Narrative Design for non-native speakers

How to get into narrative design when English is not your native language.

Do you want to get into narrative design, but you're feeling inadequate because English isn't your first language? Fear not!

My name is Giada Zavarise, and as you can probably tell, I'm not a native speaker either. But this hasn't stopped me from getting paid work as a freelance narrative designer, and to get my articles published on fancy websites like Eurogamer and Rock Paper Shotgun.

When I started working in English, I was terrified. Now I wish I had started sooner.
Let me share some tricks.


Learn to write in English. For real.

If you want to work in the English market, you must be able to write in English. Period. This might sound oblivious, but I've seen enough people repeat the same mistake that it bears repeating.

Don't write a game in your native language and then translate it. Just don't. You're not a professional translator. You will double your workload, the resulting prose will sound awkward and stilted, and you will have learned nothing about writing in the process.

If you still struggle to write your thoughts directly in English, you should focus on improving your language first.

I know what you're thinking. "But Giada, I studied the grammar and my vocabulary is solid! I can write in English, and yet for some reason people can tell I'm not a native!"
Good. It means your skills are advanced enough to recognize what you don't know.

You're probably just starting to crawl out of the Valley of Despair.


Your issue lies in the way you structure sentences. Your grammar is impeccable, but you still tend to structure phrases following the patterns of your native language. This isn't an easy issue to fix, because it means changing the way your brain thinks. Heck, I'm still working on it myself. My phrases are entirely too long, aren't they?
I'm Italian. Our grammar is baroque.

Put away your grammar books and get a style guide. I'm a big fan of Mind the Gaffe, but free resources like the Chicago Manual of Style are also good. Focus on sentence construction, and try to assimilate the grammar constructs that don't come naturally to you because there isn't a direct equivalent in your native language.

Remember, there are small differences between British and American English. You probably got taught British English at school, and then assimilated a lot of American English on the internet. Pick a variant and stick to it (90% of your client will want American-flavored English). Mixing the two will easily out you as a foreign speaker.

And remember: the best way to learn is to practice, practice and practice again until all this will come naturally. Don't let your insecurities stop you from writing. The more insecure you are, the more you should write.


Consider getting a degree

You don't need a degree to learn English. But you might need a writing or gamedev-related degree for visa applications.

Narrative design positions are scarce. If you want a studio job, you will have to relocate. Prerequisites for work visas vary depending on countries, but as a general rule, it's hard to get a work visa without a pertinent degree. Yes, even if a company is willing to sponsor you.

Some companies automatically reject candidates without a degree. It's not a question of elitism: it's a matter of paperwork. Finding a good candidate only to discover they can't relocate is just a huge waste of time for everyone involved.

I thought I would be fine without a degree —  and then the Brexit happened, and my chances to get a studio job became much, much smaller. You can build a successful career without academic qualifications, but if you're in a position to get one without bankrupting yourself... Consider it.
You never know when it will come useful.


Be confident!

When I started doing freelance journalism, I couldn't stop apologizing to my editors. "I apologize in advance for the errors! There will be errors! English is not my first language!"
All my editors inevitably replied with  "don't worry, your English is better than my Italian."

So here's the thing: for us foreigners, picking up a second language or two is considered a necessity. English speakers don't have the same pressure to learn other languages. For them, we are IMPRESSIVE AS FUCK.
So stop excusing yourself for being a pretty awesome human being.

Also remember: being a narrative designer doesn't just mean writing good prose. Your role also involves designing quests and gameplay mechanics, pacing the story, and generally making sure the story and the rest of the game go hand in hand. You'll probably spend more time making excel spreadsheets than writing.

Perhaps you're an excellent prose writer in your native language, and seeing you can't reach that same level in English frustrates you. I've been there, pal. I know it sucks. You'll get there, eventually. In the meantime, leverage and polish your other strengths. Focus on the "design" part until you can ace the "narrative" part as well.

Bad grammar can be fixed, but it's much harder to fix bad ideas.


Network, network, network

Having a solid network of peers is vital to survive in this industry. But if you aren't a native speaker, chances are you aren't living in a big gamedev hub like London or Seattle. To build your network, you'll have to resort to other means.

Post your game on Tigsource. Master the art of Twitter shitposting. Befriend other developers during game jams. Join small Discord communities. Set aside a conventions fund to meet friends face-to-face. But most importantly, be helpful.

Don't make a Twitter account just to talk about your own stuff. Follow folks you admire and interact with them! Ask questions! RT and support their work! Compliment them! Make friends! Be supportive! Share your limited knowledge! Write good Gamasutra articles!
Last but not least, don't snub your local community.
You might not live in a vibrant gamedev HUB, but I'm sure there are a couple other indies in your country — and probably not that many other narrative designers.
As a narrative person who can write in English, you are a valuable asset for your local devs. The gigs you can get from small local developers probably won't make you rich, but will help you fill your portfolio and learn something new.
I only got the chance to work on Conglomerate 451 because I befriended the developers at a local convention — and years later, they needed

Learn to barter

So you want to put some polished pieces in your portfolio. Write a devlog. Post an article. But you're terrorized because posting something on the internet feels so official, and what if your English isn't good enough and you make a silly mistake and people laugh at you and-

That's where your network comes in.

Ask your pals to read your stuff and give you some feedback. Not for free, of course!

If you're too broke to be able to pay people, consider an exchange of favors. Perhaps you can help your friend solve some design issue? Playtest their game? Help them brainstorm? Do some structural editing? Help with art assets or code?

By the way, I am sure your prose will be mostly fine. Your friends will find small mistakes here and there, but nothing critical. I am sure you know this as well.
But you need your friends to confirm what you already know until you stop worrying.


Get an editor

Here's what fucked me up for YEARS: when I worked in Italian copywriting, I never had editors. Every copy I delivered had to be PERFECT. When I started working in English, the fear of not being perfect enough paralyzed me.
Then I realized nobody expected me to deliver a flawless first draft.

As a narrative designer, you'll rarely have the luxury of working with an editor — but there are ways to mitigate this issue.

Explain to your client that you would like to get an editor to make your prose truly shine. Is there enough budget to hire an editor? If not, can another team member proofread your work, at least?

Favor gigs that put you in a writers room. If you work with other writers, you will catch each other's mistakes.

Remember: your client knows you aren't a native speaker. You got the job because they believe you are bringing value to the team despite the occasional mishap.
Never frame this as "my English is not good enough". Instead, ask them "how can we solve this issue together?"



Ace that interview

So you published your portfolio, sent CVs around, and got yourself an interview. And now you are terrified because you have a funny accent, and people will never believe you can write in English if you can't speak well!

Here's the thing, though: I bet you had to send portfolio pieces to get that interview. Perhaps you even did a writing test or two.

You have an accent. So what?
Ask an American and a Brit to pronounce the word " advertisement" and watch them argue for half an hour. English pronunciation doesn't have any sense! Words are meaningless! Stop worrying so much! Get that job!

You've got this.


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