Six Ways to Add Humor to Your Writing

June 2, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick

Interested in strengthening your funny bone?

Whether you want to write a short conceptual humor piece, infuse a serious essay with moments of humor, or just send an impressively funny text, these reliable techniques can get you started.

The Rule of Three

This popular comedic device is based on the idea that words and ideas are funnier in threes. The first two ideas set up a pattern; the third idea deviates from the pattern in a way that surprises and delights the reader. One way to do this is making the first two items in the list relatively serious or straightforward, then breaking the tone with a sillier third item.

From Phoebe Robinson’s Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes: 

Being from the Midwest and attending a private Catholic prep school, even though I’m not religious, meant a lot of things—having a sense of humility, caring about the greater good, eating at Wahlburgers more often than I care to admit to…

The silliness and unexpectedness of the third idea are supported by the setup of the first two ideas. 

Hyperbole

Heightening is critical to humor writing, and especially funny when describing internal thoughts and emotions. Especially when they are embarrassing.

In comedian Samantha Irby’s Wow, No Thank You, she describes the difficulties of making friends as an adult:

“I’m gonna friend you on Facebook!” I blurted at the back of her red shirt and mom jeans, feeling my bones weaken and my arteries calcifying as I aged forty years in one second.

Did Irby actually age 40 years all at once? Of course not. But the description matches the writer’s feelings in the moment, not her literal physical experience. The hyperbolic description lets the reader experience the cringe factor with Irby—and recall an embarrassing moment of their own. 

Funny/Weird/Specific Details 

A lot of writing can be punched up by using specific words and details. Hard consonant sounds are often funnier (eating with a spork is funnier than eating with a spoon) and specific quirky details can often lead to laughs. 

In Wow, No Thank You, Irby also writes:

And I hear you — how could a person who still has a blog on Al Gore’s Internet in the year of our Lord 2020 possibly delude herself into thinking that she is notorious enough to be recognized in a mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan?

Just writing “restaurant” wouldn’t have had the same funny specificity as “mid-priced sushi chain in Kalamazoo, Michigan.” Describing something with a specific detail works well, especially if it paints a funny image in your reader’s mind.

Funny Comparisons

Simile and metaphor are often used in serious writing and those same devices can be used for comedic effect. Funny comparisons can be unexpected or relatable (or both). They can pull a reader into a scene, provide imagery, or reference anything from pop culture to obscure moments in history.  

In comedian Jim Gaffigan’s Dad is Fat:

I explained what it was like having a fourth kid very simply: imagine you are drowning…and then someone hands you a baby.

In The New Yorker, humorist David Sedaris describes his sister’s perfume as,

A combination of five different scents, none of which is flowery or particularly sweet, it leaves her smelling like a strange cookie, maybe one with pencil shavings in it.

Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences is a gold mine of funny comparisons. She describes her singing voice:

I could hold a tune, but only the way you hold a stranger’s cat: not closely and not long (not to mention the strange yowling noises).

End on a Joke

How many times have you heard “save the best for last”? This is especially true for humor writing. Formatting choices can make a reader skim over a joke or pause to belly laugh. As much as possible, put the best part of the joke at the end of the sentence/paragraph/essay. Building to the funniest part is a great way to engage (and surprise) the reader. And what is humor without surprise?

Author Courtney Maum builds up to a joke in this essay about publishing a first book:

You know that people are entitled to read books you haven’t written because you’ve been reading those other books your entire life…. You’re aware of this. You’re just not sure why your friend’s mommy blog post about perfect gift ideas for 2-year-olds didn’t include a link to your first novel is all.

Analyze Comedic Pieces

Find a piece that you find funny and take a highlighter to it. Examine the spots that make you laugh. What techniques did the writer use? Was there a specific funny word choice or a humorous aside or commentary? 

Looking at the underlying techniques in a piece can help you create your own humorous writing. You can also notice these devices in other types of comedy, like stand-up or sitcoms. And we promise—absorbing any kind of humor absolutely counts as writing time.

Julie Vick has written humor for New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Real Simple; and most importantly, one of her tweets once appeared in In Touch Weekly. She is the author of the humorous advice book for introverted parents, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?) and is an English instructor at the University of Colorado Denver. Read more of her work at julievick.com

Sarah Garfinkel’s writing has been featured in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus, where she is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column. She has taught writing at Harvard University and Columbia University. She also leads humor writing workshops for teens and adults. Read more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.

How Humor and Essays Became Timeshare Partners in My Brain

March 7, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Nikki Campo

My first draft of an essay about losing my mom to cancer was a doozy. An overabundance of adverbs wasn’t even my biggest problem. I was going for “personal essay,” but landed squarely on “journal entry.” Complete with tear-stained pages and many corresponding descriptions of past tears, the copy was, by any standard, bad.

As writers, we know when our work sucks, but sometimes we don’t know why. Or, as someone only a couple years into my dedication to the craft, I don’t always know why. I love Ira Glass’s take which I would summarize as: we get into the work of writing because we have good taste, and it’s because of this good taste that our early work often disappoints us.

I probably should have scrapped that essay, or at least relegated it to the corners of my hard drive, but instead, I set it aside intending to come back to it. In the meantime, I needed a (figurative) smoke break.

So, I turned to humor writing. Why? Because my essay was full of grief—about losing my mom, about becoming a mother without her—the kind of sadness saturation that required a clean break. Humor has always been my pressure release valve. My taste has evolved somewhat over time, but big belly laughs still serve as a way out of darkness. As a kid, I loved Steve Martin movies and Saturday Night Live, when I could convince my parents to let me watch. In college, I discovered David Sedaris in an airport bookstore. I knew from his first words in “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” that I would forever seek humorous prose-as-medicine.

Of course, the first time I tried writing humor I flopped. This was also true the second, third, and sixteenth time, with McSweeney’s rejection emails as my barometer. But then something clicked. Humor became a way to process not only weird, one-off observations, but oddly, grief. Editors started saying things like “we’d love to run this” instead of “thanks for the look, but we’ll pass.”

I’ve never written humor explicitly about tragedy, but I’ve come at it from the side. In one essay, I opened with this sentence: “Since I lost my mom after my second wedding, I don’t have anyone to tell me if my mustache is showing.” Do you want to laugh or cry? Not sure? Me neither! I’ve also written humor about things like eggplants, bikini waxes, and consumer explosives, none of which have anything to do with grief. They’re just a collection of things that were making me laugh and came together in such a way that editors agreed to publish them.

After a few humor pieces and a big ol’ metaphorical exhale, I felt ready to get back to that essay about losing my mom. With the help of trusted writer friends, I figured out how to break the big, lumbering beast of a story into multiple essays. Now, many slices of life from those days live on their own as personal essays in various publications, each contained to a period of time a reader can digest in one sitting. Several other wannabes live on in my drafts folder. Who knows how they’ll come out, if they ever do.

In a way, humor and essays are like timeshare partners in my brain. When one vacates, the other can enter the space, devoid of clutter and detritus from drafts recently departed. And occasionally, as was the case in that essay about my ‘stache, the timeshare partners vacation together.

But there is a downside to flip-flopping between genres the way I do, and it’s this: I forget how to write humor when I’m focused on essays and vice versa. Humor is an especially picky writerly muscle that doesn’t appreciate being ignored. I think that’s because part of the key to a solid humor story is finding that one, often silly observation that feels really unique (e.g. how often I buy an eggplant only to let it rot in the back of my fridge whilst I decide how best to use it) and finding a way to blow it into a whole piece.

That takes practice! For me, it takes finding a good class or reading more in the genre for a concentrated stretch of time. It takes noticing what I’m noticing about my life, and what I notice when I’m in a humor-writing stretch is often different from what I notice in an essay-writing one. For example, during months of essay immersion, I ask myself what I’m supposed to be learning when my kids have a meltdown, or when I do. But when I’m writing humor, those same meltdowns are simply fodder for a future piece called “FAQs about the dinner hour with three children.”

You could say while I’m leaning into one genre, the other gets a chance to breathe. Sometimes the refreshed genre is more willing to yield worthy words after a rest, and sometimes not. But that fits. After all, it’s as easy for me to cry about how I parented at the end of the day as it is for me to laugh. I suppose the same will be true about the words I put on the page.

___

Nikki Campo is a writer whose essays and short humor have been published in HobartThe New York TimesThe Washington Post, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency among other digital and print publications and anthologies. Her personal essay “Queen of Birthdays” won 1st prize in the 2019-2020 Charlotte Writers’ Club Nonfiction contest. Find more of her work at nikkicampo.com. Twitter @nikkicampo

Two Humorists Walk Into a Blog

October 19, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Sarah Garfinkel & Julie Vick

Two humor writers walk into a bar.

The first one says, “Ouch!”

The second one says, “No, go with ‘Yikes!’ because hard sounds like K are funnier.”

Julie Vick and Sarah Garfinkel are a lot funnier than that. For the launch of Julie’s new book, Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood, Julie and Sarah (assistant editor for The Rumpus’ Funny Women column) talked about blending genres, building an online writing community, and teaching humor writing.

SARAH: In your book, you seamlessly weave personal anecdotes about parenting with satire. There is also extremely practical advice, such as this recommendation on getting through a baby shower: “Divide up the guests based on who likes playing games versus who doesn’t like to. Then let the extroverts play games while the introverts talk quietly or just sit in the corners eating cute tiny finger foods.” How did you find this balance between satire and nonfiction?

Julie Vick

JULIE: The hybrid format came about over time. I debated whether the book should be straight satire or have some actual advice and landed on something in between, partially because I had read other parenting humor books that did something similar and partially because I thought some actual advice might be helpful for the audience. On the advice of my editor, I also worked in more personal anecdotes in spots, and I think that also gives it another interesting dimension.

Something I love about your humor is how you pick up on subtle things people do and say. In your book, you write that introverts are good listeners. How do you think introversion has influenced your humor writing and ability to notice the humor in everyday life?

I think being more of a listener/observer does help me notice small details that can be useful for humor writing. In the first humor writing class I took, the instructor told us to notice when we were noticing something. So now I’ve trained myself to make a mental note (or an actual note in my smartphone’s note app that only sometimes makes sense to me later) when something seems like a good detail or potential premise for a piece.

Sarah Garfinkel

I also really like observational humor, where you point out the humor in everyday life (one example is one of my favorite headlines from The Onion). So, I gravitate toward writing those pieces which thus makes me look out for details more.

You are also skilled at community building and supporting other writers. How have you built your online writing community?

I think the short answer is I just try to be nice and a good literary citizen. I share others’ writing and interact with other writers’ social media posts (even if it just involves a gif reply which should take two seconds to send but sometimes takes me closer to 20 minutes because I need to search for the exact right one). Over time, I’ve made a lot of writer friends on Twitter and in Facebook writing groups.

I’ve also forged friendships at in-person writing conferences (sometimes meeting people in person that I first met online). Even though conferences are draining for me as an introvert, I always get a ton out of going to them and really miss being able to attend in real life.

As a writing instructor at the University of Colorado Denver, you’ve taught humor writing (among other subjects). How has teaching humor writing influenced your own writing?

One thing I’ve realized is that some people think you are either born funny or not, but the truth is most babies are not great at telling jokes. There are actually several techniques you can learn to use when writing humor—things like the “rule of three” and using hard sounds (concepts that are outlined in this New York Times piece). So people need more of a growth mindset about their ability to write funny!

As with other writing, just studying humor can help too—reading more of it and then choosing some pieces to deconstruct the structure of or highlight where the jokes are and see how they are working. I had some success with humor writing before studying it more formally but learning more about it has only helped me improve. I can now see a lot of underlying craft in things that may seem really simple on the surface.

Online parenting forums inspire several memorable jokes in the book. What is your advice for satire writers who are seeking inspiration?

One of my biggest forms of humor inspiration is frustration. If I’m feeling irritated about something—whether it’s about parenting or my inability to pick out a good melon—then that is often the kernel of an idea for a humor piece. I could write a journal entry or vent to a friend about these things, but turning them into satirical pieces is often a way to process the frustrations other than just ranting (although sometimes the first draft is more of a rant). There is definitely something therapeutic about turning your frustrations into humor.

__________________________________

Julie Vick is a writer whose work has appeared in New Yorker Daily Shouts, Real Simple, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. She is the author of Babies Don’t Make Small Talk (So Why Should I?): An Introvert’s Guide to Surviving Parenthood (Countryman Press, 2021).

Sarah Garfinkel is a humor writer and educator. Her writing appears in New Yorker Daily Shouts, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Electric Literature. Sarah is an assistant editor of the Funny Women column at The Rumpus. You can find more of her work at sarahgarfinkelwriting.com.

Write Funny, Win Money

August 22, 2019 § 10 Comments

Ever wondered how to get into McSweeney’s, the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs, the Belladonna, Slackjaw, or another prestigious humor site? It’s not easy, but it’s not hard—write something very funny, make sure it fits the venue’s tone, send it in.

Step one tends to trip us up. How can you write funny, on demand?

Writing comedy is a learned skill. Yes, some writers start with more talent than others, but it’s not talent that makes an essay hilarious. Humor comes from a great premise (that you thought up after discarding 50 similar-but-not-as-good ideas), a specific point of view (that took a couple of drafts to get to) and tight, focused writing with careful word choices (that took another few drafts to whittle out of the initial bloated, semi-funny word glob).

Here’s a chance to learn the skill, and maybe win some money and/or publish your own comedy writing.

Slackjaw, Medium’s most-read humor publication (90,000+ followers), wants to support humor writers—and aspiring humor writers—everywhere, with their first Humor Writing Challenge.

Most writing contests are set-it-and-forget-it. Send in your work and hope for the best. This one’s different. Participants in the contest will be pitching ideas (so they can choose the best/funniest one to write), getting peer feedback, and re-writing. An online community will provide support and direction to contestants. Even if you don’t have a burning desire to write comedy, this process can introduce you to collaborative idea development, and how to solicit and implement editorial ideas in your own work. Plus, you’ll have deadlines to generate some specific assignments, and motivation to rewrite and sharpen your work.

The judges panel includes comedy writers for The Onion, Comedy Central, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, etc, and there’s $2000 in cash prizes. Finalists will have their work considered for (paid) publication on Medium, too.

If you want to publish humor writing, or you need a kickstart on your autumn writing plan with a fun, supportive environment, consider signing up for Slackjaw’s Humor Writing Challenge.

Find out more and sign up here.

__________________________________________________

Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference this weekend, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram for choice bits of conference writing advice.

A Review of John Hodgman’s Vacationland

December 15, 2017 § 3 Comments

41n9vOPl0WL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_By Kevin Kotur

At some point as I was dancing to 50 Cent on top of a red vinyl booth at Angel’s Rock Bar, Thursday night slid into Friday morning, and someone shouted “Happy birthday, Kevin! How’s it feel to be twenty-five?”

“Shit,” I thought. “Twenty-five.” It’d never crossed my mind. By that age Mary Shelley had written her magnum opus, Rimbaud had retired, and Keats was dead. A quarter of a century, and what did I have to show for it? I looked over at my friends: two soon-to-be lawyers and a candle-making entrepreneur (the youngest millionaire in Kansas City) who was receiving a complimentary lap dance from an off-duty stripper.

And then there was me—a would-be writer with pitifully disconnected facial hair, slowly squandering the privilege afforded by his white, middle-class upbringing. For some reason, a bidding war had not yet erupted between the major publishing houses desperate to acquire my essays on nature and travel and girls and stuff. The successes achieved by historical geniuses (is it too much to ask?) had heretofore eluded me.

In that moment, as my friend and the stripper laughed simultaneously at the discovery that they were both gay, I realized that the stories I’d been telling myself were delusions.

In his memoir Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, John Hodgman finds himself in a similar situation—albeit with double the years, privilege, and facial hair. After his first two New York Times–bestselling humor books, a correspondent gig at The Daily Show, and his PC personification in Apple’s “Get a Mac” ads, something shifted for Hodgman:

. . . I had just realized that I was not going to live forever. The thought had never occurred to me before. I am a straight white man, the hero of almost every story I had ever encountered. What’s more, I am an only child. The idea that the world could continue without me was not only unimaginable, it was insulting.

So began Hodgman’s middle-aged turmoil, which Vacationland explores through his two homes away from home: the rural western Massachusetts of his youth and the jagged Maine coast of his adulthood. In creating a portrait of both locales—the landscape and its people, the charms and contradictions—Hodgman also depicts a precocious boy turned rule-loving, self-doubting C-list celebrity.

Vacationland is funny—not “stock praise in a book review” funny, but “people in Starbucks asking what you keep laughing about” funny. Although no longer cataloging satirical facts, Hodgman retains the wit and eccentricity of his previous books while covering topics such as the pranks of George R. R. Martin, accidental boat purchases, and the nefarious dealings of small New England mammals. “Raccoons” he claims, “are beyond fear, and they are assholes. I tried to chase a raccoon off our porch as it was casually emptying our bird feeder into its fat mouth. As I yelled, it turned its head and eyed me with such casual contempt that I apologized to it.”

The description of nerdy foibles and adulthood misadventures is reason enough to read Vacationland, but as the book progresses, humor yields to consideration of deeper issues. Hodgman is acutely aware of his privileges (skin, wealth, opportunity), and searches for the proper response to them. These reflections are timely. America has seen all too clearly the backlash from an inability of white men to accept the slightest challenge to—or even the acknowledgment of—their cultural centrality and privilege. “Whiteness,” Hodgman writes of the responses to police shootings and Black Lives Matter, “was going through a desperate midlife crisis.” But he spares us the self-flagellation, acknowledging that those with privilege can’t change who they are. But they can be aware of the world around them, contribute without fanfare, listen when others speak, and get out of the way when their work is done. “All places and experience,” he concludes, “deserve writing about.”

Between inventories of all of the reasons Maine is a terrible place to vacation, and amid scathing indictments of fudge and fresh-water lakes, the stories of Vacationland smuggle in questions of mortality, loss, and identity. Hodgman’s self-interrogation is at the very center, providing an example to all readers. “There are times,” he writes, “when all the lies you have told about yourself to yourself just fall away.”

That night, as the beginning of my life came to a swift and unceremonious close, I stopped telling myself that I was unprecedented, inherently interesting, and destined for success. There were younger, more talented, more dedicated writers out there, and I needed to get to work.
__
Kevin Kotur is an MFA candidate and Durwood fellow at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His nonfiction can be found in The Kansas City Star, Number One, and Chariton Review.

The Soul of Twit: The Book Has Cometh, Finally

May 12, 2015 § 3 Comments

downloadA guest post from Harrison Scott Key, followed by a link to this essay in tweets:

So, my book came out today, which is great. I started writing it about a million years ago, and about 500,000 years ago I made the mistake of telling people I was writing it, which means for about the past 250,000 years I have been answering this question:

“So, when’s your book coming out?”

This is a very disappointing question to answer almost every day it is asked.

“Oh, that’s a long time from now,” I’d say, when people first started asking. I almost scoffed, not at them, but at the ridiculousness of the question and the improbabilities it brought to the fore of my hurting brain. The distance between the terrible thing that happens at the writing desk and the thing that happens when you are reading a book in a bathtub is immense and can generally only be traversed by gods and angels and the persistent few who’ve wrestled blessings from them. So I just laughed when they asked, which they considered rude, to which I didn’t disagree.

“So, when’s that book coming out?”

When I finally got an agent, about 100,000 years ago, it seemed like less a ridiculous question and more like impatience.

“Eventually,” I said, not wanting to explain the process of proposals and sample chapters and the cryptic, fleshy methods of good literary agents, which mine was, I believed, because these people, most of them, didn’t care. And why should they? But the word eventually felt hopeful. With an agent, the vastness between writing (in between thoughts of suicide and elation) and being read (in between two covers) collapsed into a seeable distance, as though God had granted me eyes that could see past the 14-mile horizon and around the curvature of the earth.

keyman“So, when’s this book coming out?” friends would ask, about 50,000 years ago, after news of my book deal spread through social media channels populated by my people.

“A year? Two years? Fifty thousand?” I said, sheepishly admitting my ignorance of what happens next in the process of going to auction and signing a deal and agreeing to manuscript delivery dates, which seemed to confuse the askers of this question. How could I not know these things? Hadn’t I been writing it for nearly a million years? What was taking so long? Wasn’t I almost a billion years old?

“Leave me alone,” is what I wanted to say, but why be cruel to the few people who were kind enough to remember that I was a writer?

“So, when’s the book coming out?”

“As soon as I write it.”

This was about 25,000 years ago.

“Oh, it’s not finished?”

“Nope.”

“Then how’d you sell it?”

“I have no idea.”

“That must be a lot of pressure.”

“Yep.”

I delivered the manuscript about 10,000 years ago.

“Now what happens?” they asked.

“Lots.”

“Like?”

“Editing.”

“It’s not edited?”

“Not by an editor.”

“Then?”

Bookjacketblurbsreviewsproofingphotosproofingcoversproofingmeetingsproofing

Waitingwaitingwaitingwaitingwaitingwaiting

Proofingreviewspromotionbeggingrewritingpitchingpromoting

Waitingwaitingwaiting

About 5,000 years ago, when photographs of advance review copies started appearing on the internet, posted by funny editors and book reviewers and marketing interns who wanted to show people what early copies looked like, that’s when everybody really started asking.

“Is your book out yet?”

“Nope.”

“When does it come out?”

“May 12.”

“That’s like a thousand years away.”

“Yep.”

“I’ll wait.”

They seemed angry at me for making them wait, and I didn’t blame them.

Now, a million years later, it’s May 12, 2015, and my first book is out, and now I don’t have to explain why it’s not, which makes this a day for celebration.

And now, if you would like to know a little bit more about how I actually wrote the book that is now out and available for sale—that is, if you care, and many of you don’t, and I get that, and I feel you, I do—but if you want to a little vantage into how one little social media platform actually not only allowed people to learn about my book, which was great, except for all the asking, but also how this platform actually aided in the writing of the book that I was being asked about, then you should read this thing I wrote for Brevity and published on Storify, called “The Soul of Twit.”

It’s about how I wrote the book, sort of.

And then you should consider buying the book. It’s called The World’s Largest Man.

I look forward to your questions about it.

Really, I do.

___

Find out more about Harrison Scott Key at www.HarrisonScottKey.com and on Twitter (@HarrisonKey).

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with humor writing at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.

%d bloggers like this: