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Teaching about Writing Instructions with Comics

posted: 3.18.13 by Elizabeth Losh and Jonathan Alexander

Instructions are obviously a nearly ubiquitous part of life in our visual culture and can be found everywhere from the emergency exit of an airplane to a tube of toothpaste. Unlike writing that is organized into prose paragraphs, instructions often take the form of an ordered list that may seem to be woefully lacking in sentence variety for lovers of intricate grammatical style.  However, encouraging students in composition classes to think about writing instructions can be a useful way to discuss audience and purpose and improve students’ understanding of different rhetorical situations.

Technical writing courses often include very interesting prompts about how to write clear, effective, and economical instructions.  My former colleague at UC Irvine, computer science faculty member David Kay, was fond of assigning the task of writing instructions for how to build a particular object from building toys, such as Legos or Tinker Toys.  Peer editing groups would need to try to follow the instructions to build the intended object (such as a specific house, vehicle, or animal) without illustrations and without verbal prompting from the instructor.

Digital rhetoric expert Dennis Jerz calls it “How to Write Guides for Busy, Grouchy People” and uses a how-to manual for dancing the Hokey Pokey as a model.  Instructions can even work as a way to explore genre in multimodal composition.  When I assign students to compose video essays or five-minute Ignite-style presentations with automatically advancing slides, it is interesting to note that many of the most memorable student performances involved the hilarity of creating instructions for improbably cinematic situations, such as “how to land a plane if you are ever in a situation like those that occur in action movies” (2012) or “how to get rid of a dead body” (2013).

There are a number of panels in Understanding Rhetoric that include instructions for assignments and activities.  What might it mean to revise them into a more rigorous step-by-step format?  We enjoyed working with the artists Zander Cannon and Kevin Cannon  because they were skilled visual communicators.  We knew that they were also masterful writers of instructions, as we could see from works like the DIY guide to “How to Make a Mini-Comic”.

Of course, we had to think a lot about writing instructions ourselves in our collaboration with Zander and Kevin as artists, because our script had to contain detailed information that conveyed our ideas about the look and feel of each issue, visual details to be represented in the panels, and special page layouts.

Although we were familiar with finished comic books as readers who admired them as both scholars and fans, the format of the comic book script as a critical part of pre-production was relatively new to us.   I downloaded Celtx software, which also makes a product for movie scripts, to get started on learning proper formatting.

If you teach your college composition students to write in the template of comic book scripts, there are many resources that they can turn to for reference on the Internet.  Famed authors like Dwayne McDuffie have posted sample scripts, and The Comic Book Script Archive contains a sizable corpus of material to emulate.  For very young composers of comic books, products like Comics Creator sponsored by the NCTE allow kids to skip the script stage.  But given how important formatting is in many different types of documents that college writers produce, learning to observe formatting conventions can be important.

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One Response to “Teaching about Writing Instructions with Comics”

  1. Melissa, Lamar University Says:

    I ordered a review copy of your book and am looking forward to receiving it. I’m planning to have my students use Storify as a tool for exploring and brainstorming their topics, and I imagine that the comics format might make for another fun and effective prewriting tool. I can’t wait to try it out!

    Thanks for this fresh perspective on teaching composition.