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7 Tips for Writing an Impactful Cartoon

Interested in telling a story through illustration? Cartoonist Will McPhail shares seven tips for writing an impactful cartoon that are both helpful and hilarious.

Sitting down to create a great cartoon can be a daunting prospect. Luckily, I have gathered several tricks of the trade over the years which I believe make the whole experience much more manageable. The time has come at last to reveal my secrets.

(7 Writing Tips That Also Apply to Life)

Buy Stationery

The first, second, and final step to any creative endeavour is to spend all the money you have on lovely notepads. You’ve got to speculate to accumulate, baby. You’ve got to put all your chips on black leather Moleskines and roll the dice. Will I grace these pages with genius ideas? Or will I mindlessly doodle the Starbucks logo on them and jot down a customer support case number for my missing Asos delivery (boxy white t-shirt)?

Be Unattractive in High School

It’s difficult to hone any kind of skill when people are trying to kiss you. But when unburdened by adolescent desirability, you have plenty of time to work on your act. The act, in my case, was drawing rats or whatever. And now I’m brilliant at that. Would I rather have kissed Chloe Hinchcliffe in third year than be good at cartoons now? Yes. Absolutely. She was kind and funny and I wish her all the happiness in the world.

Live Your Life

As far as I know, it is impossible to have an idea about circuses without first having personally gone to the circus. If I wanna have an idea about scarecrows, I’m afraid you’re gonna have to show me a scarecrow. All this to say, I need real-life stimulus to work with, and luckily there’s a lot of that out there in the world. I find myself saying “yes” to all sorts of weird stuff purely in the hope that I might chance upon a funny thought while I’m doing it. There was that time a person asked if I wanted to see a scarecrow, for example.

7 Tips for Writing an Impactful Cartoon

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Live your life by all means but don’t forget to detach yourself entirely from the moment as soon as you suspect that content can be gleaned. That’s when you need to step back, take stock, and work out exactly how to turn the situation into a single panel joke. The moment is fun, the moment is exciting, but daddy’s got bills to pay and he’ll come and join you in the moment when he’s finished.


I hate to sound like a snake oil salesman, but have you guys ever tried oxygen? It’s this new miracle drug and it really does work. Many an hour have I spent at the drawing board in my airless little flat wondering why I can’t come up with a funny caption for the cartoon I’ve just drawn. But like clockwork, as soon as I step outside and oxygenate my poor brain, everything becomes a lot more lucid. I’d like to recommend Scottish oxygen, in particular. That’s the sweet stuff.

7 Tips for Writing an Impactful Cartoon

Thank The Lord for Your Editors

The shameful truth is that for every impactful cartoon I draw, there are nine very unimpactful cartoons that never see the light of day. That is entirely thanks to the wonderful editors that I’ve been lucky enough to work with at places like The New Yorker. All hail the editors, shielding the world from our failures and only showing it our victories!

Honor Your Own Sense of Humor

I’ve always wondered what having a “good” sense of humor means. Surely a quality as complex as humor can’t be judged in such a binary way? When people say they value a good sense of humor, I think what they mean is that they value their sense of humor. And so they should! All you can really do is wallow in your own humor and hope other people like it. I heard Phoebe Bridgers once talking about musicians who cynically write songs because they want a hit rather than because they love the song itself. If it isn’t a hit then they just wasted their time, and if it is a hit, it means they have to spend the rest of their careers playing this song that they fucking hate. I feel exactly the same way about cartoons. If I’m going to spend the rest of my life doing this then I better at least make stuff that I find funny.

Freelance Writing for Stay at Home Moms (and Dads)

You might already possess many of the skills necessary to break into writing from being a parent—persistence, time management, dedication and patience. If you take these skills and apply them to your writing, you’ll be one step closer to becoming a freelance writer.

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