Here on Gameleon we get a lot of requests asking how people become freelance games journalists. So – along with our training days – we thought it about time we brought together some thoughts. This is the third in what will be a series of articles about how to be a freelance games journalist. You can part one here and part two here.
Part #3: Writing Reviews
by Kirsten Kearney
Reviews are the bread and butter of freelance games journalists. This is especially true in September-November when there are a lot more games coming out than any in-house writing team can cope with. Remember that as a freelancer, especially at the start, you won’t get the games you *want* to play. You’ll get the stuff no one else wants to review and sometimes it will mean a lot of gameplay for not that many words (so not that much remuneration).
But being able to write a good review is a pre-requisite for being a games journalist and it’s a skill you must master. This will take time – it’s a lot harder than the flame-boys on the forums would have you believe. Before you start make sure that you’re reading a lot of reviews and break them down into what is successful or not. Probably the two best freelance reviewers right now are Christiam Donlan (@Doonvas) and Simon Parkin (@SimonParkin). Read everything they do, ignore whether you agree with the score and think about how they structure their reviews and create narratives.
When it comes to getting worth different publications have different requirements for reviews. As a freelancer you must make sure you can meet these before agreeing to take on work. If the game code for the review is for a debug console, do you have access to one? If the publication requires you to take screenshots of the gameplay, are you set up for that? There are three more things to agree on before you undertake a job – the word count, the deadline and your fee.
Your deadline is likely to be perilously close. The very nature of the role of freelancer means you’re likely to get the last minute work that the staff writers don’t have time for. This can mean you only have a few days to play and review a game so be prepared to work fast and efficiently.
How much depth you go into in your review will depend on the word count you’ve been given. Longer reviews of more than 600 words allow you to go into more detail about the mechanics of a game or to give an account of a particular in-game experience. Much shorter reviews of fewer than 300 words still need to give an idea of the game’s history, genre, content and quality. There is almost always a more economical way to make a point so look for ways to rearrange your sentences to get the word count down. A good rule of thumb is to never go more than 10% over your word count. Learning to self-edit is an art worth putting some time in to. No matter what the length of your review though the most important thing is to convey to the reader if the game is fun and if it’s worth the money. You may have been given your review copy for free but the reader needs to know whether it’s worth paying the full retail price for
There’s a big difference between your personal taste in games and an objective critique of a new title. Use your experience, expertise and research skills to explain the product’s weaknesses and strengths rather than your own preferences for a particular style or mechanic.
Although publications have varying scoring systems most do use one. Many journalists are uncomfortable with whittling down their critique to a number but it serves as an invaluable tool to the reader. The score you give must be based on the publication’s own system and policy so make sure you are completely versed on it. It seems obvious but it’s important to make sure your score reflects what you’ve said in your review.
The key to making a living as a freelance games journalist, who is able to get regular work and build good relationships with magazine and website editors, is to be dependable. Be available and willing to work weekends. Always hand in high quality, complete work, on time. You are in competition with all the other freelencers out there. Be the best.
Kirsten Kearney (@KittAlpha) has been a journalist for more that 14 years, the past eight writing about video games. She holds two Guinness World Records for longest marathon in the FPS and driving genres and is currently editor of GMA-nominated Ready-Up. And, yes, she used to be a ‘Frag Doll’.