It’s good for us as writing teachers to try our hand at some form of writing on a regular basis. It can teach you a lot.
I think we English teachers sometimes have an urge to make our student writers perfect writers… RIGHT NOW. We sometimes feel that too many errors mean they can’t write. Or poor style means they can’t write. There are so many ways students can go wrong: half-baked ideas, awkward sentences, poor organization, clunky transitions, unwieldy metaphors, a lack of coherence, a lack of any kind of specific details. The list could stretch into pages.
When I get impatient with my student writers, I simply need to open my file drawer of comic strips and go back to year one in 2000. My cartoons had some merits back then, but technical savvy and a professional drawing weren’t among them. I drew with gel pens on copy paper, and my style was wildly inconsistent. If you look at the strip below, Mr. Fitz’s head changes shape and size, and his features drift around his face. He is almost a completely different character in each frame, visually. Despite my somewhat lackluster drawing, however, my need to say something was strong, though, and so the ideas were often good. And I had landed a spot in my local newspaper, so I had to say something five times a week, and a few years later, six times a week. So I just kept writing and drawing. It became my professional therapy.
Part of what I had to say back then was very simple and very true, and remains true today: students have things to say if we help them uncover them.
The most important thing I learned about writing is this: If you just keep at something, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, you’ll get better at it. I drew through the early two-thousands (the aughts?)…
I drew through past 2010…
I drew into the twenty-teens….
I have written and drawn over 5,000 comic strips. And you know what? I’ve gotten better over time. In 2018 I reverted to just 3 strips a week because 6 strips a week was starting to be a bit stressful on top of, you know, teaching. But that allowed me to play with form. My new newspaper stacked the three strips and ran them all on the same day, so I now had one big block of space to play with. Now I was able to play with form, and with color!
On March 28th, my little comic will turn 21. Writing it and drawing it has helped me understand something about writing (and drawing). You get better at it with consistent practice. And you get better at it when you really care about what you are saying, and when you are having fun saying it. I’ve also discovered that it helps to have an editor who has your back – mistakes are easy to make, even when you know the rules of writing. We often demand perfection of students writers, when in fact we should be their editors.
And, as I have often noted in the strip itself, when we demand perfection in the form of compliance, we create compliers, not writers.
I have never had anyone hand me a rubric for comic strips. I read models voraciously – Peanuts, Calvin and Hobbes, Bloom County – and then I re-read them. And I took what I learned from them and my own experiences and created something that I hope is interesting. I didn’t follow someone else’s rule book. I made my own: Every strip has to be about teaching or learning, or reading and writing, or teachers and students in some way.
So I remind myself when my students try something new as writers that maybe goes against some of my own writing advice… rules were made to be broken.
Read voraciously. Write about what you care about. Practice, practice, practice. The more we can get our students doing these things, the better they will draw… I mean write.
David Lee Finkle
Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.
How do you get writers to think about the choices they make? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics
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WHAT!? First of all, congratulations on your successful comic strip series! This is creative and lighthearted. I really enjoyed the way you sprinkled in your comic strips to this writing piece. This line stood out to me, “Read voraciously. Write about what you care about.” What an inspiration! Thank you for such a fun read!