Lady Emily Has a Slick Pen and a Sharp Tongue
On YouTube, script-writing, the challenges of online fandom, and so much more.
It can seem through the industrialized pace at which online content gets released that there’s not much effort going behind it, but that assumption couldn’t be further removed from reality–for video essays especially, the stronger the script, the bigger the impact. The following is my conversation with Lady Emily, Sarah Z’s longtime partner-in-crime and recent solo dabbler in the essay genre on YouTube–if you seek to understand the space’s minutiae, there are very few people even capable of providing a more comprehensive insight.
Much like my own blogging escapades, Emily struggles to conceptualize for outsiders what her occupation is, but she’s content with downplaying the YouTube association if only to emphasize her intimate involvement with the writing process. “The easiest way [to describe it] would be “YouTuber”, but I don’t like to market myself like that because I feel like if I go to my grandma and say “hey I’m a YouTuber” she’s not gonna know what that means, and [she won’t] think that it’s a [proper] job, even though it is,” she says. “So I tell people that I do script-writing and essays since I’ve been making analytical video essay type content for the past year. [...] That’s probably the easiest way to explain it though: My job is essentially to analyze media and write essays on topics mostly related to internet media, or just any sort of media we find [interesting enough to cover].”
What distinguishes Emily’s work from past similar fixtures is that it takes the length necessary to make a cogent analysis well in-stride. However compelled she often is to imitate the style of her cultural precursors, Emily came to embrace the skills honed over the years to deliver content matching her sophisticated outlook on even the simplest works of art and literature. “There’s been a general shift in online video essay critique culture to be more analytical–which is good and great. I grew up in the Channel Awesome age where everything was just “here’s a plot point and I’m gonna nitpick it.”–one of the things I always try to do when I sit down with a project is figuring out what I want to talk about and approaching it from as many viewpoints as I can in terms of what were they trying to do here, does it work, and if it does or doesn’t, why is that so?”. Part of that comes from Emily’s own baseline sympathy with how hard the process of making media—particularly film—can be. “I went to film school, I have on-set experience—I don’t have the most industry experience however—but what that did is beyond teaching me any knowledge of production or a practical thing like how to wrap an 8-pin XLR cable, it puts you in that position to where every project no matter good or bad, commercial or passion project, has a lot of work and a lot of effort put into it, and there’s a chance that someone there has some sort of vision going into it,” she says. “When I approach something like ‘Demo Reel’, it would be really easy for me to point and laugh at it and be like “look at how bad Doug Walker is at comedy! Look at how bad this is!” but no: I want to understand what he was going for and I want to at least respect him as an artist enough to break this down and figure out why it’s not working because that’s more interesting, more rewarding, and that was something I just always wanna do–see it on its own terms and then grapple with that.”
The wider adoption of thoroughness in the online video essay scene didn’t come over night, and what precipitated it were at once a change in creator attitudes but also a shift in audience culture that made itself more amenable to appreciating how long and arduous any judicious breakdown—as rich with information as it is—of a piece of media can be. “One thing that led to it was an increase in the backlash against Doug Walker and the downfall of Channel Awesome which ruined the capitalization of that format since before then, it was rewarding to imitate him, to be like him, but then once it became clear that wasn’t working anymore, people quit or they changed their format and tone. We [also] saw some other creators like Red Letter Media [break rank], and their videos definitely did play a factor into changing it and showing that people will listen to actual film theory and in-depth stuff that doesn’t feel as nitpicky.” Parallel to being alienated by the ways of old, Emily credits the advent of creator support platforms like Patreon for opening up the doors for less subservience to the algorithm and doing more of what tickles creators’ personal fancy. “Another thing that can’t be discounted is weirdly enough the rise of Patreon as a form of creator support and a lack of limitations on video essay runtimes and what can be expected from an online video. One of the things that feels like a very early 2000s model is this idea of having to make something at least every week, maybe two if you get lucky, but now that’s changed–I see essayists who try to do one video a week, and it burns them out. You have to try to watch the thing, write the video, make it, edit it and then upload it in the span of a week so you don’t have time to sit there and think of the most brilliant analytical critique, or do the [sufficient] research,” she says. “Changes to the way YouTube balances ad and algorithm stuff mixed with the fact that Patreon exists so creators don’t necessarily need to have constant ad revenue and viewer engagement means that you have creators like Sarah who is able to do one video a month, or Hbomb who is able to do a video every few months and still be fine, liked by the algorithm and—as far as I know—is able to pay his bills. But I think that was another big shift: The ability for creators to do that and be popular while maintaining a livelihood.”
Considering the creator’s perspective is always crucial in a space where they’re often the sole supply of cultural product, but from Emily’s perspective, even creators themselves have to better conceive of the audience’s whims and desires if they aim to please. “As a viewer, I do think one of the big changes that happened is a shift in how we see streaming media in general. It used to be that online content was an addendum to the regular content you engaged with, meaning it was akin to a light snack at the end of the day–you’d boot up your computer, you watch something that’s 10-15 minutes long at most, and then you go about your day. Now we’re starting to see a generation of people who have grown up in a world where YouTube and YouTubers are as much a point of culture and media as the actual big television networks.” The flattening of user interfaces and experiences relevant to online video and the democratization of on-the-go video consumption also helped immensely in that change, Emily reckoned. “When you go to open up [the YouTube or Netflix app] on Roku or a PlayStation, they’re right next to each other, so it’s easy to mix those two up in your head and be like “one of these is just as valid as the other in terms of entertainment.” Especially during 2009-2012, online stuff was very much specifically a computer-based thing still–“If I’m doing this, I’m sitting down in front of my desktop or laptop, eyes glued to the screen as I’m watching” the thinking often went, and now we have more options for where to watch YouTube, how to watch it,” she says. “One of the shifts that moving from riff-based [content] to these long analytical things [engendered] is that you don’t need to necessarily be looking at the screen because more of the actual critique is going into the words and into the verbiage. You get a lot more if you watch it, but you can also listen to it and be fine–it’s just a general shift in the way that we engage with online content and the way that it envelops us. It evolved the way in which we’re able to keep it around us and use it and integrate it into our day-to-day lives.”
To bring that fruit to bear, one must know the ways of the pen, and Emily’s is as sharp and seasoned as any could ever be. In asking her about the minutiae of the task, I expected an answer fitting its complex nature, and it did not disappoint. “The way that the writing process works with me and Sarah at least specifically—but mine isn’t too dissimilar—is we start with a topic, and [then] we figure out exactly what we want to say about it. Sometimes it’s very vague–like “let’s talk about Homestuck and everything about it” and sometimes it’s very specific like ‘All or Nothing’ or ‘The Johnlock Conspiracy’ where you know exactly what you’re going to talk about, where the players are, what was the controversy, etc. While we’re doing research into primary resources, looking at what happened, reports and other things we could find, we break things down into little subsections–I feel like that makes the videos longer, but [it also] makes them more approachable and fun. As a viewer, I like watching videos of things that I have no idea about, so it feels silly sometimes to be like “before you watch this video about Sherlock, here’s us explaining what Sherlock is in fifteen minutes” but it does [legitimately] help people,” she says. “Then once we have our basic research and understanding [of the topic], we take those little subsections and we place them into a word document, and we’re able to [then] add onto various moments as we see fit. So for the Adventure Zone video, we can [split workloads to be more efficient]–we can both write on [the doc] at the same time, and even when I’m doing solo work, I try to come up with little headings and subsections because in general, that makes videos easier to watch. It’s easier for people to be like “let me stop watching here as I’ve gotten into this little break” than it is to have one uninterrupted two hour video.” Just as important for Emily is being able to pool her ideas into a giant doc without worrying about the sequence or order of things until all the pieces slot where they may. “By doing that, I’m able to figure out a way to write non-linearly, which seems a lot more difficult than it actually is–when I describe it, it feels like I’m talking about writing a House of Leaves thing when it’s not so much the case. For the ‘Demo Reel’ vid, I had it separated primarily on an episode-by-episode basis, so I might not know how the video starts, but if I think of something I wanna say about episode four, I don’t have to worry about holding that in or trying to power through the sections in episode 1-3–I can directly go down to the relevant episode section and be like “okay, here we go.” It gives a good way to organize my thought process because when I sit down to write, sometimes it’s like you’re looking at a blank canvas as an artist [and wondering what to even draw].”
Similarly distinctive of Emily’s identity is her reticence to relent on details, and her writing partner Sarah is exemplary of as much–still and despite the volume of work that goes into a single stream, Emily considers open communication and transparency key to keep up pace. “Sarah and I have perpetual “can’t shut the fuck up” disease, so we tend to go on for a long time, which is… something I [try my best to curtail]. A lot of the time we’ll be writing silently [in unison] but usually we’ll [confer between each other on what sounds good and doesn’t]–I’d be writing something really dumb in the script—completely out there—and I’ll be like “oh we cannot use that, that’s just something I included preeminently” but [Sarah] reads it and she’s like “no, I love it.” For instance, the little moment in the ‘All or Nothing’ video where she pulls out the bisexual agenda and writes down “do my daily Irene Adler rant” was a 3am adlib that I put there as a joke, and she was like “no let’s keep it, let’s do it.”,” she says. “Trying to balance the jokes in video essays can be a bit of a strange thing because I don’t know if Sarah and I are necessarily trying to be funny. We don’t view ourselves as a comedy channel—we don’t have a process for “can we make this make funnier, wackier, snarkier”—it happens by the nature of who we are as people that eventually there’s gonna be some gag there.” Tangentially, and given the less-than-serious undertone of most internet content produced by irony-addled youngsters, one has to indulge some of it to retain attention. “Something I try to keep in mind while writing is that I don’t want to start feeling like a Wikipedia summary, so I might start adding a little commentary note or just a little thing there—and it sounds mean—to make sure that the viewer’s awake, because I don’t want someone to drift off and then completely zone out and miss what I’m saying. One of the things that is really great about what we’re doing and especially with my channel, is that my first two videos at least were dealing with very obscure stuff, so I could make jokes out of things that I don’t even really need to–I can make jokes just stating what that happened, and one of my favorite parts of the Demo Reel vid is casually saying “Doug Walker sleeps with Egoraptor” and leaving it like that. I know the time-code of when I say that because everyone reacts in horror in the comments, and it’s fun to do that, same with the ‘Save to Win’ conspiracy theory stuff where I just need to say what happened, and it’s fun [as a result].”
If the above sounded like food fittest for delectors of verbosity, Emily did me the courtesy of summarizing it for those who’d like a basic blueprint on which to draft an effective approach to video-essay-making. “Essentially what we do is take this topic, figure out how we can condense it down—what are the bare essentials of understanding it, what’s the point that we need to get to—we work hard at fleshing that out, adding enough of our voices there to make it seem interesting, and then we’ll do a final read through of it–I do the same thing with my channel where I go and read through it outloud to make sure it flows well, it sounds good, that there are not any words repeated [too much] or sentences that just don’t make sense, and that can change an essay dramatically depending on what your script is like, and then kind of by that point, it’s done and it’s ready to go.” Additionally, Emily has some advice for those who’d like to walk the sparsely-beaten path of video-essay-making on YouTube. “It's something that Sarah and I get asked [quite a bit]: “How do I make video essays, how do I do it?”. I get why people ask it because new and online media can feel like this ethereal new thing but at the root of it, video essay is just the words “video” and “essay”. You write an essay and make a video on it, so the script writing process in a lot of respects is very similar to the sort of stuff that you write doing English analysis class in college,” she says. “It’s kinda that same [mentality], stretched out and with a lot more curse words than you’re probably allowed in an academic setting. We still approach this with “we need our thesis statement, our introduction, our [handful of] different paragraphs with what our arguments and points are, and then we need our conclusion” and it’s very much utilizing a lot of basic knowledge [of the craft]. So when people ask “how do I get a video essay done?”, my best advice is to learn how to write a good essay and then learn how to do video editing, and that is [half the battle won]. I know it’s easier said than done, but for me, it was something I discovered working alongside Sarah because that was an experience I had when I did my first video [with her]: It’s knowing that it’s not necessarily a nebulous thing to work on a video essay [even when] it still feels like it, so when I did the video job with Sarah, [I realized] it’s just me and my friend writing in a Google Doc together–I can do this!”
By virtue of Emily’s subjects being online, there’s always the challenge of sourcing a material oft-plagued by impermanence–some might say the internet has a long memory or it doesn’t forget, but the documented history of its ongoings can sure recede back into obscurity when content is removed and there’s little in the way of recovering it back. “It’s definitely a struggle and this job has taught me the magic of how to get the most of the Wayback Machine. It becomes a thing especially when you’re dealing with something like Tumblr which in my opinion—maybe because I’m not the biggest Tumblr user—trying to search for things directly on it is kind of a nightmare, so when it comes to Tumblr stuff I [just off-load it to Sarah] because she was there, and she’s able to find it on her own because she knows the site better. But there’s definitely stuff that we run into in terms of deleted things we cannot find or verify ourselves,” she says. “We ran into that with the McElroy brothers video where people were like “there was drama on the Facebook page for one of the podcasts” and they’re surprised we didn’t bring it up, but the reason we didn’t, is that everything from it had been completely deleted, [and what remains of it are] 3rd party accounts or maybe a loose screenshot or two. That’s not to say that the accounts are false, but when you’re presenting a video essay, at this point is it really worth getting into it and have only the words of one person—that we can’t verify—to show for it?”. Just as important for Emily also is the question of ethics and making sure that the breadth of the coverage is respecting boundaries within journalistic reason. “If you’re researching something like ‘All or Nothing’ for example where you’re trying to figure out info on the project, do you reach a certain point where you try to track down the person who made the project? Would that be okay or not? At what point is being able to talk about this publicly and trying to find public posts about it go into just creepy and uncomfortable territory? Because that’s not what I want to do.”
For some, plans are made to be broken, and Emily has a history of subjecting her script to exactly that as the stories she covers reveal themselves more expansive than previously believed. “Going back to ‘All or Nothing’ because it’s the most online post we did recently, we had the script for a 25-30 minute video and Sarah was like “I think this reel is a pretty comfortable length, I think we’re almost done” and I was like “Yeah, the only way I could see this being longer is if it turned out ‘All or Nothing”’secretly did get made”–we joked and laughed about it and I went ahead and looked it up and sure enough someone did make an ‘All or Nothing’ series so we had to add that to the script” says Emily as she cracks a laugh. “It happened with ‘Save to Win’ as well where the original script version of that was in my opinion a lot worse and very upfront about the fact that the game show doesn’t work, you don’t save money while doing this, and I don’t know why [the show barely honored its namesake]. It was a twenty-minute script, I was like “okay that’s basically done”, then I wondered if I can find any articles on it and accidentally came across the Facebook page—which caught me off-guard—so now I had to double the video’s length because I have to explore this little conspiracy theory tangent.”
Most-recently—and generally since the release of Sarah Z’s video on Homestuck, one Emily helped co-write—there’s been an abundance of animosity thrown their way. This isn’t unprecedented for high-profile video essayists as Lindsay Ellis and ContraPoints got their fair share of criticism before for what seemed like at-best misunderstandings of points made, or worse yet completely dubious claims made about their character and content–Emily sees this as merely an extension of similar past phenomena. “What we’re seeing is a disconnect between what people who are fans of Homestuck—or are close to What Pumpkin people think Homestuck is—versus the rest of the world’s perception of it. There is that Dan Olson tweet where he [referenced that dissonance] and that’s kind of the real disconnect that we’re getting into now which is that from our perspective, Homestuck was the biggest webcomic of the 2010s–it made this million-dollar kickstarter, it has a licensing deal with Viz Media, it has several published video games out, there’s several registered corporations—it has an official corporate [procedure] and you expect it to act so—whereas to people close to it, Homestuck is [still] this small independent queer creation thing,” she says. “I think a lot of it goes to the backlash from the epilogues and that post-epilogue period where Homestuck was made by a lot of queer, trans and PoC creators—which is cool, good and great—and I’m sure that there was a lot of harassment because of that. That’s what happens when you are a minority on the internet unfortunately. You do get harassment, especially when you’re put into a popular franchise or a position of prominence–it's unfortunate and it sucks and I hate it. I feel really bad that the people involved had to deal with it, but I think it led to this “Us vs Them” mentality and the idea that even so much as talking about Homestuck negatively at all is doing the public a disservice. [...] It’s almost this cult of personality and said personality is Homestuck–this idea that at the end, the brand and the work is more important than anything surrounding it, so if the people involved with the work are feeling one way, then you have to do so as well, and if people are talking bad about the work, they must imply malice towards the author, and if they do so, then that’s harassment, and if they’re harassing you, well then it’s okay to respond in kind.”
Away from the trepidations of toxic online fandom and to clear the air of tension, I thought to inquire what brings Emily joy to do and what media she takes pleasure in consuming–between doing it for work or in times of leisure, the palette is pretty broad. “There are a lot of YouTube essayists that I love to watch—Todd in the Shadows, Folding Ideas, Lindsay Ellis, Princess Weekes—they’re all great. I like watching speedruns–they’re fun to keep on in the background. I do D&D with friends and that’s just one of the most fun experiences in my life. I listen to a lot of music in general–I guess I’m a musician since I did music for seven years, so I like having music around me–[it helps that] my dad was [also] a musician. So if I’m writing, in my room, or playing video games, I'll put on St. Vincent, Gorillaz, Mountain Goats, etc.” Besides her main coverage preoccupations, Emily indulges a good amount of video games both as a way to settle down from the hecticness of script-writing and the (often) unpredictable response to analysis published, but it also serves as a spark to ignite the elusive fires of creativity. “[As for gaming], I go through waves of [it]. Right now I’ve been playing a lot because I’ve been trying to take mental breaks, so I can put [as] many hours into Persona 5 Royale [as I’d like]. I played Nier Replicant back in April and that was delightful–it was one of those that immediately went to my favorites of all-time list and got me excited for writing and art again because beyond essays, I [also] do write fiction. I’m trained to be a screenwriter technically, so I’ve always been very into creative writing, [even though] I don’t get to flex [that muscle] as much because I’m always busy doing [essays],” she says. “I try to dabble in a lot of things because I find [them all] interesting and fun–I’ve always been curious about art, so I’ve just taken to it in various different forms, and it’s usually very enjoyable.”
Before bidding Emily farewell, I wondered what the future held for her channel. While hesitant to set much in stone, she nonetheless remains hopeful about what’s to come, even if it doesn’t make itself as obvious as she’d ideally prefer. “What happened with my channel was a very weird and unusual thing in that it’s rare for an essay channel—or any YouTube channel—to take off the way mine did right off the gate, which caught me off guard. I still feel like a Z-list YouTuber in a lot of ways, but I have to acknowledge that I was in a very unusual circumstance. [...] [Coming off the Demo Reel video hype], I didn’t want people to look at this channel and assume that it reviews bad TV shows and bad internet content, media, people, etc. It’s why if anyone suggested doing more coverage of Channel Awesome, I immediately rejected it [because I refuse] to be pigeon-holed into that corner” she says. “As for the future of the channel, I have a list of essay ideas and things I want to talk about, and whether people will care about them or will be interested in them–I have no idea. I’m just gonna try it, see what happens, and hope for the best. If it doesn’t take off, or I’ve ‘peaked’, I have a backup job to go back to and I’m doing the stuff that I want to do and love doing.”
That expression of passion is something core to the task of writing–it’s one of the very few metiers where forcing it consistently produces not-so-great results, which ends up reflecting very well on Emily’s content that it manages to sustain its earnest curiosity even when the piece of content covered doesn’t seem all-that-interesting on face-value. The work does not always flow the smoothest—especially when one takes into account the backlash that’s sure to ensue after covering a controversial piece of media or internet drama—but Emily pushes forward with resolve even in the face of much unwarranted dismay.
The modus operandi of media analysis in the past was to treat it more as enthusiast journalism–unless fixtures are fanned, they’re not worthy of attention. Emily flips the script by correctly remarking that just the process of making media and the discourse surrounding it are interesting enough on their own to warrant further exploration and analysis–that by itself is cause enough for praise, and it inspires confidence about what’s yet to come.