Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Keys to working with offsite writers

Managing multiple writers, particularly ones you don’t see in person everyday, can be an extremely difficult task. Maintaining a consistent character voice or organized plotline is difficult for one writer, and while spreading it among different contributors helps to alleviate each individual workload, keeping everything straight becomes quite a challenge for the person in charge of the project.

In Kiwi’s quest-based games, new content is introduced on a weekly basis - that’s a lot of work for the teams creating it. Kiwi tasks much of this new content creation to off-site contract writers. Some of our contractors work on the main plot, which is weaved into a continuing story, others work on stand alone quest chains. Having offsite writers is crucial for our workflow, and I’ve compiled some best practices on how to manage the multiple personalities and work styles. 

Choose Excellent Writers 
The first step to establishing the top-quality writing team you’re looking for is to find top-quality writers. This may seem like an obvious step, but doing your due diligence at the beginning of the teambuilding process can save you countless headaches down the road.

First and foremost, test your new additions.  No matter how exemplary the referral, it’s important to test each individual. I give the writers tests that are more difficult than the actual contract writing required in order to be sure they can meet or exceed the needs of the game writing. 

Assuming they meet your expectations and pass whatever test you give them, keep up the close scrutiny for their first few projects. If they aren’t excited about writing and willing to learn, they probably won’t be a longterm solution for your team. Writers can get very defensive about their work (no matter how simple the mistake), and that can be a deal-breaker. Avoid these kinds of complications at all costs. 

Train Your Writers
Once you’ve found an external writer worth working with, it’s important to get him or her up to speed ASAP. I recommend having a writers guide or wiki. You don’t want to explain the world, characters, and the plot repeatedly to each new writer. If you have a single document that you can send to each person you work with, you’ll save time ramping new team members up and correcting simple mistakes later down the line. For complicated projects, get into the habit of writing and keeping outlines. That way, you don’t have to remember what should be coming next or whether they hit the right points. 

To make sure your writers are ready for the job ahead, start them off small. Give prompts to the writer during their first few projects. I will give a writer a 3-quest chain that has the characters listed, and all prompts written in. As I become more comfortable that they know the material, I remove the prompts and give them more control over what they write. 

Finally, make sure to give plenty of feedback - positive and negative. It’s important to encourage the writers, as well as give them guidance on nuances in the writing. 

Think Like a Writer
The best way to make sure new writers are contributing meaningful content to your story is to know the story yourself. You should know more than anyone what is going on, how the characters sound, and what they would and would not do. 

At the same time, don’t be afraid to learn from your writers. Encourage your writers to really think outside the box, and let them run with ideas that they are passionate about. Even if I end up making plenty of edits in the final draft, I love learning new ideas from my writers on how to squeeze a multitude of information into 125 characters. 

That said, make sure to leave enough time to make necessary edits and ensure that everything is a good fit. I prefer about a week of runway before launch day, but more complicated stories or projects may require more attention. I’ve also had a few writers disappear on me at inopportune times (usually for legitimate reasons), and I had to quickly turn their project over to someone else. The more time you leave for final edits, the less you have to scramble at the end.

This is by no means all that it takes to manage a team of writers, but it’s a good place to start. It’s extremely important to know the people you’re working with - at least as far as personality, skill, and accountability - so that you can plan accordingly. 

- Trisha Huang
Game Writer, Kiwi, Inc.