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Now, the Twist: Credit Where Due—Editors

Now, the Twist: Credit Where Due—Editors

The Chess GameWelcome to Colin McComb’s Now, the Twist. A dangerous journey, forcing him to take a long, hard look at game design.

Join him, won’t you… in his ongoing struggle to pass Go.



A couple of columns ago, I mentioned that editors fill a crucial role in the business. They really are the unsung heroes of the RPG industry because, when they’re on their game, no one notices. When was the last time you looked at an RPG and thought, “Man, this book is so well edited”?

Most likely, you skimmed the list of names in the front (if you looked at all) to see who’d written the book, checked out the art credits, and if you’re a graphics geek (by which I mean no disrespect, of course!), you might have looked at the typographer and layout people, too. But the vast majority of people skip past the editor and assign most of the credit for a well-written project to the designer, about which I’ll speak more later…

On the flip side, when an editor is off, everyone notices. For instance, a former TSR editor achieved infamy when he ran a global search-and-replace to change the word “mage” to “wizard” to accord with the company style guide. Unfortunately, he neglected to search for “mage” as a whole word, and every instance of “mage” in the product changed—including those within other words. So “image” became “iwizard,” and “damage” became “dawizard.”

It was a basic mistake, but it’s also one that could have happened to anyone. Given the hundreds and hundreds of pages in the book he was editing, he might be forgiven for his oversight. (I should note that I am also charitable; others might well disagree.) Still, this was a glaring error, and it resulted in the kind of attention no editor wants.

Unfortunately, if an editor does get attention, it means that he or she has failed. Their job is to be as unobtrusive as possible and to provide the designer with a foundation of lucid text, clear organization, thorough and consistent development, sound grammar, good rule design, careful layout, and all the other things that people who sling words around casually for a living take for granted when they see their words printed on the page.

Designers frequently can take a fire-and-forget approach with our projects. Once we’ve made our turnover, we might have some input down the road, but it’s largely out of our hands.

Not so for editors. They have to make a first pass on the turnover and make sure the project is coherent. Then they fill out the art and map orders if the designer hasn’t done that, and they make another pass and concentrate on language and structure. Then they make another pass and… I dunno, fill it with fairy dust or something. Then they turn it over to graphic design and layout, and then the project comes back to them. Again. Again and again and again.

They’re the people in charge of it from design turnover to final production. What the editors do has an outsized impact on the project.

If you’re really lucky, you get an editor who understands your vision (if you’ll excuse me for using that word) and who works with you to expand and fulfill that vision in the way you dreamt. For example, one of my favorite projects that I ever wrote for the RPG industry was Planescape’s Faces of Evil. Everything went right with this project. The words flowed, the maps worked well, the art order was ideal, I got what I wanted from it, and there was no deadline crush. I still get compliments about it, and in particular, people like the voice and character of Xanxost, a slaad who narrated part of the book.

Now, I came up with the idea of a slaad narrator, and I wrote him into the book and everything, but the way I wrote him is not the way he appeared.

So here as a guest columnist, explaining how Xanxost turned into something sweet, is Faces of Evil editor Ray Vallese.


Hello, mortals! Oh, sorry—got carried away there, thinking about Xanxost. When I first dug into Colin’s manuscript for Faces of Evil, I saw that he’d come up with the great idea of having parts of the book narrated by various characters with their own agendas. One hated the baatezu, another was a fiend apologist, and so on. Their motivations came through in their language, but their voices sounded too similar. I tweaked the sections to try to make the narrators sound a little different from one another.

And then there was Xanxost the slaad. Not only did it sound too much like the other narrators, but it also had Colin’s usual complex, elegant style. Slaadi were supposed to be about as chaotic as you could get, so I decided to go to town on Xanxost’s sections (after selling Colin on the idea—an editor should always collaborate with the designer rather than hijack the text outright). I kept the text understandable since true chaos would have been a chore to read, but I tried to turn Xanxost into an unreliable, distracted, proud, hungry, and hopefully engaging personality. Little things—such as dropping most contractions, using a simple sentence structure, referring to itself in the third person, being unable to count, holding up slaadi as the ultimate example of perfection, and so on—helped bring Xanxost alive.

Still, in some places, Colin had written wonderful sentences that I didn’t want to “dumb down” but that would have sounded wrong coming from Xanxost. So I left those sentences alone and had Xanxost explain that he’d learned the fancy phrases from an elf poet (er, just before the elf’s head came off his body).

As an editor, I don’t usually rewrite an author’s text so dramatically, but as I said, I had Colin’s blessing, and the change seemed appropriate for the project. Fans seemed to like Xanxost, anyway, so I knew that we’d done something right. (I’ve often joked that we should have gone on to write Xanxost’s autobiography, which could only have been titled I, Slaad—little shout-out to the Ravenloft crowd.)


By the time Ray and I worked together on Faces of Evil, I had managed to get past the professionally destructive notion that changing my text was an implicit criticism of my work and therefore me. I had even grudgingly learned to accept that most editors know a lot more about the structural aspect of the language than most writers. When we worked on FoE, though, I gained a whole new appreciation for editing. What had been an adequate and mildly interesting character became something fun, exciting, and best of all, evocative in my editor’s hands. When you find an editor who can do this for you, you’ve struck gold.

You might, on occasion, run into an editor who makes decisions that are actively bad for the project. I once had an editor change the word “nigh” to “neigh” because he didn’t know the word, thus making the sentence ridiculous: “As winter draws neigh…” However, this is rare and unfortunate, and again, it usually reflects on the editor.

I’ve had editors who take my work and disappear with it, and I don’t see the project again until I’m holding the published version in my hands. As a freelancer, this happens more frequently—proximity is a great way to have continuing input into a project, and working far from the office almost ensures most editorial decisions will be made without your input.

Guess what? This is totally okay. I’ve mentioned before that you need to sacrifice your ego for the sake of the work. This is good for you, anyway: your game is just a game, and it’s important to remember that.

When your editor takes the time to work with you closely on a project, you say yes. It means he or she recognizes the value in your project, believes in it, and wants to improve your ideas. You’re not infallible.

… but if you have a great editor, you’ll sure look like it.

13 thoughts on “Now, the Twist: Credit Where Due—Editors”

  1. Could not agree more! Having a great editor (or developer) is everything!

    Having a good working relationship with those folks often can mean the difference between a good final product and a great final product

    (oh, and as a professional graphic artist by trade … no offense taken ;)

  2. I have to admit that I like everyone involved in the process. It took some years, but I even learned to love marketing (that happened when I finally found marketers who enjoyed games). But man, when I realized just how very, very much editors contribute, it was extraordinarily eye-opening.

    I love graphics geeks too, I should add. In the early-to-mid-90s, I saw my roomie Dawn Murin (now an art director at Wizards) make the transition between hand-pasting and computer work and I thought, “Man, that’s just a sea change in the way things work.” But most of the graphic staff took to it naturally rather than bitching and moaning, and then turned out even better stuff. My respect shot way up, so you’re entitled to take a slice of that, too. :)

  3. I think after freelancing for a while, I’ve really come to appreciate the truth of this post. When you transition between editors and notice it, well, that’s what brought it home for me.


  4. Makes me wish I’d gotten to work more with you back in the day, Colin. Alas, you never did too much over in the Realms or in Marvel…

    Even so, thanks for giving the oft-unsung heroes their kudos. :) I know I’m a better writer for having started as an editor; alas, I’m also a slower writer because it’s much harder to shut off the internal editor to get the words down at all.

  5. So, you guys are going to make that Xanxost Autobiography, right? Because I would buy that with the force of a thousand falling anvils.

  6. I would be very happy to collaborate on Xanxost’s autobiography (though a travelogue might be better suited to his strengths). Colin, you could write the first draft of straight info to get down what you want to say, and then I’d rewrite it as Xanxost. We just need Purvis to round up several thousand friends who would also commit to buying it. Maybe we could use kickstarter.com.

  7. I know I always think of an editor as a writing-fu sensei, forcing me to improve my work through their relentless beatings. ;) Seriously, though, a good editor is gold.

  8. I feel like writing a published piece without an editor backing me up is a bit like giving a speech without wearing any clothes; scary and likely very embarrassing.

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