Video Game Journalism 101: Buy This Book (An Interview with Nathan Meunier)

One year ago, veteran gaming journalist Nathan Meunier appealed to the Kickstarter masses with a promise: help fund the final push of his work-in-progress book, and he’d fill it with all the juicy games writing advice he could mentally export.  That project has now come to life, and Up Up Down Down Left WRITE: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism is available to the reading masses beyond Kickstarter.  We tapped both Meunier’s book and brain for a closer look at breaking into and thriving in the world of writing about video games.

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One year ago, veteran gaming journalist Nathan Meunier appealed to the Kickstarter masses with a promise: help fund the final push of his work-in-progress book, and he’d fill it with all the juicy games writing advice he could mentally export.  That project has now come to life, and Up Up Down Down Left WRITE: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism is available to the reading masses beyond Kickstarter.  We tapped both Meunier’s book and brain for a closer look at breaking into and thriving in the world of writing about video games.

Although Meunier’s résumé now includes established book author, his experiences prior to writing UUDDLW are what make it a credible source of journalism gold.  With six years of freelance video game journalism under his belt, Meunier’s credits include sites like IGN, GameSpot, The Escapist, and right here at Gamezebo, as well as print publications like Nintendo Power and Official Xbox Magazine.  His ongoing gaming industry coverage is preceded by five years of staff reporting for Vermont-based newspaper Hardwick Gazette, which highlighted the differences between traditional journalism and that of the games industry. 

“Working as a staff reporter for a weekly newspaper was stressful business at times, but I found it gave me a really strong foundation and understanding of journalism,” Meunier told Gamezebo.  “At first, transitioning to the less demanding groove of upbeat blog-style gaming news was a fun change of pace, but it’s really a far cry from anything resembling traditional journalism. I did a few small stints on gaming news teams but moved on to focus on other kinds of content. I find feature writing is a lot more like the old-school reporting I used to do, and it’s a lot more fulfilling personally.”


Everything you wanted to know about  video game journalism (but were afraid to ask)

This transition between writing focuses is evident in UUDDLW, which succinctly explains the differences, benefits, and challenges of each genre of games writing available to potential journalists.  While many writers may lean towards one type of writing over another, Meunier advises flexibility and keeping yourself open to new gigs:  “Being adaptable certainly helps. I often hear new writers who are considering getting into freelancing say things like ‘I only want to write opinion pieces’ or ‘I’m only interested in reviewing games.’ That’s certainly fine if you’re not looking to build a full-time career on freelancing, but anyone who’s serious about making a go of this as their day job needs to be prepared to diversify and tackle a wide range of pieces. I honestly think that’s one of the more exciting aspects of this job. It gets repetitive writing the same kinds of pieces over and over again. Variety is what keeps it fun!”    

The fun of games writing and Meunier’s passion for it shines throughout UUDDLW‘s light-hearted tone. Whether he’s warning of “squishy-hating robots” pounding down your door for emailing editors attachments, or confirming that you will have to review less-appealing games like “Magical Baby Friends in Yum Yum Land 3,” Meunier provides realistic expectations while keeping the joy of the pursuit alive.  At the same time, the challenges and requirements new—and even experienced—writers will meet are presented at face value. 

“Being able to sell yourself by marketing your writing ability, your ideas, and your ‘brand’ as a freelancer is very important,” Meunier said.  “You can be a great writer and still struggle if you don’t have the marketing savvy to get your pitches and clips on editors’ radars. You also have to be very driven, willing to adapt, and open to learning from your mistakes. Persistence and sheer determination is a big part of what separates those who make it from those who decide to pack it in when things get challenging.”   

Of course, UUDDLW provides extensive guidance on some of those most challenging areas.  “I’d say the ability to pitch is the single most important skill any freelancer needs to master,” Meunier said.  “Pitching articles to editors is often your first point-of-contact with a publication, and it’s the most direct way to land an assignment. Coming up with some unique and interesting article ideas is key, but you then have to be able to craft a snappy pitch that hooks an editor’s attention and builds a compelling case as to why they should commission your piece.”  Because of the critical, make-or-break nature of pitches, six entire chapters of UUDDLW are dedicated to this subject alone, including real examples of pitches Meunier made that led to published features on The Escapist and Polygon.


Freelance games journalist Nathan Meunier doing what he does best

Though the larger areas of pitches, trade shows, finding paying gigs, and the like are covered in full, Meunier has also included priceless advice on the lesser-considered aspects of freelance video game writing.  Everything from paying taxes to finding debug consoles, dealing with assignment shortages to getting burned out is explored from Meunier’s been-there point-of-view. 

“To be able to freelance in this industry over the long haul you really have to love writing as much as you love video games,” Meunier explained.  “Outside of the busier seasons when there’s a huge overflow of game review coverage to keep up with, I spend a lot more time writing than I do playing games. The great thing about freelancing is you’re not stuck writing about any one thing for any one publication. If I’m starting to feel a little burnt out on writing game reviews, for example, I’ll start pitching interview-heavy features or dig into topics that relate to games in some unusual or interesting way. There’s tremendous flexibility.”

After six years writing about the gaming industry, Meunier is certainly in it for the long haul.  The changes he has witnessed firsthand range from unfortunate to inspiring:  “Things are changing rapidly. Print is slowly fading away, which is a real drag, but at the same time traditional mags are finding new and exciting models like iPad digital editions that preserve that style of publication. I hope to see print stick around a bit longer, as I’m a big fan of sitting down and thumbing through the glossy pages of a physical print product. Video is becoming a bigger component of many digital publications, and while I think outlets are still figuring out where the freelance end of things fits into that equation, I think we’ll see a lot of exciting opportunities open up for writers who are willing to branch out in that area.

“I think personally, the rise of indie gaming and the advent of digital distribution is one of the coolest changes I’ve watched unfurl. I’m a huge indie gaming enthusiast, so it’s interesting to look back a few years ago when it was harder to score indie-focused coverage, and now you have indies in the spotlight and holding their own alongside big AAA studios. The ability to get more games digitally is a huge boon to freelancers too, as it makes getting early review code a lot less of a hassle than it used to be.”

That focus on indie games has also been encouraged by another change Meunier is personally familiar with: the swell of crowdfunding support.  “Crowdfunding is a very fickle, very terrifying animal. It’s an exciting and horrifying experience at the same time—a real rollercoaster,” Meunier said.  “I’m exploring the possibility of researching and writing a book that focuses on crowdfunding for authors specifically. I’ll save my tips and secrets for that, when it unfolds!”

Will N.Meunier spill the secrets of his Kickstarter success in a future book?

While Meunier’s crowdfunding book is still in planning, readers itching for even more knowledge won’t have to wait for its release; his next guide, Interview Fu: The Game Journo Guide to Conducting Killer Interviews is due out before the end of 2013.  “Interview Fu is almost done! I hope to have it out before winter,” he said.  “This shorter follow-up book has a similarly upbeat and occasionally humorous tone to UUDDLW, though I’ve been soaking in reader feedback and working to incorporate more of the things that people seemed to like in this second book. In addition to info-packed chapters full of tips and how-to advice on the ins-and-outs of interviewing, I’m including an entire chapter featuring numerous short personal stories of crazy and challenging interview experiences I’ve had over the past decade. These ‘tales of troubleshooting’ are from both my time as a ‘real world’ reporter and from my experiences as a freelancer in the game industry.

“While I tried to keep the focus of UUDDLW more on the tips and tricks you need to learn to break into this gig and less on myself, Interview Fu uses more personal examples and anecdotes throughout its pages to help illustrate points. I’ve conducted thousands of interviews over the past decade, and I’ve had some really amazing and truly awkward and terrifying experiences. I’m pretty excited to share some of the craziness with folks. I think it’s going to be an interesting read. Anyone who enjoyed UUDDLW will definitely want to scope this and other books I have in the works out, but I’m also hoping Interview Fu will attract new readers too… Interview Fu is the next book I’ll be releasing, but I already have plans for several more in the works beyond that.  At present, most of these book projects are related to writing, freelancing, and video game journalism in different ways, though I’ll likely branch out further down the road.” 

Interview Fu, along with any other guides Meunier pens in the future, will be a welcome addition to the limited arsenal currently available to video game journalists. Besides UUDDLW and Critical Path: How to Review Videogames for a Living by Dan Amrich, research options are in short supply. 

“A large portion of material in the book does come from my own personal experiences over the years, though I’ve certainly picked up a lot of great info from conversations with colleagues and editors along the way too,” Meunier said.  “When I first started delving into freelancing in this industry, there weren’t any books on the subject and online resources were pretty limited to a handful of articles scattered here and there. I had to wing it, essentially.  I spent a lot of time reading general books on freelancing to get a feel for what I was supposed to be doing, but even those left some pretty big gaps. I’m most grateful for the kind folks in the industry who offered advice and answered some of the questions I had early-on.

Nathan Meunier and Dan Amrich shared their secrets in a recent Google Hangout with Gamezone

“I’ll also add that Dan’s book [Critical Path] is a great resource! Our books are very complementary in that they cover somewhat different angles on how to break into a career writing about video games. We recently did a joint video interview together on game journalism and freelancing which was a lot of fun. I think folks who check out and enjoy either book will certainly appreciate and benefit from the advice in the other.”

Having read both Meunier and Amrich’s books, we can definitely agree.  Their expertise and passion flow throughout these much-needed guides, and while they are upfront and honest about the unflinching difficulties of the games writing business, it is always with optimism that dedicated writers can persevere.  Meunier’s sentiments were clearest when he told us: “I love freelancing. Whether I’m writing about games, craft beer, geek culture, or anything else, I find it tremendously satisfying to be able to make a living slinging word about subjects that interest me.”  Up Up Down Down Left WRITE could be the first step for gamers who are seeking that same satisfaction, the guidance on turning passion into profession.

Up Up Down Down Left WRITE: The Freelance Guide to Video Game Journalism is available at Amazon and  Meunier’s recurring advice columns that were the basis for creating the book can be found on his website, at “Shop Talk” and “Ask the Freelance Dude.” 

Jillian will play any game with cute characters or an isometric perspective, but her favorites are Fallout 3, Secret of Mana, and Harvest Moon. Her PC suffers from permanent cat-on-keyboard syndrome, which she blames for most deaths in Don’t Starve. She occasionally stops gaming long enough to eat waffles and rewatch Battlestar Galactica.