For the readers out there, who are you and what do you do?
My name is Brent Jans and I am a TTRPG blogger and reviewer, and for about the last eight or nine years I have also worked as a freelance editor for TTRPGs.
How did you originally get into roleplaying games?
I actually wrote a fictionalized account of that for an anthology, but the short version is I saw an advert for something called Dungeons & Dragons being run by my local library when I was ten years old. That would be 1980, and I never looked back. Growing up in Northern Canada, role-playing games were probably the best thing that could have happened to a bookish introvert like myself.
How did you go from just being a fan to doing editing in the industry?
I had worked as a freelance editor for other things, fiction, technical writing, copy writing. Two things sort of coalesced for me. I was complaining for the billionth time about the lack of editing in something I had bought off the (very new at the time) DriveThruRPG site. I also noticed that, while there were plenty of folks offering to write, do layout, or draw art, there was a complete lack of anyone offering editing on any of the forums I frequented. So I hung out my shingle as an editor for hire and got a few cautious nibbles to start, but pretty soon was get moderately steady work.
Just as important to me, though, after folks saw the response I was getting I started seeing more freelance TTRPG editors popping up in the pro forums. I’ve never worried about competition when it comes to editing, there is always plenty of work to go around. But for the longest time it was, and sort of still is, desperately needed amongst all the self-publishers in our hobby.
Why do you think editors were last through the gate in the spaces you were frequenting?
I think that self-publishing was still this very new thing at the time, and folks were trying to figure things out. So on one hand you have new writers trying to self-publish, who don’t have a firm grasp yet of their process. But on the other hand most editors in the industry at the time worked for gaming companies, and weren’t likely to freelance outside of approaching other companies. Small press authors wouldn’t even have occurred to them as being a viable market in which to find work. I mean, it took me about a year or so after DriveThruRPG got started to even consider it.
Plus, and I have encountered this in the fiction world as well, you will always encounter writers who believe everything they write is perfect as they type it, and can’t bear the thought of someone touching their “baby”. So even if editing is offered to them they wouldn’t think it was needed. One of the earliest questions I was asked, just a few days after setting myself out as a TTRPG editor, was “Why do I need you when I have spellcheck?”
What did you tell them at the time?
At the time I gave them a very early version of what I still tell writers when I’m asked similar questions. Spellcheck is great, and I certainly appreciate it when writers use it before handing over their work because it saves me loads of time dealing with obvious stuff. But what an editor can do, but spellcheck can’t, is find things like: subject/verb agreement; whether you wrote that connecting paragraph between two parts of your adventure, or whether you just thought you did because you are so familiar with it through playtesting; when you write, “The players will here bells in the next room”, spellcheck will like that just fine, but I am sure you meant, a) characters not players, unless the GM is expected to rig up bells wherever they are playing, and b) hear, not here. I could go on, but those examples usually cover the bases.
And what a good TTRPG editor will also bring is experience with gaming. Depending on what type of editing you are looking for, that can be experience with how to make adventure text both clearer for the potential game master as well as more evocative for the players, to just having an understanding of the various style guides that companies like Wizards of the Coast and Chaosium use.
Can you talk a little bit about the different types of editing you do, and how you approach the roles differently?
Sure! So I have three different types of editing I do, depending on the needs of the client and where they are in the writing or design process. The first is substantive edits, where I’m looking at the structure of the piece and editing for things like style and tone. I do substantive editing on texts in their early form, sometimes working off the first draft or while the writer is still completing the first draft, though that last is rare. These edits are meant to ensure that the form and substance of the text are saying what the writer wants them to say, in the way they want them said. So part of that process is to talk with the writer and get an idea of what they’re trying to achieve and work from there.
The second type is copyediting. This is less invasive than substantive editing, and is usually done after playtesting has occurred or the writer has made changes based on earlier editing feedback. I’m still looking at structure and tone, but I am also looking at the details of the text, based on what system it’s for (if it’s for an existing property) or the notes the writer has given me (if it’s for a new game or system). I find this to be the most fluid level, because if things are good it quickly turns into proofreading, but I can still suggest substantive edits if I think they’re needed. Most of the copyediting I do is for work which is either in, or about to go into, layout, in which case I have to keep the layout in mind when I make changes.
And then the last level, and the one most folks think of when they think of editing, is proofreading. At this point I am looking for all the usual suspects: punctuation, grammar, spelling, kerning errors, and whether the piece conforms to the system style guide. If it’s a new game, then instead of that last I make sure the style is consistent throughout; are all Class names capitalized, did that city name get spelled the same everywhere, that sort of thing. This stage is often the hardest for some folks to do well, because you aren’t so much reading the text as you are making sure the word symbols all line up the way they should. But this is usually the last editing step, and ideally it’s done by a few people because this is the step where it is easiest to miss something.
And of course, there is a lot of blending back and forth between them. I was given a piece to proofread that had been edited and playtested and edited again. While I was proofing it I realized it was missing the description for an entire room, in fact, the room where the final encounter was supposed to happen. So like I say, it’s important to get several eyes on a piece whenever possible.
Can you talk a bit more about what your substantive editing process looks like? Are there common issues you usually need to discuss?
For substantive editing, I start by reading the piece through three or four times. I’ll usually read it a couple of times as soon as I receive it, then let it sit for a day or so. I do this to see what stands out. Did it tell me enough about what’s going on, what do I remember about the tone of the piece? I’ll make some notes and then I’ll compare those to whatever the writer has given me about their intentions for the piece. I want to see where there are breaks or disconnects. Maybe the writer is going for a serious tone, but what’s on the page is very colloquial or light. Maybe it’s a horror adventure that isn’t very horrifying. This gives me some direction for my edits, and I can start working my way through the text.
As for common issues, most of them depend on what you are writing: adventures, sourcebooks, or rulebooks. But the common issue I’ve found, shared across all types of TTRPG writing, is to remember your audience. If you’re writing an adventure it’s a common mistake to think the players are the audience, and a lot of beginning writers will pack their adventure full of information for the players. But your audience for an adventure is the Game Master, not the players. After all, they are the ones who are going to read it the most, and at the end of the day an adventure is a tool for telling an interesting story with your group. So it has to be tailored to the GM: information is clear and concise, the setting is evocative without being overbearing, and there are tools in place for the GM to make the adventure fit their group. On the flip side, if you are writing a rules supplement for players, you want to make sure the writing is exciting and inspiring, that it draws them toward using the material presented. At the same time, the rules need to be clear, consistent, and concise. So that’s a question I write quite often in my edits, “Who is this for?”. Sometimes it leads to the writer cutting enough information that they can publish another book, which is a nice problem to have.
Moving on to copyediting, can you talk a bit about layout considerations? How might that change your work?
Sometimes when I am copyediting, the layout hasn’t been locked down yet. There may still be art to come, or maps, charts, and sidebars haven’t been finalized yet. In that case I carry on a normal, marking up changes and letting the writer or designer figure out what to do about them. But sometimes the layout is locked, which basically means all the graphical elements are in place and the text has been fitted to them the way the publisher wants the print version to look. In that case I have to be more specific in my suggestions if I find areas that need re-writing or correction. For instance, I can’t just cut a sentence to make a paragraph work, because that may throw off spacing and make the layout look bad. So at this point my editing is more about rewording than cutting, to maintain the layout. Also, since we may have an upper page limit, it’s very rare for me to suggest additional text be added at this point; there usually just isn’t room. But I will always bring it up if I think the piece is missing something, because that could always go in another book, or be released as an online bonus or something.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out doing editing in the industry?
Make sure it’s something you love doing, and love doing well. No one is going to knock on your door and give you a pretty ribbon for that time you realized you were using the Canadian spell-checker instead of the American, and so you made sure to go back through all ten thousand words of the text at the last minute to make sure you got everything right. You have to want to give the client the best work you can. First, because that’s how you feel good about your work. But second, and more practically, that’s how you will get new clients and retain old ones. They can tell if you aren’t being careful with their work; they might hire you once but they won’t come back. There are just too many good freelance editors out here for anyone to have to settle.
My second piece of advice: read. Not just TTRPG material and editing texts and style guides. Novels, cookbooks, travel guides, short story collections, comics, take in as much written media as you can. Not only should an editor’s brain be crammed full with “useless” information, but a breadth of reading gives you a rough idea of how various publications are put together. That can be handy if someone comes to you to edit their TTRPG-themed cookbook, as an example.
On the flipside, what should a publisher or writer looking to hire an editor keep in mind?
It’s easy enough to test for editing skills, there are a number of standard editing tests online to download and send a potential editor. Most mid to major publishers in the industry have editing tests they’ll give you if you approach them looking for work. Those ones are great because they give you useful information about how a company wants to be edited as they test you, which is useful information to have if you end up working on third party pieces for another publisher or writer. And no editor should have a problem taking a test, as long as you keep it reasonable. If the editor has a body of work they can point to, and can show you parts of it, that’s often as useful as a test. If the editor does provide a list of previous work, see if you can reach out to those clients. Not just to find out about their skill level, but important things like: were they easy to work with, did they communicate well, was their work turned in on time? All good things to know before hiring an editor.
Also, and this cannot be overstated: pay your editor on time, and pay what was agreed. Many freelance editors ask for payment on turnover, and you should always do that unless prior arrangements have been made. Freelancers are relying on that money to pay bills, keep a roof above, and stock the pantry with ramen. They did the work, so pay them!
Thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview with me. Before we get going, are there any projects you’re working on now, editing or otherwise you want people to keep an eye out for?
Absolutely! I’ve been lucky enough to be an editor on every volume of the Uncaged Anthology, which is a four volume set of adventures featuring mythological monsters, written with an inclusive lens. All four volumes are up on DM’s Guild now, and I can’t recommend them enough.
And though I haven’t worked on any of it, I encourage folks to track down Peach Pants Press and pick up The Watch, among other things. Fantastic work being done by Anna Kreider over there, so I highly recommend you check it out.
And where can people find you on social media?
You can find me on Twitter as @DorklordCanada, or at my blog at RenaissanceGamer.ca (which also features my Editor for Hire page). I also write editorials and product reviews over at therathole.ca, and sometimes get into arguments about gaming on the internet. And if you see anything with my name on it on Facebook, it’s a lie; I deleted my account there ages ago and am feeling pretty good about it.
Last but not least, if someone is looking to hire an editor, how should they get in contact with you?
My Twitter DMs are always open, but probably the best way is to email me at brent.jans (at) gmail (dot) com.