Tips for Better Writing From Calvin and Hobbes
By Annetta Hanna
It’s a little scary to see your kid transmogrified (sic) into a full-on Calvin and Hobbes fan. It seems like only yesterday my sweet little girl would cuddle up with The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Winnie the Pooh. Now she chortles demonically as Calvin battles Deranged Killer Monster Snow Goons and threatens to destroy the world with Tyrannosaurs in F-14s.
Calvin, of course, is the very bright little boy created by cartoonist Bill Patterson in his syndicated comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes,” which was published from 1985 to 1996. Hobbes is his stuffed toy, although to Calvin, he’s a living, talking, stalking tiger, his best friend and sardonic straight man. The fantasy world these two inhabit isn’t infused with the melancholy sweetness of Peanuts – it’s closer to the hair-raising domain of the Brothers Grimm.
Over the 10 years that Patterson wrote and illustrated the comic, Calvin and Hobbes explored innovative marketing strategies (“Pitcher of Plague - $1.00 not to have any!”), shared timeless fashion tips (“Cool people don’t wear sombreros! Nobody wears sombreros!!”), confronted daily challenges (“Ugh - something under the bed is drooling”), and made important discoveries (“Life is full of surprises, but never when you need one.”).
Calvin’s Insights into Art, Science, and the Use of Saws
Thanks to my daughter’s growing collection of Calvin and Hobbes books, she’s shared with me Calvin’s insights on everything from art (“Van Gogh would’ve sold more than one painting if he’d put tigers in them”) to science (“In my opinion, we don’t devote nearly enough scientific research to finding a cure for jerks”).
Her understanding of medical vocabulary and best practices grew when she read a strip that has Calvin playing doctor with the little neighbor girl. Susie complains of having a sore foot. Calvin’s diagnosis of “It’s psychosomatic! You need a lobotomy! I’ll get a saw” brought up a number of topics for us to discuss. Once she got the joke, she couldn’t stop giggling. Demonically.
But I especially enjoy stumbling upon storylines that apply to my writing for blogs and websites. In one set of panels, for example, Calvin is doing his homework and explains to Hobbes, “I used to hate writing assignments, but now I enjoy them. I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! Want to see my book report?"
Hobbes reads the book report’s title: "The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.”
Calvin, smiling with satisfaction, says, "Academia, here I come!"
The Purpose of Writing
There are plenty of places where you can succeed by writing intimidating and impenetrable prose – academia is only one of them. But the online environment is surprisingly inhospitable to dense, turgid writing. There’s something about the physical experience of reading from a screen that makes the eye recoil from long blocks of text.
Online, you can almost always find a clearer explanation of anything, even the transrelational gender modes of Dick and Jane. That’s the beauty of Google as a crowd-sourced ranking of virtually everything under the sun.
The internet also makes it easy to escape the effort of reading the instant your attention wanes. With the click of a finger, you can be watching endless YouTube videos of LOL kitties or become the 300,000,001st viewer of Gangnam Style.
All writers, of course, should avoid the weak writing, poor reasoning and lack of clarity that Calvin so gleefully champions in his book report. But the internet’s design and distractibility increase a writer’s challenges and call for additional self-editing. Much of this comes down to how you present even the most complex material.
So to adapt your writing to the online environment:
- Speak directly to your reader. For most types of web content, a conversation is more effective than a lecture.
- Use informative titles. Let your reader know upfront what you’re going to discuss.
- Tighten and divide long sentences. Period.
- Break long text blocks into shorter paragraphs. Nothing is more daunting to most readers than an unbroken wall of words.
- Include lists whenever appropriate, so that information can be quickly grasped.
- Create subheads to help readers navigate text on a screen. See point #4.
- Introduce links to other sites to add context, background and interest. This also adds to the Google ranking value of your content.
And keep in mind that online reading tends to reinforce Calvin’s approach to knowledge: “As far as I'm concerned, if something is so complicated that you can't explain it in 10 seconds, then it's probably not worth knowing anyway.” For an online writer, the challenge is to grab one 10-second bit of attention, and then another, and another.