How to Write a Guide.
There are a lot of guides being written for the various encounters in Firelands and for specific classes. Not all of them will be perfect at the first draft; in fact I would be surprised to see a guide that is perfect in its first draft. There are a few basic principles that a good guide follows, and these are also universal in all non-fiction writing. Anyone who has completed a science lab class and had to produce an experimental report, or had to compose a paper for a course at college or university, will be able to relate to these aspects. The five most important aspects to a guide are the following:
3. Clarity and Readability
In a nut shell, the guide should assume the target audience is, while not completely ignorant of the topic, unaware of anything but the bare basics. This means explaining everything in detail, and not leaving “common knowledge” out because “everybody knows that”. A guide should be accurate – it should not contain errors! You cannot teach a person about a subject if the course material is wrong. Clarity means that you should structure the guide clearly into sections. This can range from a simple introduction, main content and conclusion to an expansive article with tables, lists, videos and images embedded into the body of the text. Readability means that the text should also not make too much use of formatting and use a standard typeface – flashy colours and typefaces distract the reader and can lead to the text being illegible. Objectivity means that the guide is impersonal. It does not portray opinions as fact and strives to be unemotional, even when the author feels strongly about the topic. Expandability means that the author can easily adapt the guide should a part of it become obsolete or alternative methods become known. A guide is never finished, at best it can be considered to be close to being finished. Do not forget who you are writing the guide for – you are not writing it for yourself.
More information is always good, and information is hardly ever redundant. What might seem to be common knowledge to the author is very likely unknown to the target audience. Do not leave anything out. The reader needs to get everything he or she needs to know from your text. Something I see all too often (this is not just restricted to gaming guides, sometimes I find this when researching for a University seminar project) is that the author forgets that the paper will not only be read by someone with an intimate knowledge of the subject at hand. Terms are not explained, or are explained too loosely.
An example of this would be the energy degeneration and stacking damage and movement speed buff. This is sometimes not given enough airtime – it is a mechanic that serves as a soft-enrage. It interacts with the boss’ abilities (the Shadowbreath and the fire in Phase 3) and thus needs linking to these sources of damage. One needs to be sure to mention the interaction between the energy, the breath and the (in phase 3 new mechanic) Shadowblaze Fire and the need to kite the Constructs in a manner that avoids the flames and the breath so that they lose their movement speed and damage buff.
Obviously accuracy is important. This may seem to be basic knowledge to the weathered guide writer, but guides that present information that simply is not true are useless. It would also be remiss for me to decide that this fact is not worthy of this guide given the previous paragraph. Electronic navigation assistants are notorious for this – everybody knows how annoying it is to be told to “turn left” when the road signs clearly state that you cannot turn left (or there is no left turn available). Just like in “real life”, a guide that does not present correct information to the reader proves to be more of a hindrance than a help. Somebody learning a boss fight, their class, or simply how to do something as simple as putting a flat-packed cupboard together that is presented with false instructions will end up wiping a lot, performing sub-optimally or end up with a pile of wood and pasteboard that is good for nothing except burning.
Clarity and Readability
This brings me on to the topic of clarity and readability. Just as the inaccurate instructions can prove to be obstructive, unclear instructions can prove to be just as frustrating. A good guide is split up into different segments.
The Introduction usually tells the reader a bit of background about the author, and informs the reader of any prerequisite knowledge that is assumed. This can range from a simple “This guide assumes knowledge of the normal mode version of this encounter” to a more elaborate description. It contains basic information about the guide (focus on 10 or 25 man, the topic of the guide, the aim of the guide) and can contain links to essential knowledge which is too extensive (or the author is simply not allowed) to copy.
The introduction is usually followed by an overview of the topic. In the case of a boss guide one will typically encounter a summary of the fight; in the case of a class guide one typically finds a description of the useful stats. Progress from the basics to the more involved content, and stay in chronological order. This basically means that the author covers the beginning of the encounter before covering the end.
Benchmarks can be a useful tool in guide writing too. They enable the reader to find out of they are on target or not. Examples for this would be "Phase 3 should begin at the latest 5 minutes before the Berserk to allow for enough time to kill the boss", "A Fire Mage in this level of gear should be able to sustain 18000 dps on a standing target" or, to continue with the desk building manual, "This (insert picture) is what your desk should look like at this point." While too many could be percieved as hand-holding or rambling, a well placed (and well worded!) benchmark can tell the reader more about their performance than anything else.
Role specific information is presented after the general encounter description. Divide it by role and class specific tips can be provided here as well.
The Conclusion will provide a clean end to the guide and generally include a summary of the guide in a few sentences, not more than a few lines.
Readability, as mentioned above, goes hand-in-hand with clarity. It has to do with the formatting of the guide. Use clear fonts, like Arial or the Calibri font in Microsoft Office; fonts that seem “fun” rarely ever are and only serve to annoy the reader. Choose a font size and stick with it, 12 pt for the text body and 18 or 24 for segment titles are perfectly OK. Smaller text strains the eyes too much and the reader will probably not bother finishing reading your article. Likewise use colours sparingly, and when you use them, make sure to use a colour that contrasts with the forum’s background. Light colours only work on a dark backgrounds and vice-versa. Just because you can go crazy with formatting does not mean that you should do so. Checking your spelling and grammar is also imperative, this is not just a matter of courtesy – your guide will also be read by people who are not mother-tongue speakers of English and as such can easily misunderstand your article if it is not 100% correct.
Use embedded content such as pictures, videos and tables to supplement or break up your text. If the content is directly related to the text it is adjacent to then a simple caption can be enough to link it into the body, otherwise you will need to describe what it is that makes the picture, video or embedded information so important. Resize images that are very large, take into account the size of the forum – on my guild forum I set up a BBCODE tag specifically for reducing an image’s size to a width set by the user. Nobody wants to navigate their way past a 1920*1080 picture (and readers using slower internet or who are on a data restricted subscription won’t want to be loading lots of 5MB images).
Emotions are very hard to keep out of one’s writing, especially when it comes to topics very close to one’s heart. The author of a guide should try to keep a guide objective – this means not going “over the top” with opinions or starting to complain about class balance. An opinion is fine (“A Discipline Priest can trivialise this aspect of the fight”), while “Discipline Priests are totally overpowered for this fight, stack them to win!” is probably less appropriate. It is not your job as a guide author to editorialise on the subject of your article (leave this to your blog), your job is to provide accurate information in an understandable and clear manner.
Structure your guide in a manner which lends itself to expansion and editing. People will comment on the article, and provide constructive criticism which you as the guide author would do well to consider. Members will often provide alternative strategies or air an opinion as to the validity of your claims. You may discover after writing the guide that your raid adopts a better strategy, or that a different strategy becomes mainstream. Your guide should be able to be added to without major rewriting of entire passages of text. Guides are almost a living entity; they evolve over time to better suit the needs of the readership, in doing so they become more mature. As such an author should never consider their work complete.
In conclusion I would like to thank the Authors here at TankSpot, they have provided an awesome resource that my guild and I have used extensively. I hope that people find this guide to writing a guide instructive, perhaps it will also help them outside of the game, either in school or at university as many of the principles I have discussed also lend themselves to usage in essays and reports.
Pyrea aka. Fetzie
12th July 2011
edit: Benchmarking added, formatting alteration