Write a great cartoon caption and win a piece of art…

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Can you write a good sentence? Try one for this cartoon and you could be the winner of it…

If I had a dollar for every person who told me they had “no writing talent,” I could treat myself to a no-expense-spared trip to Manhattan. I won’t subject you to my spiel on why talent is irrelevant (although if you’re truly interested, you can read more here). But I will ask you this. Can you write a decent sentence?

Cody Walker, a University of Michigan creative writing professor, argues that inexperienced writers sometimes imagine that good writing comes from good ideas. “But that’s not right,” he says. “Good writing comes from good sentences.”

I discovered Walker’s comment in a terrific Harvard Business Review article about how cartoon caption contests can make you a better writer. You might want to read the article,  too. Walker used to run such a contest with his students at the University of Washington. And so did article author Peter Boumgarden with his students at Hope College. The idea? To challenge creativity. To encourage playfulnesss. And to teach students how to write better sentences.

The mother of all such contests appears in the back of the New Yorker. Each week, the magazine presents a cartoon without a caption and challenges its readers to propose one. Editors select three finalists and present them on the inside back page. A week later they declare a winner who receives a signed copy of the cartoon.

Here is one I liked recently: In the April 27/15 issue, a cartoon shows a wrecking ball crashing through the wall of an apartment while a husband sits on a chair and his wife perches on the couch, yacking on the phone. The three finalists produced the following captions:

“Miley’s here.”

“Why, yes, I am interested in homeowner’s insurance.”

“Hold on, I heard a knock.”

The winner — “Miley’s here” — was not my favourite. (I preferred, “Why, yes, I am interested in homeowner’s insurance.”) But I thought all three showed wit and verve. And all three were excellent sentences.

The Harvard Business Review article gave me the idea to try such a contest with you. Fortunately, a graphic artist I work with regularly, Warren Clark, is also a talented cartoonist and doodler extraordinaire. The cartoon at the top of this post is one of his.

As someone who has drawn “ever since I could hold a pencil,” Warren is currently working on assembling a book of doodles for publication. “I have boxes of the things,” he says. “I have a doodle for every occasion.”

Warren, of course, recognizes that doodling and cartooning are two entirely different enterprises. Doodles are a product of the subconscious drifting off during times of stress or boredom. “It’s good therapy,” Warren says. It helped him survive growing up as a British ex-pat in 1950s Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe.) “It was a very class structured system,” he says. “Drawing was a way for me to make my own sense of the crazy world.”

Cartooning is an applied skill at which he excelled and, in his view, it requires matching an image with a clever sentence. Warren says that sometimes he gets the idea first and then draws a picture to match it. For example he might take a common saying such as “cat got your tongue?” and then do a drawing of a cat playing with someone’s tongue.

Warren has even created his own alphabet for lettering. To do this, he wrote out each of the 26 letters five times, scanned them and cleaned them up a bit. Now he has the ability to produce what appear to be hand-rendered captions in digital form.

So this is my challenge to you. Develop a caption for his cartoon above and email it to me along with your name and mailing address. Be sure to put the word CARTOON in the subject line and then Warren and I will pick the one we like best. If you’re the winner, he’ll use his original lettering to put your caption onto the artwork and we’ll send you signed version with your very own words.

Be clever. Be succinct. And be on time. Deadline for applying is August 26/15. If you have any questions please post them in the comments section, below.

Warren has already created his own caption for the cartoon and I’ll post it in the comments after the deadline. Meanwhile, we hope you’ll surprise us.

What makes for a clever cartoon caption? We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by August 31/15 will be put in a draw for a copy of a lovely book of essays on writing, Swallowing the Sea, by Lee Upton. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “more from my site” links, below.


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