Speaking With Editor Josh Yearsley

Josh is a professional editor living in Northampton who works on games and science literature. He’s edited over two million words, which is pretty cool. Some of those words have reached top journals such as Nature, and you’ll find plenty among shelves of your local game or hobby store—he’s checked, he’s that vain. You can find him at www.joshuayearsley.com!

James Olchowski: Hello!

Josh Yearsley: Hello also!

JO: What made you decide to move to the Happy Valley?

JY: Well, I was moving away from another Happy Valley—State College, Pennsylvania—and I basically just wanted to move without feeling like I was actually moving, so this fit the bill. But really, a good friend of mine moved out here to work at UMass and told me how great the area was. I was not disappointed. There’s a true community here with a real, bustling, varied downtown and lots of interesting people. People are invested in where they live. Not everywhere’s like that.

JO: Is there anything about the area that you think is uniquely conducive to your work?

JY: This area has an astounding number of people interested in and actively developing tabletop games, so that’s amazing to be around. Make Talk Play is just one example of how many accessible game-makers there are out here. Mass also has tons of universities, so there are plenty of opportunities to partner with university presses. Given, I could do that from anywhere, but being close by is a plus.

JO: Currently, you work primarily as a professional copy-editor. What drew you to the profession? Have you always been… a stickler?

I’ve always been intensely interested in how systems of various sorts work, and that includes language. I like craft, and I like supporting others in refining their craft. Editing is the perfect mix of all those interests. Also, in grad school everyone thought I was weird for enjoying the thesis writing and revising process, so that was a hint.

I remember my mom telling me as a kid to never start a sentence with “me and,” and I stuck to that advice like gum to a sidewalk, so I was certainly a candidate for becoming a stickler. But when I became a professional editor, I changed my views. There’s a pretty pervasive idea that editors are sticklers, but I’m anything but. There is incredible variety in the way that people write and speak, and most of the time it serves English-users poorly to be a stickler.

More important than following the “rules” of English is context and readership: Is this a government report that will be read by people who might not speak English as a first language? Best to hold very tightly to conventions. Is it a work of fiction, and I’m looking at the dialogue? The conventions of written English barely apply there. The best definition of a “great editor” I’ve ever heard comes from the blog The American Editor: “A great editor is someone who ensures that a reader understands the editor’s author.” My allegiance is to the reader, not the pitchfork-waving rules stickler.

JO: Is there a particular reason you chose to leave academics behind?

JY: Fear is the mind-killer, and boy did academia make me feel fearful. Multi-year projects that might not even give useful results? Check. Little to no chance of a tenured position once I graduated? Check. The American professorship is dying, and I didn’t want to be a casualty. I love furthering humanity’s knowledge, but I also need a reliable career. [It’s never too late, grad students – Ed.]

JO: What sorts of work do you edit?

JY: The vast majority of my work is in games and the sciences. In most of the science work I do, the authors don’t speak English as a native language, so editing their work is mentally exhausting, so I try to change up what I work on from day to day. I could be working on a 300-page book or a five-page paper. I could be working on a game about cats saving their owners’ lives with magic or a paper about constructing sensors from DNA. The variety keeps me fresh.

JO: What’s your process when it comes to working on an editing project? Do you set up shop in a coffee shop with a typewriter?

JY: Takka-takka-takka! Wow that would frustrate people in a hurry. Almost all the editing I do is on the computer, usually just a Word document, then maybe looking through a paper copy at the end. So yes, quite often you’ll find me in Sip Cafe in Northampton. I like getting out and being surrounded by people. I’m also part of Owl and Raven, a Noho co-working space, to vary things up. I need to change where I work throughout the day to keep my mind focused.

JO: So you’ve done a lot of science editing. What do you find are the most common problems you encounter in science writing?

JY: Science writing tries its best to be objective-sounding, but most of the time it backfires horribly. Authors try to pull themselves out of the work, writing things like “It is believed that…” when what they mean to say is “We believe that…” Generally they avoid the active voice like the plague, often leaving the verb way at the end of a long, convoluted sentence. Hedge words are also super common— stuff like “perhaps,” “possibly,” and “somewhat,” which are perfectly appropriate but often piled atop each other in ways that obscure the core message of the writing.

JO: Why is it important to have independent editing of a scientific work? Why not just rely on peer reviewers and an ever-present cloud of fear and shame?

JY: Editors and peer reviewers serve different purposes. Peer reviewers ensure that the science is sound; editors ensure you can read the science without wanting to stab your eyes out. If the peer reviewer has a hard time understanding the science, they’ll ask the author to get an editor. Given that, though, as an editor I often find errors in the science because I’m editing papers in fields of my academic background. So when I find those mistakes, I point them out, but it’s not my main job.

As I mentioned before, most of the science work I edit is written by non-native English users—mostly Chinese, Japanese, and Indian authors—and English is the de facto international scientific language, so ensuring that researchers can actually read and understand the science published is, to understate it, important.

JO: You also edit a lot of tabletop games and rulebooks, are there challenges that come with editing game content?

JY: Absolutely. Rules can be some of the hardest text to edit correctly because the language has to be close to perfectly specific. There’s a particular breed of game-player known as the “rules lawyer,” who try their hardest to find and exploit loopholes in the rules, and there are pages upon pages of people on the Internet arguing over the meaning of particular rules. I’ve seen well-respected publishers put out errata (corrections) for games that are a dozen or more pages long because rules are so easy to write unclearly.

Rules are technical documents, so in them you create this new, technical language. You start compacting complicated concepts into single words or phrases—for example, “exhaust a card” (meaning “flip it sideways, and you can’t un-flip it until this time”) or “spend a token” (meaning “you remove the token from your play area, but it is not removed from the game”)—and you have to be extremely vigilant to use that new language clearly and consistently.

JO: How much input do you have in terms of actual game content? Do you ever clarify a rule out of existence, or point out an issue in the text that changes the way the game is designed?

JY: That depends on what I’ve been hired for. If I’m working as an editor, then ideally no: the game design should be done when it gets to me. That said, as an editor I have found plenty of rules or clarifications that are superfluous or repetitive, so they get cut or folded into other parts of the text. Sometimes, though, I work as a rules consultant, where my job is to assess whether the rules are designed well and support the game’s goals.

The consultant role usually comes in if I’m working with a larger company with lots of resources. For example, I’m the head editor of Evil Hat Productions Fate Worlds & Adventures line; each World gets a rules consultant, but sometimes issues slip through their capable hands, so at that point I take off my editor hat and put on my consultant hat, fixing those problems to keep the train rolling.

JO: You play an enormous amount of tabletop games. Do you have a favorite?

JY: My favorite, at least recent, game is Space Cadets: Dice Duel. You play as crewmembers of a spacecraft that is trying to blow the other spacecraft up—that’s the premise. To do this, you’re all rolling these sets of dice in front of you to try to get certain patterns: the helmsperson is rolling directions to move in, the shields officer is shifting the shields around, and so on. And the twist is that everything is some in real time: you’re all rolling and placing these dice at once! So it’s madness, and you’re all trying to control that madness. The ships are jetting around and people are yelling and screaming “We need to turn around now!” and “Load torpedoes into the rear bay!”

JO: If the friendly, variegated readers of the Nerd Watch could play only a single tabletop game for the rest of their long and happy lives, which would you have them play?

JY: What a tough question! Publishers, I’ll be accepting bribes. Anyone?

But seriously: Eclipse. It’s an incredibly deep, compelling, dramatic game about building space empires. There’s diplomacy, backstabbing, grand plans, wild turnarounds, amazing strategy. It’s got it all. Given, it’s a long game—a few hours, at least—but if you have the time, check it out.

JO: What was your introduction to tabletop gaming? Do you still love that game?

JY: Hmm, I probably had two introductions. Back in middle school and early high school I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering, that giant of a card game, and Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition. But my first true “modern” tabletop game was Carcassonne, a tile-laying game about the French countryside. I honestly haven’t played Carcassonne in a long time because I played it so much back then, but if someone asked to play, I wouldn’t hesitate to say yes!

JO: Are there any errors in my preceding questions, and can you fix them before this goes to print?

JY: Errors, errors everywhere. So many errors. That’ll be three thousand dollars.

[Dangit, James! This is the costliest interview yet. We told you to stop making deals! – Ed.]

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