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B&N Week 139: Effective Communication

| August 20, 2013

BoltsNutsFeatured-effective communication

It’s another Tuesday! We’ve got happy skies, I’ve made some moves (both figuratively and literally), and all the while, you’ve been on my mind.

This week, I want to talk about not just the importance of communication, but the importance of clarity within that communication. That’s extremely important.

For those of us in comics, there are different levels of communication. You should have different expectations from each level.

Before we get into that, let’s take a look at what communication is. Merriam Webster Online defines it as: 3a. a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. To make this even more clear, and to put it in my own words, communication happens when one person conveys information to another, and that information is both received and understood. A lot of communication is ineffective due to the information being conveyed is not clear, it is not received correctly, or not fully understood.

Ever have a conversation with someone and you’re saying one thing, and the response given is an answer to what was said, but it doesn’t totally mesh? And then you clarify, and then the light bulb goes off, and then the person gives an answer that is more in line with what is being said. Happens all the time. So, the communication that happens at first wasn’t effective, for one reason or another, but then the second effort was.

[My wife complains at times, saying that I cannot tell a short story. I can. However, in order for the story to be totally understood, I have to give background on what happened that led up to the story I’m about to tell. When I’m done, she understands totally, and doesn’t ask questions. If I just told a short story [and I have, and it never fails], she then asks me questions about what led up to whatever it is I’m talking about. I like to think I communicate effectively. I don’t often have to answer follow-up questions, so it must be working. Either that, or the person is afraid of another long story!]

Editors: I’m going to be hardest on you. Even though the writer may have the ultimate control [because they’re usually the ones footing the bill of the endeavor], yours is the role of traffic cop, as well as being smoother of the way. This means that your communications should be not only effective, but clear. There should be little doubt as to your meaning, or the point you’re trying to get across.

Most of your communication, editors, will be through email. [Phone calls are best, but sometimes, not always practical or cost effective.] This means that your communications have the best opportunity to be clear and concise, because you have time to slow down and think it through.

My emails to or with clients tend to be a bit long-winded. It’s been an evolution. My emails used to be short. This often led to confusion, because short does not always mean clear, and people could [and would] over-think what I was saying. So in order to be clear, I had to start lengthening my emails, leaving no room for me to be unclear.

And it isn’t just emails, editors. You also have to make sure that the script is clear. That’s part of your job, also. Where the writer falls down, you have to back them up by making sure they’re clear. If the writing is clear, then everything else will go that much smoother.

Here’s the other thing that doesn’t get said that often, but needs to be dragged out into the light. As an editor, you should be fluent in your native language. And by fluent, I mean in the written component of it. Editors, in order to be truly effective, you should not be “storytellers.” You need to be writers. You need to be used to seeing your words in a written form.

Writers, everything I’ve said for editors goes the same for you, but to a lesser extent. The only real pass I’m giving you is that not all of you are true writers. Some of you are storytellers, and as such, aren’t used to seeing your words on the page. That is the only concession I’m willing to make.

However, just because I’m willing to make a concession doesn’t mean that the basics aren’t important: spelling, punctuation, syntax. Here’s what I’m getting at: I once had a client whose English was so bad that I thought they weren’t native English speakers. When they told me they were, I apologized, and when they understood what their English looked like to me, their spelling, punctuation, and syntax got a LOT better.

This stuff is important, folks.

I know of a writer who believes that nothing is important except the understanding of the artist, so their spelling is bad, their syntax is bad, and their format is almost nonexistent. When I went through their script, I had to hand it back and tell them to beef it up, because I had so many questions that I found the script to be nearly unusable.

I’ve seen another writer’s script, and they had it produced. In looking at the script and looking at the art, I told the writer that the artist had a lot of questions to ask of them, based on the script. They asked me how I knew, truly flabbergasted. I said that the script didn’t have the basic information that the artist needed in order to do their job correctly, so they had to ask clarifying questions.

Clarity, folks. In the script, and in your communications. If necessary, over-explain, and explain the reason why you’re over-explaining.

I have a new client, and I told them that I’m always going to do the breakdown of the math and a payment schedule for them, so that there are no surprises down the road. In doing that, I’m making sure that my communication is clear and effective. No one wants surprises when talking about money, believe you me.

Artists, you’re next. Effective communication should be expected out of you. You’re doing a very big portion of the work, and very often, you’re going to have questions. Your questions should effectively communicate what you don’t understand, so that you can get the information you need to do the job the best of your abilities.

Now, here’s the thing, writers and editors: sometimes, the artists are not native English speakers. What does this mean to you? Don’t be jerks! Put a little work in understanding what they’re saying. It may not always be immediate, but think of it like this: they took the time to learn English. Do you know their language? If they took the time to learn English, the least you can do is not be a jerk and at least try to understand what they’re saying. If you just cannot, which can happen, just try to be polite in saying that you don’t understand, and try to tell them what you understood, in your own words.

That really goes for the rest of the creative team. I’ve run into pencilers, inkers, and colorists who are not native English speakers, but I have yet to run into a letterer who isn’t a native English speaker. [Well, maybe one.]

When you communicate with letterers, I’ve found it extremely helpful to them if, when I find something that needs changing or correcting, to go Page Number, Panel Number, Balloon Number, and then the word within the balloon. This way, they can easily zero in on what is wrong and what to change it to. Just be polite.

Now, all of this is when you actually have a gig and are working on it. How about when you’re looking for one?

The conventional wisdom stays the same: follow the submission instructions to a tee. Now, I know that some of you are on the grind, looking for work because a gig may be coming to an end or you’re at loose ends and need something. I get it. I get that some of you are freelancers, and this is how you feed your family and pay your bills. I get it. However, that does not mean you can’t be personable in your communications and interactions. So let’s take a look at it.

You go to a company’s site, and they say they’re accepting submissions. They’re wide open for them: writers, artists, colorists, letterers. Everyone is welcome. They don’t want attachments, they want links. They don’t mind zipping around the internet, but their servers can’t handle a ton of attachments coming in.

We already know that a decent portion of the submissions are going to be attachments. They don’t get the gig, because they don’t know how to listen. But the others? The ones that listen? You have to be a little personable in your communications. Show a little personality. And by a little personality, I mean you should be polite, send them what they need, and be available for questions if any. I don’t mean trying to make them laugh or anything like that, and definitely don’t turn them against you by being a dick. That is very, very easy to do. Once they contact you with the possibility of pursuing the gig, then you can start showing more personality in your communications.

Don’t be a dick, though. I’m telling you, don’t do it.

Email has no inflection. The internet itself has no inflection. What you think of as funny could come across as crass, insensitive, in bad taste, or just not the type of person they want to work with. You don’t know who the submissions editor is, so you’re better off being polite and to the point.

Let’s say that the person who’s looking to get work done is a private individual and not a company. The same rules apply, folks. It’s no different. Polite and to the point, and show some personality during the courting period.

These are what the submissions editors and private individuals are looking for, in order: can you do the work, will it be at a reasonable price, how will it be to work with you. Remember, you can be fast, good, or nice: any combination of two will get you repeat business. You cannot slide by with only one of them, and if you’re a jerk on top of that, then people aren’t going to want to work with you. [Not unless you’re outrageously talented. Notice the last two words of that sentence. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but generally speaking, that will not apply to you. And yes, I’m including myself in that. I’m not outrageously talented.]

If you’re communicating effectively and showing some personality, then congratulations, you’re in a good place. Keep up the good work.

If your communication skills need some work, find out where your weak areas are. Are you forgetting crucial information in the script? Are you finding that others think you’re terse? Are you being polite? [And just like paprika, a little bit goes a long way.] Are people constantly asking what you mean, or making sure they understood what you said?

It’s all communication. All of it. Doing it effectively is critical. It can get you jobs, and conversely, ineffective communication can also keep you from getting jobs. After you’ve been doing this for a while, after creators are no longer just overwhelmingly happy to hold their comic in their hands, it will start coming down to how well and how often you communicate. I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to lose out on a job I’m capable of doing because of an email taken badly.

Homework: learn to communicate! We can all learn to do it more effectively. Make sure that you are heard, and that the information is received and understood.

See you in seven.

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Category: Bolts & Nuts, Columns

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

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