Where I Write Cartoons – Cartoon Techniques

This year I’m starting something new on the cartoon blog called Tools, Techniques, and the Trade. It’s an occasional in-depth look at the weird world of drawing cartoons for a living.

I’ll explain why my pencils have to be made from California Incense-cedar wood, I’ll show you how my Photoshop Actions work, and how I keep track of thousands of cartoons’ comings and goings. (Also, I love alliteration.)

First up is a look at the various places I write my best cartoons most often.

My Office

Locations for writing cartoons - Office

For years I wrote and drew cartoons at a coffee table in the living room. But when our second child was on the way we moved into a slightly larger house and I grabbed a little room downstairs for my office. It’s basically a closet, but I’ve managed to cram in two sets of bookshelves, two desks, a drafting table, a file cabinet, a taboret, a chair, a stool, and probably a quarter million LEGO in various stages of organization. (I’ll show you some pictures sometime.)

When I write in here it’s mostly at my desk. I stare out my little window and jot things down either on a notepad, or in TextEdit. If I’m really feeling writerly I’ll turn on Coffitivity.

It’s a quiet place, I’m surrounded by cartoons, and I can close the door. If you can wrangle yourself a little office in the basement, I highly recommend it.

The Library

Locations for writing cartoons - Library

The library is a terrific place to find inspiration, and I’m lucky enough that our local library is the second largest public library in the state.

I like to go here, pick up  a few books off the New Reads shelves, grab a few magazines, and set up by the big sculpture-y thing upstairs. There’s a big window with lots of morning light, just enough background noise, and millions of ideas just waiting to be pondered. It’s terrific.

The Gym

Locations for writing cartoons - Gym

This is something I discovered recently when both of the kids were finally old enough to be in school all day. I was looking for some exercise and began hitting tennis balls at a wall after dropping the kids off.

It felt good to get a bit of a workout, but what surprised me was how often cartoons ideas came to me while I hit. And not just cartoon ideas, but business ideas too. (I sussed out most of the details for my cartoon subscriptions at the tennis court.)

Now that it’s winter, and a terrible terrible winter at that, I’ve been going to the gym and writing while on the elliptical or the stairmaster, though not as often as I probably should.

There’s a ton of info on the link between exercise and creativity. It’s definitely worth checking out.


Locations for writing cartoons - Driving

Driving is another one of those quiet reflective times, at least when I’m not shuttling the kids and/or the Mrs. around.

Sometimes I listen to the radio mining for little nuggets to play with, but sometimes I just enjoy the quiet and let things marinate in the ol’ noggin. Often I write like crazy on the drive home from the gym. It’s like a creative supercharging twofer.

But my absolute favorite, best, and most productive cartoon writing location is…

The Shower

Locations for writing cartoons - Shower

The shower is a-maz-ing. I’ve written more ideas in the shower than I can count. In fact I’ve considered putting dry erase markers next to the shampoo. (I’m not kidding.) My buddy Jeff worked in advertising for years and will also tell you his best ideas came to him in the shower.

Apparently this is actually a thing that people have researched:

Seriously, Google “shower creativity” – you’ll be amazed.

Those are my favorite writing locations. Where do you find yourself doing your best writing?

Here’s some more on how I write my cartoons:

And here’s some good general stuff on creativity:



Writing Cartoons – 9 Ideas For Generating Ideas

At the Success in Comics seminar a few weeks back, someone asked me if I considered myself more of an artist or a writer. I answered that I considered myself a writer first and that the art was like the cherry on the sundae. (Or something like that. As I said, it was a few weeks ago.)

With the launch of my cartoon subscriptions recently, I’ve been writing a lot to keep putting out healthy batches of new cartoons each week. And it’s not always easy, but I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to jumpstart my brain a bit and write what I hope are good cartoons consistently:

The Paper –

Writing Cartoons - Paper

While I get almost all of my news either on the radio or online, I still subscribe to the Chicago Tribune. Papers pile up in my office and this stack is usually the first place I go if I’m stuck.

I read pretty much anything, even if it’s not interesting to me, because you never know where you’re going to find that word or turn of phrase that you can play with.

Dictionaries –

Writing Cartoons - Dictionaries

I have a few different dictionaries of phrases and idioms that are great if I need to do a bunch of cartoons on, say, eggs:

  • Walking on eggshells
  • Egg on your face
  • Egg him on
  • Don’t put all your eggs in one basket

See? There’s at least some places to start.

Flipboard & Zite –

Writing Cartoons - Apps

I love my iPad, and Flipboard makes keeping on top of blogs and tweets and all that quick, easy, and beautiful. Zite is a more recent addition and, while it reminds me of Flipboard, it gives me a whole different bunch of interesting content.

LIke the paper, you never know where the treasure is buried, so with either app, it’s good to just read.

Sentence Examples –

Writing Cartoons - Sentence Examples

A more recent find, Sentence Examples is, well, just that. You can either search for a word like “cow”, or you can just browse around to see what strikes your fancy. It’s good for looking at words in context from all sorts of different angles.

Twitter Timeline –

Writing Cartoons - Twitter

I’ve got a lot of followers on Twitter, and I often have Tweetbot up when I’m working. I’d forgotten to close it while writing the other day and glanced up and saw a comment in my timeline that led to a really good cartoon. I tried it again a while later and had another random inspiring moment. I don’t know if this will continue to bear fruit, but right now it’s a great source.

Chon Day –

Writing Cartoons - Chon Day

When I’m really stuck and feeling low I pull out some Chon Day and just marvel at what an amazing cartoonist he was. Sometimes it gets my gears turning, sometimes not, but it’s always inspiring.

Idea Box –

Writing Cartoons - Idea Box

Although it’s been more difficult to keep full recently, I normally write my ideas down on scraps of paper and toss them into what I’ve dubbed my Idea Box. Ideas generally sit in there for a few weeks and then, when I’m ready to draw, I pull a bunch out and see them with fresh eyes. If they’re still good, they get drawn up. If they’re not so good, often I can see where I went wrong or another take on the same idea. And I like the thought of all those ideas sort of marinating together for a while.

Get Up –

Writing is a lot of sitting and staring. A lot of sitting and staring. And for the most part I’ve gotten comfortable with putting in the time. But sometimes when nothing is working I find getting up and doing something else will knock some ideas loose. Do some dishes. Vacuum. Go for a walk. You’ll be surprised at how a little movement will get things moving.

Give Up –

When all else fails, sometimes you just have to put it down and come back another day. It’s hard not to be disappointed or feel defeated, but I try to look at it like I’m priming a pump. And almost always the next day the ideas start flowing again.

So there are some of the techniques I use to keep writing cartoons. Any other suggestions you’d care to share?

Here’s a few more posts on writing cartoons:

Editing A Cartoon Caption – Writing Cartoons Tutorial

With only a very short time to engage a reader, getting a cartoon’s caption right is essential. So I made this short video on how I edit cartoon captions to get to the point. Enjoy:

If you’re interested in seeing more about how I write cartoons, check out these blogs:

Video Transcription

Mark Anderson: Hello, I’m Mark Anderson from andertoons.com, and this is a short video in which I’m going to show you how I edit my gag cartoon captions from their long, wordy original form, down to what I hope is a short, punchy, final funny caption, so let’s get started.

Here is the cartoon we are going to be demonstrating this with. The idea here is that this gentleman is giving a presentation with a Venn diagram that’s so complicated, that he had to use a Spirograph toy to do the diagram, and here is the original caption that I came up with:

“Okay, listen up everyone. I was up all night working on this, plus I’ve had to use a Spirograph…”

So all of the ideas are there, you have the Spirograph, I like that use up all night working on this, because it’s difficult, he wants everyone to pay attention, it’s all there, but it’s much too long, and it’s very varied, but this is just where we are going to start and we are going to begin pruning it back little by little, because usually brevity is wit.

While some very long captions are very funny, generally shorter is better, we only have a couple seconds to set the scene, introduce the characters; get the joke across, so a shorter caption in general is better, so let’s start editing.

Here is take two on this:

“Listen I worked all night on this, and I had to use a Spirograph to boot…”

This is still too long, and it sort of feels, it’s supposed to be unfinished, the sentence is unfinished, but this, it feels awkward at the end, and I think it’s to boot. That’s a phrase I use a lot, but I just don’t think it works here, so, and let’s take another shot at this:

“I was up all night with this and I had to use a Spirograph, so listen up people…”

Generally, I like to put the, like the joke part of the joke, for lack of a better way to put it, at the end of the caption, but I moved it to the middle here, and I really wish I could give you a good reason why, it just felt better to me. I like the idea that he’s up all night, and he had to use a Spirograph, and listen up people. So it just seemed to work better to me, but this is still too long a caption, so let’s take another shot:

“This took me all night, and I had to use a Spirograph, so everyone listen up…”

It’s getting better, we started with 20 words, and we are down to, I’m looking at this real quick here, 16? So we are getting better, we are getting shorter, it’s the, it’s getting punchier, but still we can, we can do better:

“This took me all night, and the use of a Spirograph, so everyone listen up…”

I like this better, but you try different words, you try different phrases, the use of is awkward, so it’s a good try, but we are going to take another shot:

“This took me all night, and a Spirograph, so everyone listen up…”

This is definitely better; this is pretty close to what the final caption ends up being, but we could still do better here, so let’s take another shot at this:

“This took me all night, and a Spirograph, so focus, people…”

I like “focus people,” “focus people” works better, me reading it out loud, than it actually does in print, I don’t know why that is, I think you bring something to it when you read it out loud, but it just doesn’t, if you take a second and read it, and feel free to pause as read, it doesn’t work as well in print as it does out loud, so let’s grab that:

“This took me all night, and a Spirograph, so everyone pay attention…”

It’s definitely getting better, we are really trimming this back, we are close, let’s take another shot:

“This took me all night, and a Spirograph, so pay attention…”

This is the final caption that I ended up with this on this cartoon, and I think it turned out pretty nice, you’ve got every thing you need in there, that he was up all night, that he had to use a Spirograph, because this was so complicated, that he wants people to pay attention to what he’s talking about, so I think we’ve trimmed it back as far as we’re, you know what actually when I was looking at this for this video, I could trim it back one more word, I’ll show you what that ended up being:

“This took all night, and a Spirograph, so pay attention…”

You know what, you lose the word “me” at the beginning of this, but what, this is really, this is really nerdy cartoonist. When you take out the word “me”, I get the idea that maybe he had somebody else working on it, and that he actually didn’t do, and that takes away from the humor, wow you can really over think this stuff, and I probably have, my goodness, but let’s put the word “me” back in, and it just works better:

“This took me all night, and a Spirograph, so pay attention…”

That’s the final caption, I think we got it, trimmed it down from 20 words at the outset, to 11 words now, it’s short, it’s punchy, it’s got every thing you need, and how much fun are Spirographs, come on.

So that’s it for, how I edit my gag cartoon captions, I hope you enjoyed it. Feel free to visit andertoons.com and check out all of the other cartoons I have there, so thanks for watching.