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How Comics Help Me Write Marketing Copy

About half a year ago, I started a new job as a Content Strategist and Copywriter at a marketing firm – and I am LOVING it. Marketing writing trips my trigger for numerous reasons, but one of the biggest is that it utilizes what I’ve come to call my Comics Brain.

My Comics Brain is the part of me that thinks and writes in the language of comics – in the language of page layouts, speech bubbles, captions, and art direction. It’s the part of me that’s read so many essays, books, and tutorials about “How to Make Comics,” but hasn’t always had a way to apply those lessons.

The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics - Matt Reads Comics
I think I’ve read this book … five times? Maybe six?

Well, now I do. Marketing copy doesn’t live by itself; it’s mashed up with web and email layouts, Facebook ads, videos, and a whole host of other media. As such, I’ve been thinking with my Comics Brain a lot lately, because it helps me better collaborate with the rest of my team.

Below, I’ll make the case for how thinking like a comics writer helps me write better marketing copy. And if you read to the end, I’ll set you up with a couple books and other resources you can use to begin building your own Comics Brain.

Comics Help Writers Think Visually

Lots of writers don’t need to think about where and how their words will appear. For example, a couple jobs ago, I wrote release notes for a large software company. For the most part, those release notes’ format was “locked.” Each note contained an introduction, a screenshot, setup instructions, and testing instructions. The format evolved a bit over time, but not much.

As an individual writer doing my day-to-day job, I had no power over my formatting. I wrote words, and they appeared how they appeared. I didn’t have to think about it – and so I often didn’t.

Compare that to this:

This is what “writing” looks like.

I initially wrote that wireframe (for a coffee subscription web page) out in Microsoft Word. The individual straight lines in the drawing represent lines of text.

But as I neared “writing” the end of the page, I came upon a section I knew was going to be mostly visual. That would benefit from being drawn out as opposed to just explained in words. And so, like any good comics writer, I attempted to draw it out – setting my artist (in this case, our web developer) up with a basic page layout from which they can iterate however they see fit.

I know for a fact that I would be less good at thinking visually, and figuring out how the words I’m writing connect with the images my artists need to create if I did not regularly read and dissect comics. I’ve been living and breathing panel construction and page layouts for the last 20-some years. Now, I get to put that time spent absorbing three- and six- and nine-panel grids to use, by using them in my own work.

Comics Help Writers Provide Direction

Of course, it’s one thing to be able to think visually. It’s another to actually be able to expound upon that thinking and explain it to your artist, so they can create what you need.

If I only read comics, I think I’d still flounder on that second point. But because I’m a process nerd, I also read a lot about how to make comics. And in doing so, I’ve picked up some pro tips that apply just as much to copywriting as comics writing.

In Brian Michael Bendis‘s comics writing tutorial, entitled Words for Pictures, he goes out of his way to explain that, while every comics writer writes scripts their own way, there is one universal rule all comic scripts must adhere to:

“The end goal remains the same: your script has to be clear and understandable to your collaborators.”

Words for Pictures Cover - Matt Reads Comics
If you do one thing as a result of reading this post, I recommend buying and reading Words for Pictures.

Words for Pictures‘s third chapter expands upon this golden rule, and its importance, in a way that I think benefits anyone who writes collaborative copy – especially marketing writers. Just imagine you’re writing the script for a short video or Facebook ad, and replace the word “reader” with “audience” in the quote below:

“Your reader will never see your script,” Bendis continues. “There’s a good chance that no one else in the world will ever see your script. Depending on your circumstances, the total audience for your script could be a whopping one person. Just one person.”

Your job, then, as a comics or marketing writer, as someone helping create a 22-page story or a 30-second video, is to give that one person (your artist) exactly what they need to create what you need. And most times, that means more than writing copy. It means providing direction:

Wicked Harvest Video Script - Matt Reads Comics
Don’t worry; I’ll explain.

The above is how I currently write Facebook video scripts. The /s represent transitions as I see them in my head, with the parentheticals noting which transitions to pull from our bank of stock animations. You can see there’s a little bit of additional direction, but not much. It’s not my best script, but it was enough direction for our videographer to create a pretty stellar video. (You can see that here.)

I’m still iterating on providing direction to our videographer, graphic designer, and web developers. The language of each of those mediums is somewhat new to me. But I’m nowhere near as lost as I imagine some other fresh-to-marketing writers have been, because I know (at least in theory) how to write for my artists – and how to collaborate with them.

Comics Help Writers Learn to Collaborate

Writing is often a solitary venture. When I sit down to type these blog posts, for example, I work only with myself. I write the post, add the images, and edit everything afterward. When I write short stories, the same rules apply. I write them myself, edit them myself. Sometimes, I’ll pull my wife in to review them, then edit based on that.

Copywriting, however, is completely different. Copywriting goes through multiple revisions during not just the writing process, but through the document design or video editing or web development process. As such, the structure of the writing itself might need to change based on a designer’s color palette, a videographer’s framing, or a developer’s page layout.

Of course, comic book creative teams have been managing these sorts of dynamic changes for years. At multiple points throughout the comic creation process, each collaborator gets the chance to iterate upon and improve the work, bringing their own unique take to a page or story. Those changes then inspire others that build and build and refine the work until it is just right – which is exactly how good marketing content gets built.

A very common example of this sort of collaboration, which applies to both comics and copywriting, is the sin of overwriting. Recently, my company produced a 30-second video for a client who sells custom dancewear. For the last portion of the video, I wrote A LOT of words:

Too many, some might say.

Our videographer, knowing the intent of what I was looking for and the timeframe in which we had to work, knocked this down to three slides and four or so transitions (with the last slide containing overlaid text that transitioned into a logo reveal). Which looked fantastic, and was much better than what I saw in my head.

But on that last slide, there were still TOO DAMN MANY WORDS. The rhythm and amount of text slowed the viewing experience – and made our call-to-action (the words that get the viewer to do the thing you want them to do; in this case, visiting our client’s website) way less powerful.

So after seeing the visuals, I cut even more words. Because reading comics has taught me that less words are often more, and that powerful visuals can speak for themselves.

Cutting Words for Collaboration - Matt Reads Comics
Sometimes, we writers just need to get out of our own damn way.

Comics writers are particularly collaborative, in a way lots of other writers are not. But over the last five months, I’ve learned that successful copywriters need to collaborate just as much.

Resources for Building Your Comics Brain

Up top, I promised I’d help you build your own Comics Brain, so you can be a better collaborative writer (assuming that’s a thing you want to be). I’ve peppered some of these recommended resources throughout, but here’s a final list of materials you can peruse to learn how comics writing works – and steal its lessons for your own day job:

There should be more than enough there to help you begin building your Comics Brain! Feel free to check back in (using the Comments section below) if any of the above resources help you out – or to leave your own thoughts about how comics have made you better at your day job.

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