Search This Blog

Friday, March 4, 2011

Tickling Funny Bones: 8 Tips for Writing Humor

Welcome, a humor writer with some helpful hints for writing funny stuff...
What makes something humorous?  Responses vary, but “humor” usually involves unexpecteds, unforeseens or exaggeration.  Humor breaks the routine and whisks us into smiles and silliness.  Think Lucy and Ethel in the bon-bon factory.  Abbot and Costello and Who’s on First?

When I was young and foolish I decided to try my hand at writing humor.  Folks cheered me on, insisting that mine was a truly wry – if not wicked – sense of humor.

I crashed and burned.

After weeks of staring at the computer, all I had to show for my efforts was a headache that’d give the Marquis de Sade cause for pause.  I not only hadn’t written anything that could be dubbed “humorous” by any charitable extreme, but the only “funny” ideas I came up with wouldn’t outlast the expiration date on a milk carton.

Sound familiar?  If so, take heart.  If not, kindly quit reading this piece and order out for dessert.
Well.  On my way to publishing a couple humor books and some side-splitting, insanely funny and Pultizer-Prize winning  articles (I made that last one up), I learned a lot about humor writing.  Since I’m such a nice lady, I’m passing these tips along for free:

1. Is Joke-Writing Different from Writing Humor?
Is the Pope Catholic?  Is rain wet?  Is Obama running for re-election?
There may be some “spill over,” but writing jokes and writing humor are two different genres.
A joke writer pursues the “ta-da!” moment followed by a canned laugh track.  Writing humor is more of an art form.  It’s a sustained chord as opposed to a tympanic crash.  Humor is to writing what a seven-course meal is to cooking.  Jokes are a quick trip to the drive-thru.  Comprende?

2.   Write what you know.
Doesn’t this sound like an echo from your long-lost junior high English teacher?  That’s because she (or he) was right.  Don’t try to impress people with how funny you can make an unfamiliar topic or event.  Start with your own experience and stamp it with your own brand of kooky.  (You can take that any way you like.)  If you get really good at charting the hilarious in territory you know nothing about, run for Congress.

3.  Put yourself in your story.
Unless you’re dull as dirt – and you know who you are – your readers want to

hear from you in the first-person.  If you don’t think your stuff is funny, chances are no one else will, either.  So unsheath your rapier wit, trot out your droll conviviality and craft your magnum opus like it’s the best thing since raspberry white chocolate cheesecake.  Try this: Tell your story as if you’re sharing it over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table with an old friend.  You could also picture yourself sharing your story with a new enemy, but I won’t be responsible for the consequences.

4.  Write in the first-person whenever possible.
Related to the incredibly incisive and sagacious advice above, use “I” in your story, vignette or article whenever possible.  Inject some of your personality into your writing. Find your “voice.”  Keep it active rather than passive.  This may take some tinkering and experimenting.  That’s alright.  Questions to ask along the way:

What are you passionate about?  Where do you like to go, spend your time, invest your day?  What makes this incident or event funny to you?  Who else will relate to this topic?
Give people a chance to get to know you.  Write from the heart.  This doesn’t mean sharing every minute detail of your life.  If you do, readers will doubtless expire of boredom by or before the end of your story.  So use your best judgment.  (This tip is null and void if you’re a felon on the lam, oyster eater, or cat lover.)

5.  Study the Masters
Stroll over to your local library and take a gander at some established humor authors.  Skim some books.  Are you chuckling wildly after a chapter or two?  What makes that chapter, paragraph, person or topic humorous?  How did the author construct his or her plot, characters, setting, tempo, and transitions?  Sometimes an ordinary occurrence can turn into an adventure in hilarity if the author tells it that way.  (Sometimes it can wind up a wrong turn down a one-way street, but let’s not go there.)

6.  Double check everything!
Thoroughly proof your manuscript before sending it out.  Nothing screams “amateur!” like typpos, missspeld werds or pore grammur.  Ask a  family member or friend to read your work.  They may catch mistakes you haven’t.

Read your piece out loud.  U’d bee soo-prized howe meny “oopses” yul find wen u reed yer werk alowd.  You’ll also get a better “feel” for important elements of humor writing such as pacing, dialogue, and voice.

7.  Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite.
How long did it take me to write my first humor book, Guys and Other Near-Humans? Or my next, how I got to be fifty and other atrocities?  (Subtle plug here, in case you missed it.)  Do you want the whole nine yards or the condensed version?  Okay.  Condensed version: about four years.  Each.  Just keep at it and be sure to pack a lunch.

8.  A final tip: Be patient with yourself.
Don’t take rejection letters personally.  Learn from them and those kindly acquisition editors - yes, there are one or two - so you’ll avoid repeating the same mistakes.

Keep writing and learning.  Keep an eye out for new material.  It materializes in the most unusual places: dead of night, while driving, in the shower, or arguing the nutritional merits of broccoli with an eight year-old.  Keep submitting and practice, practice, practice.

Humor writing is hard work.  What?!  Do you think I was born this funny?  So if you’re warming up your funny bone and planning to join the literary luminaries of the humor world, good for you!  Now stop reading and knock out some silliness and smiles!  Lord knows we can use more of both – and lots more dessert!
(This article apepars at the author's blog,, and also appeared in the December issue of A Long Story Short.)

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

Great article on humor. I am a public speaker in addition to writing, and it has always seemed funny to me that I can tell funny stories and add wit to my stories easily but I cannot tell jokes. I think humor is one of the most important assets of my personality. Life can't get you down if you can laugh about it.