User Submission: Writing Well Part Six - Final Part

Started by Rob, June 07, 2010, 12:49:47 AM

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Today's tutorial post was submitted by Gibson Twist, creator of Pictures of You. You can check out more of his work at Sinister Squid. Where this article and successive entries were originally published. Part one of this series can be found here. Part two can be found here. Part three can be found here. Part four can be found here. Part five can be found here.

The following is the sixth in a series of six tutorials designed to help novice writers build a better story.

You're going to hate this part.

Like the devil, Review is known by many names. Revision, rewriting, editing... whatever you call it, you have to do it, and the reason is simple. You aren't good enough not to. No one is. Some of you out there might be fans of Jack Kerouac and chanting his mantra, first words, best
words, but it just ain't so. Even you disagree and have no intention on ever rewriting a thing you write, you will still benefit from Review. How? Well, Review is more than just rewriting, it's about examining your work and seeing how to make it better, whether it's how to improve a specific story or how to improve your writing in general. Let's look at The Big Red Pen, Critics, Criticism and Critique, Mentors and Fellowships, Rewrites, Re-Rewrites and The Final Draft.

The Big Red Pen

The first thing you're going to want to do is read your work, preferably in a printed form with a Big Red Pen* in hand, circling mistakes and making notes in the margins as you go. This let's you make changes later instead of interrupting the flow of reading by stopping to fix typos and plot holes. So what are you looking for? Well, simply put, everything that I talked about in the Composition tutorial... Spelling and Grammar, Story Flow, the whole bit. You're making sure your story is clear and cohesive, making sure you've said what you want to say, that you haven't included things that don't belong or left out things that should be there. You've certainly had bad days while you were writing it where the words seemed to fall onto the page with all the grace and finesse of sandwich meat. This is your time to clean that up. Make sure it makes sense, make sure it reads well and make sure the words are your best effort.

*Red ink is the easiest to spot on white paper. You can be cute or artsy and use something else if you want, but when you go back later to make your changes, you don't want to miss anything so make sure whatever you use will be easy to find. Your Review isn't an art project, it's to help you write better.

Critics, Criticism and Critique

One of the things I want to do in this tutorial is help you understand why Critique is such a good thing. No one is so good at what they do that they can't improve, and no one is so skilled to do it without an outside perspective. Keep in mind, you're very close to this work and you've imagined more about the story than you've put on the page. That creates the possibility (or probability) that you've left things out that you should have included. Maybe there's a giant biologically engineered cat creature and you've neglected to explain where it came from. Likewise, there may be subtle or even not so subtle problems with your writing style that you can't see. Having a third party give you feedback is the best, sometimes only way to spot them.

I'm one of the fortunate individuals who loves getting qualified Critique of my work, and if you're serious about becoming a better writer you'll do your best to love it too. It might help to tell the story of how I came to love being Critiqued.

When I was a young author in high school, I was convinced to join the school's Writers Club. I was hesitant to join since I knew it was largely a poetry circle and I had no desire to hear the fumbling recitations of teen angst wrapped in a gauze of hormonal pretension. Too harsh? Well, a friend convinced me to join and at my second or third meeting, it was time for me to get the feedback on the short story I'd submitted for consideration the week before. Most of the students hmmed and hahed about this thing or the other, none of which really amounted to much. I sat there listening to the feeble interpretations of what story element meant what and thinking how they didn't understand it at all when the faculty head that oversaw our meetings spoke up. It was unusual, since he rarely had much to say, he usually just sat there and let us Critique each other. I was more shocked when he proceeded to tear my precious short story into figurative shreds of fine dust. I mean, he went through it and roasted me good. Then he said something very key... he told me I had the talent to make it better by knowing these things.

That's when I realized he was investing the effort in pointing these things out to me because he thought I could grow as a writer by fixing them. He wasn't doing it with the others. That night, I rewrote the whole thing and I'll be darned if he wasn't right. If someone is going to take the time to pick apart every piece of your work and tell you how you can improve it, it means they have confidence that you can improve it. Let me state again, they have confidence in your ability to write well, even if you're not doing very well right now. That's a good thing.

Think of a Critique as a test run for your readers, a sort of contained focus group. Now, the problem with focus groups, why they have a bad reputation in artistic circles, is that they're often too broad and indiscriminate... common folk who may not be entirely qualified to judge what they're judging. This is why it's important to select your Critics carefully, find people whose opinions you value and whose assessment will be honest. It does you no good to hand the work to your mother who might not be a reader of the genre you write and is likely to sugar coat a response to spare your feelings. Conversely, it's not good to hand it someone who is particularly negative and will just point out everything that's wrong, some of which probably aren't. That's just Criticism.

Criticism, as I'm choosing to define it for the purpose of this tutorial, is a generally negative attack. They don't like this, they don't like that, the work is bad and you should be ashamed for making it. You suck and so does everything you write. I could say a lot about being open to the negative feedback, and it's good to be. I could say a lot about the problem being your perception if all feedback sounds like that to you, and for some it will*. There is also an unavoidable amount of feedback that is in no way constructive. A good Critique is one that has both positive and negative feedback, meaning it lets you know not only what you're doing wrong, but also what you're doing right.

To all new authors, I say get your work into the hands of as many qualified Critics as possible, and consider everything they have to offer you. Whether they go at it with their own Big Red Pen or if their feedback is more general, ask them to be thorough and honest. Not everything they say will be good advice, and some of it will conflict, but even when you evaluate the bad advice you'll gain a better understanding of your strengths.

*If all the feedback you get is or sounds like negative Criticism, then there's an issue. Either you're too sensitive and can't deal with the reality of Critique or you just lack the skills for what you're doing. In either case, as difficult as it might be to face, writing might not be for you.

Mentors and Fellowships

It's always good to have goals and ideals for how you want to write, and in keeping with that it's often good to have someone to look up to, a level to which you can aspire. A Mentor is someone who is accomplished or knowledgeable in your field, at least in your eyes, whose work you enjoy and respect and who has an interest in helping you improve. Mentors are like the old grey wizard who walks with you and points the way when you lose direction, gives you advice and feedback and lets you in on the secrets no one else is telling you. Mentors are invaluable, if only to act as a model for who and how you want to be, in more than just your craft. I would urge everyone to find someone like this in their lives.

Another way to get reliable feedback is through Fellowship, meaning a group of like-minded people who share common goals and similar levels of skill. This is different from Mentoring in that no one person sits above any other, acting more like a round table where learning is mutual. I've been fortunate enough to have belonged to a number of Fellowships (as I am currently with my fellow Squids as well as with others) and I can say unabashedly that my work would not be what it is without each one.

Fellowship allows you to have your work Critiqued by people who are equally qualified, and also offers you a look at their work to help illustrate the strengths and weaknesses in your work as reflected in theirs. It also brings a level of inspiration and healthy competition, as when a Fellowship is functioning well, everyone becomes and stays eager to produce and share new work. It isn't easy to find a group such as this (and one shouldn't be forced or maintained if it isn't working to everyone's benefit,) but when you do find people with whom you communicate well and whose work you respect it will help you more than you know.


You've got red ink all over white pages, perhaps several copies of white pages. Now it's time to make those red marks go away. It's not easy to do Rewrites, as it requires you to reimagine your story, sometimes from the ground up. Rewrites can be as simple as changing some dialogue and reworking scenes to flow better or as complicated as a complete overhaul starting from the basic Concept (It may seem odd, but the best works I've written are the ones in which I've started over from scratch on the Third or Fourth Drafts.) It helps to have a process in place to do this, at least until you get the hang of doing Rewrites. While I've modified it over the years, the process I used when I was starting out went something like this:

  • Spelling and Grammar - Find all the typos, mistakes and poor word choices and change them. These are quick and easy and helps get you in the right frame of mind. You should be doing this before you give your manuscript out for Critique.
  • Dialogue - If dialogue is choppy or incomplete or just needs adjusting, do it now. This gets you a little more focused on changing what's being said by, not just in your story.
  • Scene Changes - Chances are you've either left necessary scenes out or written some that aren't needed, or maybe just paced them wrong. Be aware of how changing a single scene can affect the rest of the story and make those changes when needed.
  • Characters - Consider the notes on your story's players, whether some are weak or cliche' or too perfect or we don't see enough of them. You're going to need to adjust them, and this requires a more intricate revision. You may need to rework an entire section where they appear, or in some cases the entire story to facilitate these changes. Whatever you need to do to make the story function around these changes, you need to make sure the story still flows.
  • Plot Changes - If there's a problem with the overall Plot, anything from an inadequate Inciting Force to a confusing Climax or something more pervasive, make these adjustments. Again, be aware of how changing one aspect of the Plot will affect the story as a whole.
  • Concept Changes - If you feel like the very core of the story isn't working, you may need to start over. As horrifying as this can be, you have to go back to the first step and reimagine your Concept, rework your Tableau, restructure your Plot and rethink your Technique. This will lead to a Complete Rewrite.
  • Complete Rewrite - It might happen, for whatever reason, that you have to do the whole thing again. Maybe you've changed your Concept, maybe you want to change the Characters or maybe you just want to try a different Voice. Rather than trying to salvage what you've already written, you might need to write it all over from the first word. Keep your older versions handy, though, and refer to whichever elements you feel you got right the first time. Keep in mind you're still building on the work you've done... you're not writing a second book, you're just writing the first one again


You've made some radical changes to your story, reworked it and done major Rewrites. Now it's time to do it again. Take that new manuscript in hand with your Big Red Pen and have a read. Circle the typos. Cross out the bad scenes. Change your protagonist's gender. Hand it around to people whose opinions you trust and let them do the same. If you can still find things you think need to be changed, or if your second round of Critique still brings back significant notes, you'll need to go through your Rewrite process once more. It can be painful, but remember why you're doing this... to develop your skills and write the best story you can write.

The Final Draft

When you finish writing your manuscript (or script as the case may be), what you have is called the First Draft. That's a big accomplishment, something very few people ever do. Whether you never touch it again or make a Second Draft or Third or Ninth (which I've done) you are now in an exclusive club. The bigger accomplishment, though, is the Final Draft at which you stop making changes and decide to let your story continue its existence in whatever form it's taken. It's often said that stories aren't finished, they're abandoned, and as cliche' as it might be, it's true. Writing is a mercurial thing and as such we could go on tweaking and editing and reworking it until we die, as some do. At some point, though, a good writer will decide that the work is good enough and step away from it, resisting whatever urge is in you to make more changes. It is possible, and in fact very easy, to over-edit and tweak out the personality and meaning in your work.

I find that the best way to make sure your Final Draft is the Final Draft is to leave it alone for a while. Don't read it, don't let anyone else read it, and for god's sake don't let anyone Critique it. Like a good chili, it's best when it's had a chance to settle. If you do leave it alone for a while and still can't resist the impulse to make more changes, then it probably wasn't the Final Draft. Even though I break this rule myself, until you have a clear understanding of when your own work is done you should avoid making changes after you decide to put the story down.

And then you're done. Yep, that's it, you've reached the end of your writing journey. Sure, there's lots to do after you've done your Final Draft, like Solicitation, Production, Distribution, Advertising, Self-Promotion and so forth, but that's not writing, that's business, and it's for a different tutorial. For now, kick back and enjoy the fruits of your hard work. Bear in mind that there is no part of this series that is absolute, and as you grow as a writer you will find yourself straying more and more from the lessons you've learned here.

This series wasn't designed to give hard and fast rules for how to write well, but instead is meant as a guideline you can use to think about how you can write better. The rules by which you write and the rules by which everyone writes aren't the same, and the difference between them is what distinguishes you from other writers. After all, a good writer knows how to follow the rules and a great writer knows how to break them, but you have to know the rules to know which ones you can break and you have to be good before you can be great.

Good luck!


I'd like to personally thank Gibson Twist for the use of this comprehensive and extremely useful series of articles. They establish a solid foundation in the mechanics of writing for novices and even those of us with command can use the reminders.

Thanks a ton Gib. Great series.


Yeah, these are a great help for any writer, not just novices.
I'm so optimistic, my blood type is 'B Positive'!


I'm curious if there are any other areas of writing that folks would like me to cover. I've been toying with the idea of writing up some articles on how to write characters better and one on dialogue, and maybe one on how to set an emotional tone. Is anyone having any problems in a particular area?


I think there is a huge difference between writing... and writing for sequential art. I  do both and they use very different parts of my brain and EXTREMELY different processes. When I write it's just me and the blank page but when I write for comics I have to think about space and try and visualize the panels. I think the distinction, and being good at the latter is often the difference between a comic and a successful one. I wouldn't mind hearing your thoughts on the subject.  ;)


I use a variation on the Marvel Method for my dialogue which I think works pretty well and is also kind of fun to do.

Assuming you know what's going to be happening in a given scene, draw out your panel layout first and put in the sketches of your characters. Use this stage to set the tone of your scene: draw it so that the characters are reacting to each other, set their facial expressions and movements...basically do the conversation in mime form. After that it's easy enough to go back and fill in the actual WORDS of the conversation.

I put the dialogue and balloon placement in over my scanned-in pencil sketches before I ink the pages in Illustrator. I can change the drawing at the inking stage if I want to place different emphasis or tone on a particular line.


Customizing dialogue to fit a panel is probably common, and something I've had to MacGyver myself a time or two when someone (Ben Steeves) doesn't leave enough room for the balloons, and it might be fine for strip comics, but it a very limiting way to write, and I think it's at least part of the reason so much dialogue feels unnatural or stunted. I've always felt that dialogue's importance has been undervalued by writers. Comics are words and pictures, but we've made it so that no one cares about the words anymore, they've become a secondary concern. I'm not trying to shit on you, Gar, I know a lot of people do it. I just think there's a better way.

Rob, I've been writing both prose and comics since before girls were an issue, and I couldn't agree more that they're very different styles of writing. I don't know if you're familiar with my rarely updated comic Our Time in Eden, but it was originally a novel, one that I finished writing in the early half of the decade. I tried for years to turn it into a comic before I finally figured out how to do it. Conversely, there was a time that I was considering doing Pictures of You as a prose novel series. I didn't get any further than the prologue, which was quite a bit different than the comic. I have other stories that I can't even imagine how they would work as prose and others that I can't envision ever being a comic. The difference between them is like the difference between stage and screen. Similar, sure, but they have different physics and therefor different rules. It might be worth exploring further, good call.


Well NtK is mostly gag-based with kind of a rambling chaotic story (I recently realised it's actually very Irish) so my process works for me, but wouldn't necessarily work for a comic where the primary focus is telling a story.

Anyway, I'm not saying dialogue isn't important, just that I work out the flow of the conversation visually before/while I'm doing the writing. The Marvel Method is traditionally used for action strips where the action is considered more important than the dialogue (and it's often considered lazy by 'proper' writers), but I've been using it for comedy, where dialogue is more important, and I've been proud of the results.

I think it was Alan Moore said a big problem with the Marvel Method was that a lot of the time, because the artist didn't know the dialogue that was going to go in each panel, the facial expressions were either 'mouth open' or 'mouth closed'. (Look up 'dullsurprise' on tvtropes to see the 'mouth open' expression.) I deliberately do big cartoony expressions to avoid that. Figuring out everyone's emotion visually in each panel just helps me come up with their lines, and seeing as I ink it after the dialogue's put in I can add some more artistic nuance based on the dialogue, so it all comes together.

I don't know if anyone here actually reads Neko the Kitty, but it's a lot funnier if you look at everyone's faces. There's quite a lot of wordplay in the dialogue, but it's the delivery that turns it into character comedy.

Of course you can achieve the same thing doing write-first-then-draw, and sometimes I do the script first, but lately I've been enjoying Think/Draw/Write/Edit/Ink/Edit more than Think/Write/Edit/Draw/Edit/Ink/Edit.

Gibson, this isn't the first time we've butted heads over Process. You take a very structured approach where I pretty much slap Chaos in the general direction I think it should go. Basically you're Jedi and I'm Sith, and neither of us is going to Turn any time soon.

I actually really respect your dedication, and this is a great series of articles with some very good advice presented concisely and coherently. It's an ordered and intelligent way of doing things, I just like the Dark Side because it's both quicker AND more seductive.


Yeah I can't imagine Remedy as a book either. It would never work. Not even as a series of books.

And Gar I do try and catch NTK when I have time. You have an evil, wicked, naughty sense of humor that I appreciate. But I could never tell a story like you do. I realize your stories are slowly told and the immediate strip with the joke is the point. I need the structure. If I tried to work like that I'd go mad. My life is too hectic and I can't hold that many details in my head.

The way you do things is a recipe for continuity errors and plot holes: for me. I admire your ability to do it though I would put forth the theory that the way you do things is more of an inherent talent that can't necessarily be taught than the way Gibson (and I for the most part) do things. And since the more plodding, logical way can be taught it may be of more use to more folks I would think. Just my opinion though.


Quote from: Rob on June 21, 2010, 07:44:47 AM
If I tried to work like that I'd go mad.

Well me going mad is kind of the big meta-story. It's like Gormenghast  :P

I guess making shit up on the fly is in some ways more difficult than having a structured approach, I never really thought of it as a talent before (so I shall take that as a compliment and thank you for it). I tend to just assume anyone can do anything I can do.


I'm going to risk catching some heat and probably risking Gar cursing my name into the night by saying I don't think that writing things on the fly is a talent and that it's not harder to do than plotting things out. The plot in a serialized gag strip is often looser by necessity and people don't pay much attention to it most of the time, like a love subplot in an action movie, so most folks couldn't say whether it's done well or not. The point of my articles wasn't for artists, which is where cartoonists usually classify themselves, it was for writers who want to improve their written craft. I'm not going to get into any kind of critique of anyone's comic, so don't misconstrue this as a sleight of your content, but what you're doing in drawing things with a basic idea and fitting in some dialogue later is not writing in anything but the very loosest sense. I've done what it is you're describing, and still do from time to time. That's illustrating, not more or less valid than writing, just not the same. Even in all of that, I'm sure if you looked you would find a measure or some small version of the ideas I've talked about.


I can't do it. I even plan out my gag strips.  :-\


Oh yeah, Neko's planned out in advance, I outlined what it is that I do in another thread and you said it was the most complicated system for 'winging it' you've ever heard. It's actually not that different to what you do, I just do everything in my head where you'd write it down.

I do kind of resent the statement that I'm not writing. NtK actually reads pretty well in large chunks of archive binge. I just set tone and pace first. It's basically the thumbnail stage of scripting which a lot of cartoonists do, but the thumbnail and rough draft stages are the same thing for me. It's not like I sit down with no idea what's about to happen on the page in front of me, that's just where everything crystallises.


No one here is trying to offend so please don't take offense. As soon as we start telling each other we're getting offended by each other's opinions we will all be less inclined to express them and that would suck because none of us are trying to hurt each others feelings.  :-\


Then I was both wrong and right. Wrong because I wasn't clear on your process...I do remember you posting about your process before, but it didn't duplicate in my brain...right because you do a more truncated version of what I outline. I will still say that planning out your dialogue makes for better dialogue.