Carrie On – Writing

I have been writing for ChannelFireball now for a year, an accomplishment of which I am very proud.

As a new player, I read articles and watched videos that are provided here free of charge. They were (and still are) important to help me improve. I watched and admired the members of team ChannelFireball at the big events. The day I was offered a writing position here was mind blowing.

I have been asked multiple times how I ended up as a writer for one of the most popular Magic online resources, so I figured I may as well put it into an article for any budding writers to reference.

The truth is, it was all one very happy accident after another.

After I placed 32nd at PT Nagoya, I was contacted by Trick Jarrett, then Content Manager of Gathering Magic, and now Content Manager for the mothership, about writing a tournament report.

I didn’t know what to do.

I had been overwhelmed by the whole experience at PT Nagoya, and while I was aware that I had achieved something reasonably impressive, I couldn’t believe that anyone would want to read what I had to say or could gain anything from it.

I wasn’t looking to write, and it never occurred to me that I even could. English was my second worst subject at school (only being ‘beaten’ by French), and I have avoided anything to do with prose since, except for a small report when I won my PTQ.

Rather than make a decision then and there, I enjoyed the rest of my holiday in Japan. If you ever get the chance to visit, do! I have never experienced anything quite like it. The culture is so different and the people are incredibly friendly. I can’t wait to have an excuse to go back!

Anyway, after a week spent mulling it over, I contacted Trick and said yes.

Why? Because I didn’t think I could do it.

After I wrote my report, Trick asked me to become a regular columnist. I agreed. I did it to challenge myself, to see if perhaps I could learn to write well and find topics that would actually interest others.

Spoiler: writing articles is really hard!

When I started writing about Magic, my writing skills were even worse than when I finished school. My use of commas was either non-existent or just totally wrong. My writing often switched from past to present tense, sometimes within a single sentence. My work was edited heavily, first by my boyfriend, who supported me every step of the way, and secondly by my actual editor. The final product presented to the public eye was my content, but rarely my writing.

However, the difficulty of actually writing a piece pales in comparison to finding a topic. Some weeks they come very easily, normally because I have an opinion to share, or a new deck or strategy to discuss. Other weeks, I reach deadline day, and enter meltdown-mode.

Worse, it impacts the quality of the article. If I hit upon an idea early, my brain can work out how to approach it. Alternatively, if it’s an opinion piece, the words flow naturally and easily as I simply put my thoughts on paper (so to speak). These are generally better received than the ones that I finally drag out at the last minute. If I am enthusiastic about my topic, that’s conveyed to the audience and results in a more enjoyable piece.

[draft]inspiration[/draft]

However, there is no magic trick to trigger that inspiration. It is a lot easier when I have been playing a great deal of Magic, be it PTQs, prereleases, GPs, or just online. Immersion presents you with topics. For example, a few weeks ago I covered the many ways you can play [card]Pack Rat[/card] incorrectly. I had seen it happen so many times, and it was the one thing stuck in my brain. Everyone kept going on about how they did or didn’t have a Rat in their pool, and yet even when it got into play it was losing at the hands of so many different people.

Some writers start writing simply when they feel like it. My advice would be that unless you have a deadline, you will not actually write anything. Maybe because that topic doesn’t seem well formed yet or you haven’t thought of something this week. Having a deadline makes you spend time considering your topics. You learn to find inspiration in the darkest corners. Some weeks I wish I had more time to do justice to an idea and some weeks I really wish I could just skip rather than submit this mess. But you work through the pain and the badly written muddles, and you improve.

Bizarrely, some of the pieces I have not liked have been some of my most popular, yet these wouldn’t have been submitted without deadline pressure.

I like to listen to people discuss Magic—that is what people want to read more about. For example, the major topic of conversation locally is whether [card]Thragtusk[/card] is suppressing Standard, or [card]Sphinx’s Revelation[/card].

Anyway, back to my story. I started writing for Trick, and every week I found my little topic to discuss. I aimed to write for people like me. Newer players to the tournament scene, who wondered what it was like to play at the PT or how to read signals during a draft and when to switch. To my surprise, people actually read my articles and left comments at the end. Pointing out what they liked, adding new angles to my topic, or gently suggesting that I had missed an important archetype or strategy in my review.

I was so pleased! Even my editor said my writing skills were improving (although still pretty bad!).

At PT Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of meeting many people including the infamous Gavin Verhey, then writer for SCG and now designer at Wizards of the Coast. I remember an enjoyable lunch in the famous Reading Terminal Market, where Gavin and I discussed the future of my writing.

I was happy at Gathering Magic, but if I wanted to further my writing career in the long term I needed to consider moving up to one of the larger sites. This wasn’t something I had really thought about, as I was still only just starting out, but it got the cogs turning. Gavin was incredibly helpful suggesting ways I might approach the sites when I was ready, and the pros and cons of each. Privately I harbored a desire to write for CF, but honestly I considered this step at least a year away if it happened at all.

Thinking about your long-term goals is definitely recommended so you don’t get stuck or despondent. Equally, deciding you don’t want more is just as important a decision.

In my case, I was very fortunate to meet a number of the CF writers and editors at PT Philadelphia. I think I almost fainted when Luis introduced himself to me at GP Pittsburgh.

[draft]awesome presence[/draft]

Another 3 months passed and I continued to write. I made the trip to GP San Diego/Worlds to grind Planeswalker Points (oh, how I shudder at that memory, although the trip was fun) and it was during this trip when, completely out of the blue, I was offered this position. No hesitation this time, it was an easy yes—that I quickly regretted.

I was terrified at the prospect of writing for the CF audience. As a result, I entered a rather unfortunate spiral of despair.

[draft]spinning darkness[/draft]

I was worried about people that wanted an even higher level of advice/strategy from my articles, and so I went from interesting opinions and helpful advice for newer players to trying to write purely fact. This went down about as well as a lead balloon. This was before Facebook commenting (although I’m sure people would still have been pretty critical anyway) and the trolls were rife. I could feel my confidence shrinking (well more like plummeting) every week. As my self-esteem shrunk, my writing became worse as I stayed away from ever expressing my own opinion in fear of it being torn up and thrown back in my face. The quality of my articles continued to decline—something had to change.

The site went to Facebook commenting, which reduced the number of trolls, but I was still too scared to really speak up on topics.

There were three important turning points that should serve as a valuable lesson for any new writer:

• Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help

I was feeling completely out of my depth and had lost all confidence in my writing. Rather than just take what all the trolls said for granted, I did the only sensible thing—I asked an expert.

Gavin had recently started his shiny new job at WotC, but he was at my side the moment I asked for help (not literally at my side obviously). I don’t think he knows how much he helped me that fortnight, so I hope he is reading this now. He offered to write an article with me—we would brainstorm together, I would then draft it, then Gavin would provide style and content feedback. It was my first article where I put forth a new deck and voiced my opinion. It was a real turning point for me. Gavin didn’t really alter the content, just the way it was presented, which was a huge confidence boost. He provided invaluable pointers on presentation, style, and article strategies. More than all this was his quiet encouragement and unwavering belief in me as a worthwhile contributor to the Magic community. Thank you Gavin.

Who you ask advice from is an individual decision. It should be someone who knows you, but doesn’t necessarily have to be a Magic player if you are after advice on writing rather than content. I was after someone who knew what the Magic community wanted from writing. I shouldn’t have taken as long as I did to ask for help.

• Listen to Your Peers

—And I don’t mean in the comment threads. Writing a few harsh words at the end of an article takes no effort. If someone takes the time and effort to seek you out at a tournament to thank you for your writing, however, they will actually mean it.

While I was losing confidence from the comments left on my articles (not all of which were negative of course, but it’s hard not to dwell on the bad ones rather than the good) something amazing happened.

I went to PT Honolulu, not that long after I had started writing. After I had asked Gavin for help, I wrote a piece on the possible applications of [card]Saving Grasp[/card] in Standard. Saving Grasp never saw Constructed play, but during the PT Craig Wescoe personally thanked me for the article. We had barely crossed paths before that point, but he sought me out to thank me for my small article that suggested something he had not considered. He tested it, and it almost made the cut in his deck. It made me realize that while I may not have the breadth of experience and knowledge that other writers have, I can provide new insights or viewpoints for even the most experienced players.

PT Honolulu was my first event after I started writing for ChannelFireball, but at subsequent GPs and PTQs people sought me out just to say they liked my work. Those people that came and thanked me for my articles were so important to prevent me quitting. I have never done this for the pay, I do this because I want to give something to the community and game I love. To those people, both past and future, thank you, it really makes it all worth while.

• Don’t Read the Comments

This doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. Some just brush off everything that is thrown at them. However, where they are like rubber, I am more like glue.

I feel really bad about not reading the comments, I’ve always encouraged people to leave comments as I hope my articles inspire discussion that leads to new ideas. However, I personally cannot read them. My close friends read them for me and convey interesting points, compliments, and helpful criticisms. I even manage to reply to questions occasionally with some copy and paste action. But I still cannot read them myself, because if I see a negative one I can’t get it out of my head. Someone linked me to this web comic recently, that summarizes exactly why I cannot read the comments. (Editor’s note: contains crude language)

I often wondered whether I should just man up and grow some callouses. But I’m a sensitive person, and it’s just not going to happen. If I read comments and find a negatively written one, it makes writing for the next week that much harder. I don’t mean that I can’t handle constructive criticism, I regularly improve content based on what people think is missing from a deck assessment or a card review, but just being told my writing is rubbish and I should go back to baking (I do make awesome cakes) is not going to help!

And here we are 53 articles later.

I like to think I have come a long way. I have learned a great deal and made some awesome friends. It has been hard, but if my tales have not discouraged you from becoming a writer then I have the following advice: start small, define your goals, write regularly, ask for help!

Sites are always happy to consider new writers. I would suggest you approach one of the many smaller sites, possibly with a couple of pieces you have already written and say you’d like to become a contributor. This lets you gain some experience without the hugely critical audiences breathing down your neck. You also get to build a portfolio of work for the bigger sites to see when you approach them, and demonstrate your ability to stay on schedule.

If you want to chat with me further about my writing experiences, feel free to contact me on Twitter or Facebook, and I’ll gladly try to answer any questions you have. Other than that, Happy New Year, and here’s to a great 2013!

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