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On Magic Writing


You are not Patrick Chapin.

Cruel Ultimatum
Unless you are. In which case, hi, Patrick. Loved your Cruel Ultimatum deck from Detroit.

But chances are you're not. And if you’re not Patrick Chapin or Luis Scott-Vargas or Brian Kibler or someone else with a built-in fan club or audience, you can’t write any old thing about Magic, throw it up on the Internet, and expect the hits to roll in. Chances are you have to work at it a little bit.

To do so, good writing is just as important as knowing Magic. I was given my chance on the Magic coverage team because I was, and am, a writer who happens to play Magic (quick resume check: journalist since I was eighteen, Master’s degree in journalism and mass communication, won several writing awards for said journalism, former newspaper editor, my current job title is actually “writer,” and I once stayed at a Holiday Inn Express). I like to think they let me stay because I was, at the very least, a competent writer.

And yet, a sizeable chunk of Magic writing is just slapping ideas on the page without regard to the presentation of those ideas. As a result, many of those ideas go unnoticed. And, just as bad, when published Magic writing is poorly written, it’s just not fun to read.

Others, such as Abe Sargent have tackled this topic before, but most past articles have covered mostly content. I’ll discuss some of that, but I also want to spend extra time on mechanics. While I can’t cover everything, I can give you some resources to learn more.

So, while I am hardly the definitive expert on Magic writing, I can offer some advice, tips, and tricks for better Magic writing.

Know Your Audience

When writing for Wizards (or when our video people commentate), we often are accused of dumbing things down or, in many instances, being dumb ourselves. Usually, these criticisms come from the Pro Tour Qualifier set or, on rare occasions, from Pros themselves.

However, it’s important—very important even—to recognize that the majority of readers are not necessarily of that caliber. On StarCityGames premium, there’s a minimum threshold you can expect because they’re paying to be there, but most sites don’t follow that model.

You also have to keep in mind what’s interesting to the audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can and often are very different. The fact that you like the challenge of writing an entire article in iambic pentameter doesn’t mean your audience will enjoy reading it.

Now, I’m going to pick on someone, but that’s because, not only can he take it, but nothing I can say will dent his long-running writing empire one bit.

Mike Flores is often a fun writer to read simply because he tries so hard to be just that. He’s often lyrical and buoyant in his style, but just as often, he’s difficult to read because he assumes a higher level of knowledge on the part of his readers than is generally reasonable. Most people focus on his name-dropping, but really, that’s just a symptom of the level of information he expects his readers to possess.

For example, this is from one of his recent articles:

G/R Aggro continues its march to metagame greatness with Adam Van Fleet's win in Philadelphia. "Wow," you might say, "what a great deck by Brian Kibler! Surely this must be the . . . "and then you don't finish the sentence realizing he was one of the principal architects of Caw-Blade.

Grammatically, “he” refers to the most recent person, in this case Brian Kibler. However, there’s very little reason for the hypothetical person saying that hypothetical sentence to pause based on the realization that Kibler once had input on a deck that has little to do with the deck in question. It actually makes more sense for the person to pause if he or she realized Van Fleet was in on Caw-Blade, as giving credit to Kibler for Van Fleet’s deck makes less sense if Van Fleet had a history of designing decks. Furthermore, the subject of the paragraph is Van Fleet, and Kibler is the subject of a phrase encased in quotes, setting it off.

All of this probably leads the reader to conclude Flores’s “he” was Van Fleet and not Kibler—unless, of course, you already know otherwise.

And all of that assumes you even know what Caw-Blade is.

Granted, Flores’s audience is largely the set of players who will understand those references. But besides not being Patrick Chapin, you’re also not Mike Flores. Flores gets away with it because he’s been at this forever and has some cachet attached to his name. That doesn’t make it good writing (I would actually argue that the cited paragraph is bad and should have been fixed in editing), but it does explain why he gets away with it and you can’t.

Be Careful with the Jargon and In-Jokes

George Orwell once wrote that you should “never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday equivalent.”

Magic writers are pretty terrible about this.

Granted, Orwell’s advice doesn’t really hold if you’re writing in a scientific journal, just like Magic jargon can be good in a Magic article.

There is a base level of familiarity you can assume with the game, so “jargon” like “mulligan,” “mill,” and “mana-flood” or “mana-screw” are usually acceptable. But sprinkling in “mise” or “must” is going to lead to sentences that are inscrutable for a vast majority of your audience.

Half of you might even be scratching your head right now as to why “must” isn’t just a normal word. That’s because it means something different in Magic contexts. That’s not easy for a lot of readers to follow.

Ask for a Style Guide

Wherever you’re writing for almost certainly has some kind of style guide. If it’s not written down, the editor will, at the very least, have a list of grammar or style rules that all of his or her writers should follow. This isn’t always true for every Magic website, but it is best practice. Wizards certainly has a style guide.

A style guide’s role is to promote consistency. English is a wonky language, and sometimes, two different ways of writing something can both be correct depend on the style. The never-ending battle between those who love the Oxford comma and those who loathe it has probably led to more bad blood than any other grammar rule in the English language.

(For the record, I come down solidly on the anti-Oxford-comma rule, due in no small part to my background in Associate Press style.)

Style guides solve weird problems such as the capitalization of creature types, how colors are treated when they explicitly reference a section of the color wheel versus when they simply reference the spectrum of light, and if Magic keywords can be given a verb form (i.e. “trampled” and “regenerated”). Most of these things you don’t even think about, but that doesn’t mean your audience doesn’t notice.

Patrick Chapin, for one, noted on Twitter that Wizards capitalized “Gods” even when plural and referencing more than one card.

Keep Paragraphs Short

Readers, especially online, tend to gloss over paragraphs that are longer. Writers, especially online, tend to want to jam more words into paragraphs because space is unlimited.

See the problem?

Look, I love the sound of my own writing voice as much as the next guy (actually, I love it way, way more), but most people are just there for the information or the entertainment. It is exceedingly rare that the actual writer—his or her prose, style, or way with words—is the main attraction.

Short paragraphs keep the reader’s focus and preserve the momentum of the article. Furthermore, by forcing yourself to keep it short, you tend to focus on what’s important.

Similarly . . . 

“If it is possible to cut a word out, cut it out.”

—George Orwell

“Substitute ‘damn’ every time you’re inclined to write the word ‘very;’ your editor will delete it and the writing will be just as it should be.”

—Mark Twain

I’m quite terrible about this. Just absolutely horrible.

Hold on, let me fix that.

I’m quite terrible about this. Just absolutely horrible.

I had a teacher in high school who was famous for destroying papers with his red pen, mostly crossing out unnecessary words. And every single time, the sentence was improved.

“Very” is one of the worst offenders—as is anything that modifies “unique”—but most superlatives can be stricken. I had one professor who once told me that he never used adverbs. I would never go that far, but it was another way of attacking wordiness.

This is part of the editing process. When you reread something, be on the lookout for unnecessary words and phrases.

Oh, and also . . . 

Commas Are Not Just an Excuse to Keep a Sentence Going Forever

Instead of going through all of the ways, I’ll just point you to the Purdue Online Writing Library (OWL).

Too often, I see Magic writers use commas as an excuse to just keep a thought going, no matter how many clauses and ideas are strung together. Don’t do that. Keep sentences punchy and short.

Also, semicolons should probably be avoided unless you know what you’re doing. Even then, most readers don’t know what they do, so avoiding them is usually advisable. Just so you know, semicolons are most often used in places of periods to connect two connected, but otherwise complete, thoughts or as list separators when the list items already have commas.

That last rule is actually pretty relevant when listing planeswalkers. Though hyperlinks and general knowledge can work around it, it’s generally advisable to write with semicolons for clarity.

“Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Jace, Architect of Thought; and Jace Beleren are my favorite cards.”

Active Voice Should Be Used

If you didn’t get the joke in this subheading, pay attention.

In active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the verb. “Jack threw the ball.”

In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is having the verb done to it. “The ball was thrown by Jack.”

Passive voice is almost always worse and almost always avoidable. You can usually notice passive voice from words such as “by,” “to,” and “from.” Avoid passive voice when at all possible.

Avoid: “Knight of the Reliquary was killed by a miracle Bonfire of the Damned.”

Use: “A miracle Bonfire of the Damned killed Knight of the Reliquary.”

Exclamation Marks Are Distracting and Unnecessary

Most exclamation marks are both unnecessary and distracting. If your writing can’t convey excitement, an exclamation mark can’t do it either.

I think F. Scott Fitzgerald said it best when he wrote, “An exclamation mark is like laughing at your own joke.”

Because, really, what is the difference between these two sentences?

Young Pyromancer is the best red 2-drop ever printed.”

Young Pyromancer is the best red 2-drop ever printed!”

The readers don’t make it to the exclamation mark till the end of the sentence, so it doesn’t change the way they read it in their heads. Save the exclamation marks for text messages and Facebook posts.

“If it sounds like writing, rewrite it.” —Elmore Leonard

Also, write something, leave it, come back, and read it. Often, you’ll hate it. If you like it with a clear palette, chances are it’s worth holding on to. There’s no shame in revising. I’ve never published anything I wouldn’t change in some way if given the chance.

Read. A lot.

No, More Than That.

The best writers are consummate readers. If you’re interested in being a Magic writer, you probably already read quite a bit. Now start reading more than that.

Writing Resources

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