why I asked Trick to review this first, and his feedback was invaluable. If your instincts are giving you that prickly feeling, find someone who will level with you. A full-blown panel critique may be excessive, but a content editor’s pass over your first draft can do wonders.

I hope today has been interesting and informative to other aspiring and developing writers out there. Caring about the community, giving back to those around you, and sharing tiny pieces of what make Magic so amazing is something you can do through words.

It’s a challenging fight, but one I will argue is always worth fighting.

Bonus Lesson: About Deadlines

Prominent examples:

Don’t punt deadlines. As hinted at in the third takeaway, you need to be planning ahead to avoid falling behind. Mismanage your time, and you end up breaking your editors, creating downstream problems with content flow, and generally becoming more problematic for them than is worth it.

There was this one time when Trick had to separate the voting articles for the Community Cube, and I put him and our wonderful editor Debbie in the unenviable spot of editing at an obscene o’clock in-the-morning while dealing with the technical issues resulting from polling on a hundred cards or so over thirteen separate polls.

I’m still making mistakes, and as long as there are mistakes to be made, I’ll likely make them. Hitting your deadline is the easiest one of all to avoid: always deliver by your deadline. Problem solved. (Disclaimer: I generally do hit my deadlines, and genuinely feel guilty when I fail to meet them. If you don’t care about hitting them, you probably shouldn’t write for deadlines at all.)

The final facts to consider: Great content is good, good is the enemy of great, and great content on time is worth money.

And this article was delivered late.