Writing Lessons

Show, Don’t Tell

By M. G. Lord | November 17, 2014


As an undergraduate, my writing mentors were journalists who had borne witness to the horrors of World War II. One was a cartoonist; the other a writer. Ironically, however, the cartoonist taught me to be a better wordsmith and the writer to be a stronger visual artist.

In my freshman year, I became a regular political cartoonist for The Yale Daily News. I studied English and history, but also studio art. I believed that in order to make people see what was in your head, you had to draw them a picture.

Then Bill Mauldin, who created the cartoon GIs “Willie and Joe,” admitted me to a seminar that he had been invited to teach. I thought it would about technique—an exploration of nibs, brushes and ink. But most of his other students weren’t visual artists. Mauldin chose them because they were funny, knew history, and knew how to think. Mauldin encouraged us to view cartooning as storytelling—distilling a series of events into a single emblematic moment. Our concepts had to be clear and sharp.

I began to prune my writing mercilessly, which also improved my longform nonfiction. In my senior year, John Hersey, author of Hiroshima, invited me to join his small nonfiction class. He emphasized structural economy—trimming superfluous scenes. For my final project, I told a story in sequential pictures. Today you would call this a graphic novel. Back then we called it a comic book.

I expected to be praised. The structure was taut. The language was crisp. But Hersey saw what I had missed. The images meandered. They were not what I had intended the viewer to see. The criticism stung. But it stayed with me. Today, I am working on a graphic novel, grateful to have not one but two internalized mentors helping me to stay on track.

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