A few people have asked me recently how it is that I keep getting ideas for roleplaying articles. They wanted to know how it is that I can sit down week after week and turn out articles on game mastering, character creation, writing RPGs, and so forth. Since it seems to be of interest, here are a few tips on how I go about the process. It might not work the same way for you; every writer is a little bit different.
Know and Love Your Area of “Expertise”
If you’re going to write about a subject day after day and week after week, then love your subject! It’s tough to get repeatedly inspired about a subject that you don’t feel any passion for. If for some reason you find yourself in a position where you feel you must write about an area that you don’t love, then at least make sure you know it inside and out. Knowledge of the issues involved can spur ideas even where passion is lacking.
Passion for a subject can lead you to look into odd corners that other people haven’t addressed. Passion for a subject spurs you into trying new things and telling others how the experience worked out (or what you learned if it didn’t). Passion gives you strong opinions worth talking about. Passion makes most writers pretty verbose about their subject; it can be hard not to write about a subject that inspires you!
This is where I started: by writing a few articles about what at the time was just a hobby to me, but one that I greatly enjoyed. It’s hard not to hold strong opinions on anything that’s important to you. If your subject area means something to you, if you feel passionate about it, then you’ll probably find that topics naturally occur to you all the time.
Knowledge of a subject can enable you to pull together ideas and make logical arguments that others will find useful. It allows you to bring knowledge of one area of a subject to bear on the problems of another area. Knowledge lets you make cogent arguments; it allows you to reach a wider audience.
This means that you should continually read about or otherwise explore your chosen field. In the case of roleplaying, this means that I tend to collect roleplaying games. No, I don’t find the time to read and play each and every one. But neither do I play a single game and then call myself an expert on roleplaying in general. I read new games; sometimes I play new games. I incorporate each new one into the body of knowledge that I use to write about roleplaying. I read roleplaying magazines and web sites and newsletters. Sometimes I hang out on discussion boards or email lists, even if all I have time to do is lurk.
It’s a good idea to only write on topics that you feel you have something worth saying about. On the other hand, if you do enough research, you can probably come up with something worth saying on a great number of topics within your subject! If someone emails me with a special topic request and I just can’t think of or find something worthwhile to say on the subject, then I don’t try to fake it. I admit that I’m stumped and try to suggest some other source that might help them more than I can.
Talk About Your Subject
People who are passionate about a subject often find that they discover their biases, preferences, and strong opinions on the subject through discussion with others. Talk to people about your subject. Listen to other people’s discussions on the subject. Read other people’s opinionated articles on your subject. If any of them stir up strong reactions in you, then pay attention to those reactions. Would they make good articles?
Places to Talk
Talk to your friends, your spouse, your parents, your children (although try not to annoy the ones who don’t share your passion!). Talk to people you meet. Ask their opinions on various subjects and see what new pieces of insight they have to offer. If you’re into roleplaying, you probably have a ready-made group of people to talk to: your gaming group! I get some of my article ideas by talking to the people I game with, bouncing ideas off of them, discussing things of note with them, and so on. Discussion can help you to develop your ideas further, to find the flaws in them and work them into a more polished shape.
Check out news groups, discussion boards, email lists, and so on. Even if you just lurk, you might find that the discussions provoke reactions in you. Use that! Anything you feel that strongly about is a possible topic. I talk on email lists, chat with my friends, hold conversations with random people who email me, and sometimes lurk on news groups or discussion boards if I’m really out of ideas.
If a topic provokes a reaction in me, and I feel that I have something worthwhile to add that no one else in the discussion has yet said, I turn it into an article. In fact, this has spurred quite a few of my articles. Most of the articles on what it’s like to write in the RPG industry grew out of questions people asked me by email.
This is one useful aspect of having a web page on a subject — people will assume you’re an expert and ask you questions. You can get articles out of your answers, and you even know there’s an audience for them! In fact, this is a great argument for posting free articles in your subject area on your web page.
The Obligatory Warnings
While passion can spur people to be eloquent, it can also spur people to be dumb. Here are some mistakes to avoid when getting ideas from conversations:
- Make sure your article stands on its own two feet. It’s okay for your opinion to be a reaction to someone else’s words, but most articles shouldn’t read like one.
- Anger at the mistaken opinions or narrow-mindedness of others makes some people argumentative, obnoxious, territorial, and narrow-minded in their own right. If you can’t approach your subject in a calm, preferably open-minded fashion, then find a different way to get topics. Many people can spot hidden biases and grudges a mile away. It can ruin your credibility at best; at worst it can make you look like a blathering idiot.
- Make sure your opinion is your own and that you aren’t just parroting a side from an argument you stumbled across. Your articles should reflect your own thoughts and work; you shouldn’t steal someone else’s.
- If a topic makes you angry, wait a while before posting or submitting any article based on it. Give yourself time to cool down. Then double-check that your article actually sounds level-headed and rational. If it doesn’t, then rewrite. If it still doesn’t, then consider abandoning the topic, at least for now.
Indulge in Your Subject
How better to come up with interesting roleplaying topics than by roleplaying? Play lots of games! Pay attention to what annoys you, what excites you, what you would change if you’d written that particular game, how you solve problems that come up during the game, and so on. Make note of patterns that emerge. Think about what you’re doing. Think about how other people might handle what you’re doing. Try new things. Listen to the questions that other roleplayers ask on forums and news groups and think about how you’d solve them in your game.
There’s nothing like cold hard experience to give you article fodder. People who write roleplaying articles without doing any roleplaying are like writers who only write about writing but never actually get any other work published. After a while you kind of have to wonder what makes them such “experts” anyway, and then they start to lose their credibility. You probably won’t be able to fake it forever. Some subjects lend themselves to articles through book-research, but others require real experience in the area.
A Few Suggestions
Do enough research on your topic (reading, discussions, and so on) to get at least some idea of how other people view and approach it. If you hold one view on roleplaying, and it doesn’t even occur to you that there’s a whole other way to approach it, then you could come across as fairly narrow-minded or provincial in your writings. On the other hand, if you can allude to or even address some of the other ways that people approach the subject, you come across as knowing a whole lot more about the topic.You’ll also appeal to a wider audience, which can only help you.
Find someone else who’s familiar with the subject area who can read your articles before you post or submit them to places. They might think of aspects of the topic that you’ve missed, notice where you come across as arrogant or whiny, and so on. It’s very tough to accurately self-edit your work.
Keep a file of topic ideas lying around. Sometimes you’ll think of something but you won’t be able to work on it right away. Believe me, you’ll probably forget the idea if you don’t write it down! When you’re starved for ideas you can go back to that file.
Develop a good work ethic. Develop the ability to sit down and write where and when you want to. Most really successful writers are the ones who don’t wait to be inspired; they go out and find inspiration whenever they need it.
So there you have it: Love your subject, or at least know it very well. Talk about your subject wherever and whenever you can. Seek out a variety of resources on your subject. Indulge in and explore your subject. Connect with other enthusiasts like yourself, and develop a strong work ethic that doesn’t require you to be in the right “mood” in order to write. I find that with this combination of approaches, it’s hard to run out of material!