Writing copy is like drawing a comic strip

Once, I remember reading that a cartoonist said that the important part of drawing a comic strip is not actually what’s in the panels themselves, but the space between the panels. The pictures that you draw are, in fact, just bookends and anchors to your readers’ imagination. If the reader can’t use your anchors to make the transition to the next panel through the use of their imagination, then you’ve failed as a cartoonist.

This is something we as comic strip/comic book readers tend not to notice, especially when it’s done well. It’s only glaringly obvious when you can’t follow the dialog or the action due to confusing camera angles between one panel to the next or a bad panel layout.

So it is with copy on your website, or an HN title submission. Like panels on a comic strip, copy is the anchor which you bookend your visitor’s understanding and imagination. If it’s not something that stirs their curiosity, or even better, their sense of imagination, then you’ve failed to carry them from one step to the next.

And as it is with a comic strip, you can’t be overt with the copy, nor should you lie to them. That’s when people get irked and call things link baits. When done right, people don’t even notice at all.

Knowing yourself

When I was younger, I often heard the phrase, “Know yourself”. I didn’t quite know what that meant. At the time, I thought, “Of course I know myself. I know that I like vanilla ice cream.” It wasn’t until I was older that I figured out there’s more to those two words.

What’s so important about knowing yourself? For one, at many points in your life, you’ll have to make decisions about your life and the lives of others. Should I take this job or should I work on this idea? Should I marry this girl or should I try to find another? Should I be the whistleblower or should I protect my family? Making these decisions is tough enough, as you oftentimes have incomplete information, your own biases, and peer pressure of others to mask you from thinking clearly. Knowing what you value will help make the decision process easier (though justifying it is another topic altogether).

In addition, the world has many different types of people in it that value different things. One way or another, they’re going to try to impose, coax, or try to convince you of their values to achieve their own goals. This happens with advertisements to buy a product, when someone asks you to go into business with them, or to go on that trip to Thailand. When your goals are aligned with theirs, then alright, high-fives all around and let’s execute. But when you are unsure of your own values, it’s easy make choices for yourself that are not actually aligned with your values. When you have a lack of alignment between your actions and your core values, it contributes to a lack of control in your life, which contributes to happiness.

So what should you know about yourself? I’m specifically talking about what you value, though Values is an often overloaded term. In this context, I mean it as not simply what you think is important, but the relative prioritization you’d give of one over another. If I asked you whether you value security, you might say ‘yes I do. I like knowing I’ll have a job next year’. And if I asked you whether you value progress, you might also say ‘yes, I like how technology moves forward to bring better standards of living’. But when security is pitted against progress, which would you choose? What if in order to make technological progress, old industries and markets disappear and people lose their jobs? What if it was your job on the line? Some might not find that decision so easy.

How would you go about discovering your prioritization of values? One way would be to take every combination of values and pit them against each other in an either-or contest. I did this exercise once, and it was not only tedious, but also relatively inaccurate. We have a tendency to lie to ourselves because of who we’d like to be (or who others would like us to be), rather than who we are. What we say is oftentimes not what we do.

How do we look at what we do in an honest light? One way is to put yourself in stressful situations and see how you react. We often don’t know what we’d do in a situation until we find ourselves in that actual scenario. You want to put yourself in situations where you are a bit intimidated but not in completely over your head, doing things that may be uncomfortable but will ultimately lead you to stretch yourself. Sometimes, we’re surprised by our own courage, acceptance, or kinkiness. Other times, we’re disappointed by our cowardice, lack of confidence, or our spitefulness.

When I finally connected the dots, I realized that’s why people choose to backpack around Europe or SE Asia. It’s an opportunity to put yourself in new and stressful situations where you don’t quite have all the solutions and will have to react to new situations. That’s how you find out whether you are okay flying by the seat of your pants or whether you like to have a plan; whether you’re too trusting of strangers or not quite trusting enough.

I see people miss this point all the time when they cargo-cult others’ path of self-exploration. I had a friend go to France to teach English, and she found herself doing the same things as she would have done back home–go to work, come home, eat microwave dinners in front of the TV. As can be expected, she reflected that it wasn’t much different living in France as it was living in the US. Similarly, I see people add to their bucket lists “run a marathon”, “go skydiving,” or “do a startup” simply as one more thing to check off, to serve as bragging rights to others, or mostly because they see other people doing it. [1]

Doing and experiencing things is a great start, but it’s more fruitful to learn something about yourself along the way. Those opportunities will not only inform later decisions in your life, but they will also enable you to see others with a keener eye. And that alone would be a pity to miss.

Time for the obligatory concluding quote.

He who controls others may be powerful, but he who has mastered himself is mightier still. — Lao-tzu

[1] Of course, there are some people who already know that they value experiences as a whole and go around gathering as many as they can. It’s perfectly fine if that is the case and they already know that about themselves.