Lettering Tips for Comics Writers

Image © Marvel

This morning a writer I’m working with asked me if I had any tips for comics writers from a letterer’s point of view. This is something I’m rarely asked, but of course a few things did come to mind. I’m sure I could think of more, and probably will later, but this is what emerged in a half hour or so.

The big one is to write economically, and don’t describe what the art is already showing. Leave room for the art, this is not a novel.
Use of double dash (- -) and ellipsis (…): double dash (replacing an em-dash in regular type) is for an interruption of some kind, ellipsis is for a pause or unfinished sentence. Where one is at the end of a piece of dialogue that continues, it should also be at the beginning of the continuation.
Inner dialogue captions (where we used to employ thought balloons) do not need quotes. Quoted dialogue by someone off-camera does, but you only need an opening quote for multiple captions in a sequence until the final one, which gets a close quote. If such running captions are interrupted by dialogue, I close quote before that.
Spell out numbers up to twenty (thirty, forty, fifty, etc. is optional), use the actual numbers above twenty.
Symbols like % should generally be spelled out in dialogue if possible.
If you are going to emphasize words, make them Bold Italic. With emphasized words, less is more. Read dialogue out loud to find the correct emphasis points, but don’t overdo it. Some emphasis is recommended in large balloons or captions to help break up the large areas of lettering and make them easier to read.
Things to consider that will make your letterer happy: 
Don’t end a dialogue balloon with a very long word that can’t be hyphenated easily. Example: ecclesiastically.
Don’t write characters that repeat things a lot. Yes, there are people who do that, but it’s annoying. I say, it’s annoying, son, annoying, and it takes up too much space. This goes double for stuttering!
If you can, I recommend following in the footsteps of Alan Moore by doing thumbnail layouts with lettering placements of your comics pages yourself. You don’t have to be a great artist to do this, and it will help you understand visual storytelling and balloon placement. Of course, your artist and letterer may have other ideas, but it will give you a better concept of what works and what doesn’t. Remember that lettering is read left to right, then down and left to right again, generally, within a panel, across a row of panels, and over an entire page. Lettering should form a natural flow for the eye across the page. See my website article on balloon placement.
Finally, try to avoid calling for special lettering styles unless they are really needed to understand the story or express a unique characteristic of your cast. In some cases your letterer may decide to volunteer some special styles, but this is an area that is often overdone, and when it is it can make storytelling less clear and reading more difficult. (Yes, yes, I know, SANDMAN, but the exception proves the rule!)
ADDED: I forgot an important one brought to my attention by Chris Eliopolous. Writers should not treat the lettering as a first draft that will go through one or more rewrites, making extra unpaid work for the letterer. This is a growing problem from newer writers and editors who don’t understand the fact that letterers are generally only paid once. Respect that.

3 thoughts on “Lettering Tips for Comics Writers

  1. Greg

    Why do you say that SANDMAN is “the exception proves the rule” for multiple lettering/balloon styles? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that SANDMAN uses multiple styles and is considered one of the best examples of lettering. ASTERIOS POLYP also uses many styles and is also considered a great example of lettering.

    In my humble opinion, I think it’s a bit more nuanced than “overdone.” I’d say that it’s done poorly more often than standard lettering is done poorly. But I think that’s understandable when it takes considerably more time and effort, not to mention that letterers have less experience with it! You can’t get better at something without practice.

  2. Mike Mitchell

    I have to side with Todd on this one (although Greg does make a point about it being often being poorly done), but it is generally overdone. By that, I mean just most of the time it isn’t needed. Citing a handful of exceptions doesn’t change that. A single typeface is usually all that is needed. That’s why novels don’t change typefaces between character dialogue (an exception being in some sci-fi novels where they use a different font or italics for aliens or telepathy. But that’s sort of a “standard” exception.

    I do disagree with Todd on numbers, though. I follow the AP Guidelines we learned in Journalism school. Numbers should be written out for one to nine, and use ordinals (figures) for 10-up. And there are exceptions, such as ages and years should always be figures. I do agree about spelling out “percentages” and “degrees” and things like that.

    Good post!

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