CASUAL FRIDAYS #75: A Writer’s Contract With The Reader

Since I am about to undertake a massive amount of Magic-related writing (PT: LA reports, Multiplayer Invitational musings, Planeshift haiku, etc.), I feel perfectly comfortable using this week’s Casual Fridays to talk about something beyond the game itself. I hope both casual and professional players interested in Magic writing will take a bit of time…

Since I am about to undertake a massive amount of Magic-related writing (PT: LA reports, Multiplayer Invitational musings, Planeshift haiku, etc.), I feel perfectly comfortable using this week’s Casual Fridays to talk about something beyond the game itself. I hope both casual and professional players interested in Magic writing will take a bit of time to look this over, and comment if they would like.

A set of trends, both good and bad, have led me to think a great deal about Magic writing and the Internet. To wit:

  • The second and perhaps more complete demise of The Dojo, Casual Fridays’ first home and resting place of some legendary Magic writing;

  • The revival of Meridian Magic (thank you Cathy, Alex & Co.) and emergence of Shawn Jackson’s Best/Worst of Internet Magic writing, two different and viable models for recognizing excellence (or lack thereof);

  • The arrival in the past three or four months of a new wave of downright excellent Magic writers on the Internet, whose habits should be encouraged;

  • The arrival in the past three or four months of a bunch of other writers who appear to need additional guidance;

  • A few disturbing moments offered by specific authors that I don’t want to see turn into a trend.

In the past, there have been good articles written about "How to write an article on Magic." Both Omeed Dariani and The Ferrett have done this, and I do not wish to repeat the lessons of grammar and focus that they advocate. We should all know by now that misspellings and poorly articulated arguments make for bad articles. Worry about that stuff first. Then, once you’ve had a few postings to your name, and you’re doing something semi-regular, start to worry about the stuff I am about to tell you.

I will start, as is my habit, with a digression.

My wife is an accomplished author, published on the Internet, audio tape, and print. As with most emerging authors, her most exciting accomplishments are her most recent ones – the reader-driven Sapphire Award for best science fiction romance (she now insists I call her "Sapphire" in bed), success in getting her foot in the door with major publishers, substantial royalty checks, and so on. It has been a real pleasure to see her writing career evolve from a "fun habit" to an actual source of professional pride and income.

And I know for a fact that one of the most rewarding aspects of all this writing success is the interaction she can have with her readers. The personal emails she gets, and the face-to-face conversations she has at conferences, are a source of inspiration to her.

Simply put, the writer-reader bond means something. It may surprise some readers, particularly those younger and/or less secure in themselves, to hear that writers need them. But we do – and not just because with no readers, sites would go under and there would be no one to write for. (That’s true nonetheless, so go ahead and put that in your pocket.) We need you because we get spiritual and emotional satisfaction from connecting with you. Period.

Because of that, and because you (we hope) get spiritual and emotional satisfaction from reading what we say (therefore connecting with US), there is, whether any of us like it or not, a contract between us.

I would like to advance my understanding of that contract. It gets preachy in places; but you have to go to church to catch religion. I do intend it as the start of a conversation, rather than a concrete set of laws. Do write and let me know what you think.

Contracts have stipulations. Mine has several.


What is value added? Simply put, value added is something you can give them that no one else does.

Value added is a harsh filter. In the business world, it weeds out companies that can’t produce the right (or best, or newest) goods or services with a profitable margin. In biology, it weeds out those creatures or mutations that do nothing to benefit the tribe, species, or environment. Even in art, it weeds out those interpretations and adaptations that no one really has a use for.

And that’s what should worry some writers out there.

You’ve read these guys. They’re the ones who think their value added is to be a poor simulation of John F. Rizzo. They believe that Mr. Rizzo’s value added is to be insulting and vapid – therefore, they invoke his name while being insulting and vapid as well:

"%@*?!? you suck, look at me, I’m like Rizzo, &@!?! you, I don’t care what you think, this expansion is #%!# and Wizards sucks because I’m like Rizzo but I do like that other expansion which is the greatest and &$%%@ you if you don’t think so and I’m a rebel and I’m not afraid to let every noxious thought out and #!$@, did I mention I’m like Rizzo. So anyway, that’s my opinion on the current state of Type II. $%#ker."

I cannot imagine being John Rizzo (and I can pause the sentence right there, but let’s keep going) and not vomiting every time I read one of these "writers." They are charlatans and pretenders who do not fathom the fabric or color of the coattails they ride on. It astounds me that Mr. Rizzo has not yet whirled his bald, reptilian head around and snapped their heads off.

What Rizzo does adds value to us as Magic community, and makes us richer in spirit and mind, not just because he swears or because he says what he likes. (How many people in chat rooms do that? Do they each get a Feature Column?) Rizzo adds value because there’s something beneath all of that. He has opinions with real supporting arguments, based on either logic or experience. He has a readership that, if it’s anything like mine, continually feeds him additional perspectives and thinking for him to process and channel. Perhaps he starts up a few side conversations with them, pushes them and himself more before he picks up the subject again. It takes time and effort to do that. The purge mode and the stream of consciousness and the swearing can all be real, not forced, because the man has something to say AND he challenges you while he says it.

(And Rizzo, if you contradict me I swear I’ll tear your #$&!ing ead off.)

Find your niche. Just don’t assume its ranting and spewing bile. Consider that you may have more to offer than that.


I get the sense sometimes that readers are surprised that I respond to their mail. Some of them even thank me when I reply. This is charming!…but weird. Here’s why.

It does not diminish my work at all when I say I "manufacture" it. That word has connotations of uncaring mass production; but there are many manufactured goods that take a great deal of time and effort and care. Many other individuals, and companies, manufacture their products. And they have what you might call customers. A customer likes a product, or has some suggestions for improvement. The customer writes to the manufacturer and outlines her compliment/advice/criticism. In return, the manufacturer sends an acknowledgement and a little "hey, thanks for checking out our product; stick with us, won’t you?" Perhaps they invite the customer to write some more, or join a focus group, or try a sample of something completely new. Most customers would not bat an eyelash at this. Most, I will submit, would EXPECT it.

Why doesn’t every Internet reader expect it? Why doesn’t every writer?

You may all guess I am moving in the direction of the "two-responses-per-week" policy of Darwin Kastle, a phenomenal Magic talent and solid writer here at Star City who really helps me think about the game. Since I’ve read other disappointed references to Mr. Kastle’s policy, I will limit my observation to the fact that this man is missing out on a terrific opportunity when he lets his readers’ voices echo without response. Holding an email lottery just won’t give a writer the kind of satisfaction that ongoing dialogue will. I hope Mr. Kastle will reconsider his policy, and let himself enjoy one of the real rewards of being a writer.


If readers are customers, writers are suppliers. We don’t have to supply anything we don’t want to; in return you are welcome to go somewhere else. (See? You can say things like that politely. You can even say it with a sneer, and still sound like a rebel.)

Every writer who does this regularly has to come up with a product every week. I cannot begin to tell those of you who haven’t done this how amazingly hard this is. If I did not play in a group every week AND reach out to my readers regularly, I have no clue how I would do it.

Because it is so hard to generate new material – new value added – every week, every writer must periodically experiment with new subjects, new formats, new experiences, and whatever else he can think of. Thankfully, WotC keeps putting out new expansions, which is helpful…But it’s usually not enough.

So writers need to tool around a little bit, and do unexpected things. Readers, in return, need to be a little patient with them.

Every once in a while (thankfully no more than once a month or so), I’ll get a rather haughty email that explains all of the things that I haven’t done correctly. I know other writers get these as well (sometimes from the same people!): Your analysis is way off-base, you should only write about X or Y, you’re unexciting in bed and I want to divorce you…That sort of thing. (Perhaps you should try calling your readers "Sapphire" – The Ferrett)

I hope I continue to get emails like this from readers. The feedback is central to how I operate. At the same time, I hope you understand that if you see something you don’t like from a writer, someone else may have asked for it. Talk to us about it; let’s have a conversation. We’ll figure out together if it was a mistake or not. And I’ve certainly made my share.


A few months ago, a website editor tersely noted irritation at those authors who take a single long piece and bust it into four or five small, barely satisfying articles. While I share concern that some writers may "milk" pieces out for longer than absolutely necessary, we also have to respect certain pressures of time and energy.

I’ll explain with a bit of disclosure: I split the Hall of Fame into about four parts every time I do it. Why do I do this? Because it is a ton of work.

Sometimes, what gets up on the screen isn’t proportional in word count to the hours that were put into the work.

I think series pieces are an acceptable route for those rare moments when a writer who is trying to get out a ton of dense information needs to take a little extra time to get it done. I also think it is perfectly acceptable for readers to call writers on this, when they feel like it’s being stretched out a bit too much. (Whoever came up with that amusing "My Fires 5000…choosing a forest" line probably felt this way.) Zvi Mowshowitz may get away with partitioning, since his fractions still pack more punch than most writers’ wholes. But I hope that other, less capable, author-analysts than Zvi do not pick up on this trend overmuch.

The other part to this stipulation is about "vacations." I see plenty of writers vanish for a few weeks, and then arrive back on the scene with various explanations. Usually it’s school or family overwhelming them for a time.

Hey, this is fine. Even my own maniacal, must-publish-every-Friday-or-die style has taken at least one vacation in the last 70 or so weeks. (Ha, ha, very funny; when I say "vacation" – I mean skipping writing altogether, not writing badly.)

That said, I find it both charming and distracting when a writer starts off an article by telling me all the reasons why something else was more important than Magic writing. Hey, we know what this game represents. It’s a part-diversion, part-hobby, part-lifestyle thing that every once in a while has to take a back seat. As a reader, *I* feel badly when a writer feels badly for reprioritizing temporarily. Now, why do you want to go making your readers feel bad? There’s a better way.

Take your vacations when you must. If you can, explain them in advance rather than after the fact. If you have a few stand-by articles ready (or hey, a series!) and you feel they’re of sound quality, use those stores to fill the gap. If you find yourself in this situation constantly, consider retreating from regular writing altogether. Please note that I intend a friendly, not an accusatory, tone.

It comes down to this: when in doubt, write fewer and more satisfying works. If you feel you must skip out for a bit, or do something in a series, don’t apologize. Just make sure you have a sound reason for stringing along your customers for a month. If you don’t want to string them along, find another pursuit. No one’s pointing fingers, no one’s assigning shame. Writing isn’t for everyone.

Which leads me to my next point…


There are rare gems of writers out there – I would put Gary Wise and Dave Price at the top of a very short list – who blend very high skill at Magic with very high skill at writing. It’s great to see, because they’re two very separate skill sets. While most Magic players are educated and savvy enough to be able to both play a good game and get a lucid paragraph out, doing both things very well for a long time really takes a substantial talent.

Did you ever notice that Jon Finkel doesn’t have a regular Internet presence? I did a little search for him and found a 1998 tourney report where he’s really sweet and thanks his mom for helping him out with a wrecked car. It’s solid enough writing; and for all I know, the guy could be a Faulkner waiting to happen. But it seems he doesn’t want to go that way. He seems to want to focus just on the game, and that’s great. We should let him do that.

Tournament reports and card/deck perspectives are the backbone of the Magic Internet presence. Without that very basic, sometimes very dry, stuff, the rest of it would come crashing down. So I hope every pro player does at least one or two of these a year. I’m not saying those things need to be stellar examples of writing technique.

But not every pro need feel obligated to go further than the basic, informative report. Significant analyses, sustained treatises, opinions, and reflections require education and/or experience that people who play the game don’t necessarily have. Does Tiger Woods write on sports for the New York Times? Does Gary Kasparov write the little chess puzzlers in the bottom corner of your local paper’s comic page? Does my mom write a weekly newsletter to your parents telling them how to make beautiful, successful, modest children?

Those of us who are better writers than Magic players probably feel the same way about recognized Magic players starting an article series as they do about some of us trying to make the Pro Tour. We’re supportive, we’re excited you want to do it, and if you ask we’ll help where we can. But like I said earlier, writing isn’t for everyone.


Not being an Internet editor, I feel I can punt this to those stakeholders with more on the line. Most of the ones we’ve come to admire either consciously or subconsciously follow the first five stipulations, and really help writers and readers connect with each other. Great editors are, in essence, great catalysts: They fix mistakes, double-check facts, receive and analyze reader feedback, and of course make the occasional humorous or clarifying remark in a writer’s piece. They’re a critical part of the contract between writers and readers, and the next time you see one, you should console them for the horrible loss I expect they will have suffered during the Multiplayer Invitational at the hands of their writer(s).

COMING SOON: As I stumble off of my high horse, I will begin a rather sizable amount of promised writing: Planeshift haiku, Coalition Victory winners, Multiplayer Invitational reporting, and so on. February will be a very busy month for me! I’m looking forward to it.

Anthony Alongi