EDITING KNOWHOW Comics and Graphic Novels

There’s a huge range of comic book and graphic novel styles – Catriona Tippin shares hints and tips on checking yours, samples books by experts for a few suggestions, and gives you a ‘further reading’ list.

Proofreading for typos

Are you hand-lettering? How to Draw and Sell Comic Strips by  Alan McKenzie  has a good quote to bear in mind:
You are drawing letters rather than writing words.
 It’s easy to get too close to what you are doing and mistakes can creep in. Check for grammar, punctuation, and spelling mistakes with extra care – there's ten tips here. Hand-lettering needs particularly close attention – check line-by-line and word-by-word, at the draft stage (pencil not ink!). Beware of ‘widows and orphans’ – the lettering in a balloon or caption looks best and reads well without a lonely word on the last line. Space words on each line evenly.

Using a font? You’ll have lots of choice or you can create your own (there's lots of help available online). Comic book conventions include some traditional idiosyncrasies you may like to use. There’s an excellent list here, including a reminder about the comic book convention of using an uppercase 'i' with crossbars/serifs for the first person singular pronoun, and no crossbars everywhere else. And it’s usual to italicise as well as bold anything you want to emphasise.

Editing at the storyboard stage

You may be collaborating with an illustrator, or you may be writing and illustrating – either way, the editing stage in comic book creation needs to happen at the planning stage. Exquisite artwork doesn’t deserve correcting fluid. Deciding on page furniture and layout is best done as early as possible. The architecture and logic of your story matter! Decide on whether you’re following comic book traditions... or not. Lots of conventions to think about here.

Wherever you go stylistically, remember the aim is a seamless reading experience. The eye should skip from one balloon/caption to the next, without the reader having to stop and think. Here’s a useful couple of lists from Make Comics Like the Pros by  Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente.

The comics-as-drawn-movies comparison is super-annoying, but many of the terms in pencilling and cinematography can be used interchangeably as it’s the same concept of mise-en-scene – figures arranged across a defined space.

Their advice includes:
  • action – left to right
  • first to speak – left (no weirdly placed speech balloons, crossing balloon tails, etc.)
  • establish spatial relationships once
  • introduce all props early on
  • small panels for small moments; big panels for big moments

And here’s their list of commandments for everyone involved in comic book production (your role may be some or all of these):

Artists: Leave plenty of space and draw the first speaker on the left. Create identifiable characters from outline alone.

Writers: Balloons, words... less is more.

Editors: Polish the script before the lettering is done. Suggest/insist on all corrections before the letterer gets lettering.

Writers: Be aware of the flow of dialogue and cover all key items. Suggest/insist on all corrections before the letterer gets lettering.

  • Don’t vary the font size
  • Remember: readability over design
  • No balloons in the way of the eyelines
  • No small fonts (on phones or tablets etc.)

In Words for Pictures by Brian Michael Bendis  there’s a list of ‘artist’s annoyances’ for comic book writers to remember:
  • Too much in a panel
  • Too few panels
  • Flowery prose
  • Redundant word balloons
  • Too much dialogue (means all medium shots)
  • Too much art direction, too many lists of instructions
  • Slang (it’ll be lost in translation)

Finally, remember to check continuity too. Is this character still right-handed? Is that character still wearing a scarf? See Emma Graham’s article from Words & Pictures for tips which apply to comic books and graphic novels as well as picture books. Creating character checklists is an excellent idea.

Additional reading

99 Ways to Tell a Story by Matt Madden (recommended by Patrice Aggs at her session ‘Young Fiction: Illustrating Comics with Comedy’ at the SCBWI Conference last year)
Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud (recommended by Nick Cross, co-host of the Fringe session on Comics at the SCBWI Conference last year, and regular Words & Pictures contributor).

Header image and Rupert image, Royal Mail stamps

Catriona Tippin has been a member of SCBWI since 2006. Details of her writing and illustrating can be found here (SCBWI). She’s @proofreadingtip on Twitter, and her Proofreading Tips for Words & Pictures can be found here.

Browse 40 Proofreading Tips articles by Catriona featured previously in Words & Pictures here 

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