I have a confession to make. I love to write – whether it was short stories, final exam essays or even speeches – it doesn’t matter. Maybe one of the reasons was because I was fortunate to have a high school English teacher that really encouraged all of his students to write, write, write and that encouragement stuck with me through college and beyond.
But, when I first started doing webcomics, my love of writing actually turned out to be a liability. Not because I couldn’t write but rather because I loved to write too much. Learning how to edit yourself, to cut out all the unnecessary fat so only the essential elements of a story – or a joke – remains is one of the toughest things for a comic strip creator to do. Given that this is always an ongoing journey for a writer, I thought it might be beneficial to share with you some of my own personal techniques. And, perhaps, after reading this article, you might be able to apply some of them to your own writing.
Hand-lettering vs. Digital Fonts
One of the biggest things that helped me in editing myself was switching from the use of digital fonts to hand lettering all of my strips. I also found that making the transition to hand-lettering actually sped up my comic strip production as well. A lot of people have a hard time believing that later, but it’s true. And here’s why:
When I was using digital lettering, I was spending a large amount of time editing each and every word balloon. I would spend that large chunk of time adding words, deleting words, applying horizontal scaling to make sure all the words fit neatly into a pre-designed word balloon, adjusting kerning and spacing of each word and all of that work took time away from actually completing the strip.
When I decided to make the switch to hand-lettering, I recognized the fact that there was always going to be imperfections with the final result… it wasn’t always going to be clean and precise like the digital fonts were. Therefore, hand-lettering allowed me to not be so preoccupied with “perfection” in every single word or word balloon as I had been with digital fonts.
The other thing hand-lettering did for me was force me to be much more precise in deciding the dialog for each of my characters. My hand-lettered fonts tend to be nearly three times the size of the digital font I was using so that means I have less space for dialog. Because of that lack of space, that forces me to be very decisive when it comes to writing dialog for my characters.
I should also mention that one of the reasons why I ultimately decided to switch to hand-lettering my strip is because I’ve always been told I had great, legible and easy to read hand written notes. I also spent years hand-lettering dialog when I was doing caricatures, so I already had years of practice at producing a hand-lettering “style”. If you’re not comfortable hand-lettering your strips, or if your hand writing is illegible, there won’t be any benefit to hand lettering your dialog if it’s impossible to read in the first place.
Still though, you could always hand-write your scripts and then convert them to digital fonts as a way to emulate this technique.
Writing with small, spiral notebooks
Another good way to make sure you aren’t writing too much dialog is to write your scripts out on small notebook tablets instead of large, yellow legal pads or on a computer screen.
For example, I like to write Capes & babes scripts using 5×7.5” spiral notebooks that I get at my local office supply store. Each page constitutes a single strip. If I fill that one page up with dialog, that’s a good indication that I’ve written too much and I need to go back and either re-write the strip or re-think it altogether.
Sometimes, I will even turn the notebook horizontally and rough out my strip idea in thumbnail form. If I can’t fit all of my dialog into that thumbnail, that’s another good indication I have too much text in my head and I need to figure out ways to say the same thing but with lesser words.
To see the full size strip, click here.
Make sure panels are easy to read
Part of the writing process is making sure your strips are easy to read. That doesn’t just come down to the amount of text you have in your strip – it also means making sure each panel is easy on the eyes as well. If you have too many word balloons in one panel, that will make the reader “work” and that’s something we want to try and avoid. One way we can make sure a reader doesn’t have to work to hard to read one of our strips is by making sure there is ample enough space for our word balloons, our characters and their environment (backgrounds) so it’s very clear what is going on in each panel.
This is especially true for cartoonists who hand-letter their strips. For example, if you have two or more characters talking in one panel, you have to instinctively realize that could potentially be difficult for people to read.
There are some general rules I try to use for myself when it comes to two characters talking in a single panel. One trick is by making sure only one of the characters has the majority of the dialog. Another trick I use is one character may have an actual word balloon while the other one will only have a stem like Doonesbury or Bloom County used a lot.
Another trick I might use is I might make a new panel if the second character has too much text to fit in one panel. This new panel is usually an extreme close-up of the second character. Sometimes, by breaking panels up, you can make it easier for your characters to say more without making it difficult for the reader to try and guess what’s going on or who might be saying what.
Remember, too much dialog – or too many word balloons – in too confined a space can make your strip very hard to read.
So, if you’ve ever had someone mention that your strip is hard to read, that it takes them too long to read it or if you’re just interested in making sure you’re doing everything possible to make your strip as easy to read as possible, you could try some of the following tips:
- Switch to (legible) hand lettering to see if it forces you to write less dialog
- Write your scripts out on shorter pieces of paper
- Thumbnail your script ideas out before actually writing your full script
- Make sure there’s ample room to understand who is saying what in each panel
- Make sure there aren’t too many word balloons in each panel
- Consider breaking a single panel up in to two panels if you have more than two characters talking, multiple word balloons or your single character has a long monologue