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:

5 Common Cartoon Writing Mistakes to Avoid Like the Plague

Cartoon Writing MistakesWriting is probably at least 75% of a cartoon. Good art attracts readers initially, but good writing is why readers come back.

Avoid these five common cartoon writing pitfalls and not only will your readers stick around, but you might even earn a rare “why didn’t I think of that?!” from a fellow cartoonist:

1) Funny names.

Example: “Mr Snuffenheimer will see you now.” Silly names slow the read and dilute the cartoon. Don’t use them.

2) Waiting for your muse.

Cartoonists that make a living from their cartoons write often and write purposefully. It’s a skill you can learn, but only if you stop waiting for inspiration.

3) Puns.

This is an Achilles’ heel for all of us. And, yes, occasionally they’re OK and might even sell, but they’re easy cartoons and you know it. Don’t be that easy cartoon guy.

4) Explaining captions.

Example: Businessman to chicken across desk – “I see here by your resume that you’d be a perfect fit here at Fowlco. Especially the part about you being a chicken since we make chicken nuggets here for restaurants where people consume them. So you’d be food which is why, ironically, you’re such a good fit here.”

If you have to explain the joke in the joke it needs to be rewritten.

5) Repurposing other cartoonists’ captions.

I remember reading a book about cartooning when I was starting out that suggested borrowing other cartoonists’ captions and reworking them slightly to make them your own. Maybe change the setting from an office to a school. Or change the gag’s point of view from patient to doctor.

Listen, we all dip our pens in the same gag well, so occasionally you’re going to come up with a cartoon that’s been done by someone else. But do not ever do it on purpose.

Keep the above tips in mind the next time you’re sitting down to write cartoons and you’ll be much happier with your gags. (And so will your readers!)


cartoon writing wording

I love words.

And it’s a good thing since writing is really the crux of the whole cartoonist thing. You can be the greatest artist in the world, but if your writing stinks, believe you me, nobody is going to be buying.

One of my favorite tricks when I’m stumped is to hit the books. Actually, a few specific books. I’ve got a number of different reference volumes to kick start the writing process:

So if I’ve got a specific topic in mind, say for a custom cartoon, I’ll obviously start by looking for that specific word. Each book is organized a little differently, but they all make finding related content fairly easy.

If I’m just writing to write, however, I love to just leaf through and see what strikes my brain’s fancy. I try not to linger too long on any specific page, I just quickly skim and see if anything pops.

A favorite trick of mine is to look at phrases about and/or containing a word and seeing if there’s some way to combine them. It doesn’t always end up in a successful cartoon, but, if nothing else, you’re priming the cartoon writing pump.

Now remember, these books aren’t going to solve all of your problems. Nothing beats just sitting yourself down regularly, staring down a blank piece of paper and actively writing cartoons. (You’d be surprised how often I hear budding cartoonists complain about waiting for their muse to visit.) But used judiciously, they’re all great tools to have in your gag writing toolbox.

It looks like a few might already be out of print, but you should be able to pick them up cheaply on Ebay or Amazon.

Word up!