Helen Gould

For the readers out there, who are you and what do you do?

My name is Helen Gould, and I’m a freelance writer/editor/sensitivity reader. I do a lot of work with indie TTRPGs – it’s a lot more of my workload than I thought it would be when I first went freelance! – and I’m on a Pathfinder AP podcast called Rusty Quill Gaming (I play an orc paladin who glows bright pink).

How did you get into roleplaying games?

I was at a convention back in 2013, and came across a table where people were playing drop-in games of Werewolf and such – it looked interesting and the people were friendly, so I had a go and I’ve been hooked ever since! A huge influence has been getting to know people within the gaming community in London though, which was helped by an event called Videobrains (no longer running now, I’m afraid) where people gave talks about different aspects of gaming. I spoke there several times, and met a lot of my current friend group there. And where there are video gamers, there are often TTRPG gamers too!

What led you from just being a fan to doing editing work in the industry?

That’s a really good question with a pretty convoluted answer! It was a combination of several things, but in short it was from a) being a copywriter and editor in my day job, b) making friends in the industry through the talks I was giving and the events I was attending, and c) a number of people trusting me with their work. I think my first big piece of work for gaming was back in 2015/16 for Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley, which has a setting and an adventure by me. At the time, I genuinely thought it would end there. Grant Howitt (from Rowan, Rook and Decard) then asked me to do a sensitivity reading on his book Spire, which I did – but because of my day job, I also sort of automatically proofread it at the same time and sent him my notes on that as well, just in case. Looking back I feel like that was quite audacious of me, but he must not have minded because he later asked me to officially edit and proofread other pieces for RRD’s books. Anyway, from there it sort of spiralled, and when I finally went freelance last year I was able to reach out to people and let it be known I was available as well as actively look for work opportunities. And though it’s not what I’d call steady as of yet – right now I’m on a full-time contract plus all the freelancing stuff – I always have something on the go. I can’t emphasise enough how important getting to know people in the industry was, online and offline. The way I did that was by going to conventions and events and making friends there – but it never crossed my mind back then that those friends might become my clients. So I’ve been lucky, as well as good at my job.

There is a lot I want to talk about there, but let’s start with this. What is different about your editing process for roleplaying books than for other types of writing? And I suppose conversely, what’s transferable?

Oooh, interesting. Firstly, what’s different. As a freelancer, I have two streams of work: corporate and indie/creative. The corporate work certainly brings in more money, but it means focusing on rewording jargon into actual English, checking grammar and typos, amending bullet point formatting and other kinds of detailed and painstaking work that I can do in my sleep at this point (though I want to stress that not everyone can, which is why people like me can make a living from doing it!). The RPGs I edit obviously still require checking for grammar and typos, but they also require a much more careful reading because the content will be brand new to the audience. For example, when editing an internal comms newsletter, you can assume that everybody will already know the common acronyms, the general focus of the organisation, and just already have a basic overview of what’s going on because they are already part of the organisation. Even if they’re new, they will have researched the company for their interview and then been given an induction; they already know the setting they’re in and the important characters around them. With an RPG book, there is none of that presumed knowledge: everything has to be explained very carefully, so that anyone who picks it up will understand. When I’m editing an RPG, I read it not just for sense and sensitivity, but for absolute clarity on rules, mechanics, descriptions, characters, everything. It’s a much closer, more detailed look at the whole thing. It helps that I vastly prefer rules-light systems, so I can often see ways to simplify the wording for mechanics and rules. I also automatically do some sensitivity reading when I’m editing as well – if I see anything that looks harmful, I always point it out. I think that’s a really important part of editing in the gaming space. Obviously you see it in corporations too, but it’s far more unlikely that I would be the only one to catch things.

As for what’s transferable: all of the basics! The checking for spelling and grammar errors, the rewording of sentences to make them shorter and clearer, the comments I leave saying “did you mean x instead of y?” or “this section says TBC – has it been confirmed now?” That is all the same. Oh, there’s one more difference: I have a much more personal connection to the RPG books, because usually I get credited for my writing or editing. For corporate work, the responsibility is shared out among at least half a dozen people (usually more, in my experience) so nothing really links back only to me. If I see something that I think is a mistake, but other people tell me I’m wrong, I’ll let it slide. I am much less likely to do that with an RPG book, because it will reflect directly on me if it reads badly, and I have a great deal of professional pride.

Thats the second time you’ve mentioned your work with sensitivity reading. What makes someone a good sensitivity reader, and what are common things you need to watch out for?

Firstly, I want to mention that nobody can be an all-round sensitivity reader. There are lots of marginalised communities that intersect – for example, I am a black bisexual woman, so I offer sensitivity reading for race (particularly anti-blackness), homophobia, and gender, as well as combinations of those – but it is really unlikely that somebody has the lived experience of every community. I have a good broad knowledge, which is helpful because I can spot 101 stuff, but I would never put myself forward to read something that deals in detail with issues like disability or transmisogyny. Secondly, to be a good sensitivity reader, you must walk a line between respecting your client’s work and being comfortable in challenging it in detail. For example, I never write anything as simple as “you are being racist”. I will say something like “So far this black woman has only shown anger and violence, and has been physically described with metaphors for animals; this is heading towards being a problematic portrayal, as it supports the stereotype of the angry black woman” and then add a link. When I send a report back to a client, I always offer to answer any questions they have as well. I’ve been really lucky in my clients, in that I’ve never had a bad reaction. I’ve had disagreements where they’ve wanted to keep it the way it is, but that’s rare, and usually amongst a lot of suggestions that they have taken. I think another thing that makes you a good sensitivity reader is to know where your knowledge is lacking. A few times, I have made a comment like “To my knowledge, this is offensive to X culture because of Y”, but will then recommend that somebody from X culture be consulted.

Common things to watch out for depends on what I’m reading and why, and that changes depending on the client. Even if we got more specific, I couldn’t tell you if there are particular phrases or words (other than the obvious) – I just read it in a sort of heightened state of awareness, the same way I would watch a film if I were going to write a review or a talk about it. I enter a critical state of mind, and if something feels off to me, I examine it to see if I can figure out why. Having said that, one thing I do often find myself doing regardless is going back and looking at gender balance. Because there are often lists of NPCs, I keep an eye on how many of them are men, women, NB, etc – and if it’s skewed, I always point it out.

It sounds like an understanding of context and attention to detail both play a pretty big role. Those seem like the same skills that would be useful doing proofreading like you mentioned, but also understanding the shape of things for developmental editing.

Absolutely! When I think about it, I have often been doing developmental editing alongside the line editing unless the client has specified for me not to, because I can’t leave it alone if something doesn’t make sense to me – I’ll always drop in a comment like “Doesn’t X move already do this?” or “This character is very similar to that other character”. In fact, for a long time I didn’t even know developmental editing was something separate! As a writer myself, I know that sometimes the plot or character can run away with you and you forget to check for holes in your logic, or you make a big change somewhere and forget to consider how it changes all the other things too – so it’s just something I keep an eye out for automatically. And of course, in my opinion sensitivity reading is just another part of developmental editing.

That makes a lot of sense. I’d like to circle back a bit to a couple things you mentioned earlier. you talked about the importance of being credited in books, as well as detailing earlier how central it was to getting work in the RPG industry that you knew people already working in the field. How do you think about the importance of discoverability when getting more freelance work?

How do you mean?

If I’m looking for a job in, I don’t know, engineering or computer science, I might throw my resume on Indeed or Linkedin and hope someone finds out about me. Knowing people matters as far as getting work in other fields, but it seems like in the RPG industry there’s a larger benefit to getting your name out there.

Ahhhhh I see. Yes, it’s really important – more so than other fields I think, because the indie RPG community is comparatively small, or at least it feels small! As I said, I was lucky in many ways: I was in London, I could afford to go out, I have the self-confidence and practise to be a good speaker, and I’m a pretty affable person. So it was relatively easy for me to meet people. But on top of that, there are so many different social circles that overlap in a lot of different ways in London; when I first arrived here it felt so big, but now if I go to certain places or events I’m almost guaranteed to see someone I know. I think social media and Kickstarter campaigns have a lot to do with it as well. If a game is released and it goes really well, gets people talking and excited, then having your name on it will give you a huge boost. It makes such a difference to have your name out there, because eventually people come looking for you instead of you having to chase opportunities.

I think there’s a definite sense that everybody knows everybody else – or at least, knows somebody else. I think six degrees of separation is really true in this community; in fact, it’s probably more like three degrees. A retweet or endorsement from the right person can catapult you into the limelight really easily.

To that end, how has working in RPG’s changed your convention experience?

Well, firstly I can’t remember the last con I went to just as an attendee. I’m usually on a panel or giving a one-woman talk or doing something with Rusty Quill. I had been thinking of going to Dragonmeet in December just to have a look around and see what I could see, but I ended up moderating a panel there as well! Don’t get me wrong – I love being involved like that, and I enjoy being able to lead and actively participate in conversations instead of listening. But it is definitely a change from when I first arrived. The other thing is that I know so many more people! And that’s always a good thing.

Although, having said that…let me moderate it. The downside of knowing many more people from the side of working in the industry is also that I know about people’s reputations as well; I don’t necessarily want to make this into a discussion about missing stairs in the community, but they are there. And if I wasn’t as involved as I am, I wouldn’t know to avoid them.

I definitely don’t want to get sucked down that rabbit hole, as we could do a whole separate interview on the topic. Before we move on to something else I am curious though. As you pointed out, if you weren’t in the know, you wouldn’t be able to make an informed choice on how to deal with them. How do you think our community handles that type of, I don’t know, insider problem, when getting into the industry and finding success so heavily revolves around getting to know professionals?

Badly. Very badly. You have to rely on a whisper network or on callout posts on social media – but not everybody has access to that, and people who are abusive will always just move on to a different circle. It leaves all of us vulnerable. I think it is getting better, but there are still major issues of safety. And sometimes, there’s a really gendered issue where men might not know any of the rumours, but everybody else does. But it’s the men who tend to have more influence, and if you tried to tell them they might not believe you, and then where will you be?

Depressing, but fair. Here’s hoping things will continue to improve. 

You mentioned earlier in the interview about how, when editing RPG material, you had to think about presumed knowledge. How do you think about the order of information in relation to that audience? Is it mostly a matter of balancing teaching vs reference material, or given that you prefer rules light games, are there other considerations?

Ah, so – I prefer rules light games to play, but my clients usually really like their rules! The structure of things is usually absolutely fine; to speak very very broadly, most people tend to go Introduction, Rules, Setting, Character Creation, then Miscellaneous Bits and Bobs. I usually just make sure that anything that needs a “see page X” note has one. I almost always go into editing assuming that the audience knows absolutely nothing about the author’s previous work or even how to play a TTRPG. I try to simplify things from there. The only exception I make is for games that have something to do with Cthulhu, as that’s a genre that spans a lot of mediums. I don’t think of any of it as teaching or reference material; I just try to make sure everything sounds like a human is explaining it.

That makes sense. Do you think theres a space for core books assuming experience with TTRPG’s, or is that what supplements are for?

Honestly? No. I take the same attitude that I would towards any writing that’s trying to explain things: your audience needs to understand everything. Assuming knowledge and a shared vocabulary will alienate them and make them put the book down. You don’t want them to do that. I think that even supplements should say “Read X core book first”.

Thats good advice. What other advice would you give to someone just starting out as an editor in the industry?

Three things: 1. If you don’t understand something, it’s likely that the reader won’t either. Always raise that as an issue. 2. Take opportunities whenever you can, even if you think you don’t tick all the boxes. Don’t ask, don’t get. 3. Don’t work for free!

And what would you tell publishers or writers looking to hire an editor?

Cast your nets wider than the usual suspects, and integrate sensitivity reading into everything you produce. If your book has a setting and characters, you need someone to check that you’re not adding to the marginalisation that’s already in the industry and the world as a whole.

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?

Yes! I’m working on writing a setting for Dragonbond by Draco Studios – it’s one of my biggest pieces of work to date, and I’m feeling good about it so far.

And where can people find you on social media?

I am on Twitter @Alecto101, and I have a Patreon full of fiction and poetry at https://www.patreon.com/afrofantasia

Last but certainly not least, if someone is interested in hiring an editor, how should they get in contact with you?

My DMs are always open on Twitter, or they can visit my business site at https://hgwriting.co.uk/

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