Julia Evans

How I write useful programming comics

How I write useful programming comics

The other day a friend was asking me how I write programming comics. I’ve tried to write about this at least 6 times (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), but I felt like there’s still something missing so here’s another attempt.

drawing isn’t the hard part

The 2 common questions/comments I get about my comics are:

  1. “what tools do you use?” (an ipad + apple pencil + a drawing app).
  2. I wish I were good at drawing so that I could do that

But neither of these is what I actually find hard about comics: I’m actually very bad at drawing, and I’ve made comics that people love with very simple tools, like taking a low-quality picture of a notebook with my phone.

So what’s the secret?

3 types of comics I draw

I think a lot of my comics fall into 3 categories. I don’t think that this categorization is totally accurate, but I think it’s a helpful way to start talking about how to do it.

Type 1: the Surprising/Hidden Fact

Here are 10 examples of surprising ideas I’ve written about:

Of course, a lot of these aren’t that surprising when you already know about them – “cookies let a server store information in your browser” is a basic fact about how cookies work! But if you don’t already know it, it’s pretty surprising and kind of exciting to learn.

I think there are at least two subtypes of surprising facts here:

  • Facts that tell you about something you can do (like “use ngrep to grep your network packets”)
  • Facts that explain why something works the way it does (“oh, I’m always confused about SQL queries because they’re not executed in the order they’re written in! That explains a lot!”)

Type 2: the List of Important Things about X

This sounds pretty boring at first (“uh, a list?”), but most of the comics I’ve drawn where people tell me “This is amazing, I printed this out and put it on my wall” are lists. Here are some examples of list comics:

A key things about this is that it’s not just “a list of facts about X” (anyone can make a list!) but a list of the most important facts about X. For example, grep has a lot of command line arguments. But it turns out that I only ever use 9 of them even though I use a grep a LOT, and that each of those 9 options can be explained in just a few words.

All of the topics are super specific, like “HTTP request headers”, “HTTP response headers”, and “topics for 1:1s”.

Type 3: the Relatable Story

The last type (and the type I’m the least certain how to categorize) is sort of a story that resonates with people. I think that this one is really important but I can’t do it justice right now so I’m going to stick to talking about the other two types in this post.

source 1 of Surprising Facts: things I learned somewhat recently

Okay, so how do you find surprising facts to share? The way I started out was to just share things I learned that I was surprised by!

I started doing this on my blog, not in comics: I’d learn something that I was surprised by, and think “oh, this is cool, I should write a blog post about it so other people can learn it too!“. And then I’d write it up and often people would be really happy to learn the thing too!

Obviously I don’t think everyone needs to have a tech blog, but I do think that noticing surprising computer facts as you learn them and explaining them clearly is a skill that you need to practice if you want to get good at it!

source 2 of Surprising Facts: things other people find surprising

Recently I’ve moved a little more into what I feel is the Hard Mode of surprising facts – things that I have not been personally surprised by recently, but that a lot of people who don’t know about the topic yet would be really surprised by.

I think the main way to discover Surprising Facts like this is by talking to people who do not know the thing already and observing what they find surprising. For example I might have an interaction like this:

  1. me (showing someone to a coworker) so you can do TASK like this…
  2. coworker: um wait you can do that?? That’s so cool! I have a lot of questions!
  3. me: oh yeah it’s so useful!

For me, HTTP cookies were an example this – I’d forgotten that it could be surprising / interesting to learn how they worked because I learned about them a while ago, and then one day a friend asked me “hey, how do cookies work?”. And I remembered that it’s really cool and useful to know, so I wrote it down!

Another example of this is SELECT queries start with FROM – this was something that I understood intuitively and hadn’t thought about. But when walking through a SQL query’s execution with someone, I noticed that they were really surprised that you didn’t execute the query in the same order that it was written. And I realized “oh yeah, that IS weird actually, I bet a lot of other people are confused by that too!“. So I wrote it down and it helped a lot of people!

I think the skill of “figuring out what people typically find surprising when learning a topic and coming up with clear explanations” is probably called “teaching”.

Lists of Important Things are a little bit easier to write

I find writing lists a little easier than writing Surprising Facts – it’s hard to come up with a useful topic for a list, but once I have the topic (like “every linux networking tool I know”), it feels somewhat straightforward to list them all and briefly explain the basics of each one.

I only write comics about things I know relatively well

People also ask me pretty often if I write comics about topics I’m learning as I learn them. I don’t do this basically because I find writing short things a LOT harder than writing long things.

I do write blog posts about topics I’m just learning – if there’s a topic I’m still not super clear on, I can usually write a 1200-word blog post about it with some basic facts and questions and examples. But if I’m still a little bit confused about the topic, it’s very hard to definitively list “Here are the 3 most important surprising facts you need to know to understand TOPIC”, because very likely I actually don’t know those 3 facts yet! Or maybe I kind of know them, they’re mixed in with a lot of other things that I’m not sure about and aren’t as important.

that’s all for now!

Hopefully this is helpful! Someone pointed out that this advice might also apply to blog posts, which, maybe it does!

Day 20: trying to figure out how Google Cloud IAM works Day 19: Clustering faces (poorly) using an autoencoder