How not to increase diversity in your freelance writing pool, part 2.

[Author’s Note: If you’re just tuning in, you can get caught up quickly by checking out Parts 1 and 1.5 of this series. For handy reference, I include the pastebin link for the proposed “application” to write for Exalted, 3rd Edition, which to my knowledge is no longer in play but which was sent out to multiple freelance applicants. All caught up? Onwards…]

Part 2 of this application consists of a number of essay questions. The one that leads it off is, in my opinion, the single most appropriate question asked in the entire document. It reads:

Select two characters from the following list and explain their motivations in under 300 words. Do not use the “Motivation” stat from Second Edition. When I talk about motivations, I am talking about the essential drive of the character. Hint: Don’t tell me what they are trying to do. Tell me what drives them to do the things they do and back it up with evidence from the books. If you aren’t sure, then impress me with your imagination by making it up. Feel free to embellish or invent details, so long as the characters are recognizable. Your choices are: The Scarlet Empress, Chejop Kejak, The Mask of Winters, and Lilith.

This is the question I wish had become a writing sample. 

I have some minor problems with it, but they are problems born of my writer’s heart, not of it being a bad question. It asks for the writer to demonstrate some knowledge of the setting (or do a little base research), while also showing clarity, brevity, and creativity. As a writer I, within boundaries, would take that “feel free to embellish” as a chance to show my stunning, creative best. I highlight this upfront because it’s important to acknowledge the good and trying, even in the bad.

The remaining questions go downhill rather quickly. There are two:

Next: Read the short story Big Two-Hearted River ( by Ernest Hemingway and answer the following in 350-500 words:

Compare Nick’s journey to Luke Skywalker’s visit to the Dark Side Cave in the film The Empire Strikes Back. Pay attention to word choice, mood, tone, and setting details employed by Hemingway to make your comparison. But also apply the overall theme of Big Two-Hearted River to the scene from The Empire Strikes Back. What is Hemingway getting at and how is it similar to that scene? Note: Do not introduce any facts from stories other than the two being discussed, or from prior knowledge of Hemingway, etc. Use no evidence about Big Two-Hearted River that does not come directly from the story itself.


Next: Read the following quote by Flannery O’Connor:

“I often ask myself what makes a story work, and what makes it hold up as a story, and I have decided that it is probably some action, some gesture of a character that is unlike any other in the story, one which indicates where the real heart of the story lies.  This would have to be an action or a gesture which was both totally right and totally unexpected; it would have to be one that was both in character and beyond character; it would have to suggest both the world and eternity.  The action or gesture I’m talking about would have to be on the anagogical level, that is, the level which has to do with the Divine life and our participation in it.  It would be a gesture that transcended any neat allegory that might have been intended or any pat moral categories a reader could make.  It would be a gesture which somehow made contact with mystery.”

Find this gesture in Big Two-Hearted River and explain in less than 500 words why it is a transcendental moment. Pay attention to word choice, tone, emotional cues, et al to make your argument. Why is the moment a gesture that makes contact with mystery and how is it “in character and beyond character” and suggestive of “the world and eternity”?

Including these questions, written this way, in an application for “voices of diversity” in a freelance writing pool is condescending and counterproductive. Both of these questions are written in the manner of a college lit course, demanding the freelance writer be able to write intense lit crit on a time pressure deadline. To further salt the wound, these questions are demanding the potential freelancer be familiar with a body of work that has a notoriously sexist and problematic fandom attached to it. Superficially, “compare Hemmingway to Star Wars” might seem like a great geek assignment (and it might be a great geek assignment!) but this isn’t homework, it’s an application.

Why is lit crit a bad test of freelance game writing? Because literary criticism is a well defined academic field with specific jargon and terminology, and the venn diagram of that language with the language of roleplaying books is two circles on opposite sides of the page. When hiring someone to write for a roleplaying game the writing qualities you’re looking for generally include clarity of writing, conciseness of prose (when you’re paying by the word, how many words it takes to say something matters), ability to convey concepts to whoever picks up the book regardless of their prior experience with RPGs, and an entertaining and enjoyable prose style that doesn’t stand out too much. None of these qualities will be displayed in the writing generated by these questions.

Compounding those problems however, we return to the issues of Parts 1 and 1.5, which is that Hemmingway, Star Wars, and Flannery O’Connor are part of an overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly male canon.1 To reiterate what I said there: this application is asking a writer who is responding to a call for diverse voices to figure out how to hide those voices behind the hegemonic voice already present in roleplaying games.

When concerns were brought up with the line editor, his response was that he didn’t have to explain himself or what he was looking for in the questions, and that declining to answer them would result in an applicant being removed from the pool. These essay questions were more important to him than writing samples or previous publishing credits. On an exam, I suppose I could understand this. But it’s not an exam, it’s an application, and the condescendingly intellectual tone of it is insulting.

All over this application the line editor both talked down to the potential applicant, and demanded that they compete in some sort of Writer’s Academic Olympiad, where they prove they know how to write an essay. Though he gave very specific instructions as to what he would like to see included, he was infuriatingly vague on what the essay questions are supposed to accomplish (and provided no further guidance when contacted.) Passages such as: “A writer’s job requires that they do constant reading and writing to keep their skills honed. Any weakness in this regard will show in a draft like bubbles in ink,” and “We can tell a writer who reads voraciously apart from one who doesn’t by their creativity, and we can tell a writer who writes frequently apart from one who doesn’t by the skill in their composition,” come across as unnecessarily threatening. They’re intimidating passages and in the context of this application they only purpose they serve is to create a sense of fear in an applicant that they’re not worthy.

That’s what I mean when I talk about tone and framing. Women are statistically far more likely to suffer from Impostor Syndrome, and this application is rife with language that will enforce it. Again, I don’t know or particularly believe that was the line editor’s intent. Rather, I think that in response to “let’s bring on more diverse writers,” instead of thinking about what that meant, he defaulted to what he personally thought made a good writer. It’s easy to be unaware of the ways in which that excludes and diminishes those voices that aren’t like his, after all, fish can’t see the water they’re swimming in. If the line editor truly believes that the books that came before were amazing, and that the problems were technical instead of cultural, he won’t be able to see that diverse voices are needed.

Meanwhile, all the little girls (and boys) that grew up like me, wanting to make games, see the door is still closed for us and we take our voices elsewhere.

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  1. Yes, I am aware Flannery O’Connor is a woman, however we’re not being asked to read her work, applicants are being asked to use her quote to interpret another dusty tome from the white, male library.