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Aiming for the grin
Friday, February 10, 2012 (All day)

Putting a smile on people’s faces can be a great way to engage them in your writing. I tend to write funny because I see the world as a funny place. (One of my favorite moments was when my father, after reading a few of my horror stories, remarked, “Um, I like when you write the humourous stuff.”)

Humour has its own special way of pulling readers through a story, and if you can use it well, you’ve got a leg up. Here are my top five tips for writing funny.

1. It’s not what’s funny to you; it’s what’s funny to your reader

My litmus test for my own humour writing has always been my wife, because she knows my sense of humour but also has a keen sense of what others find funny. The two aren’t always in sync. Often she’ll read one of my drafts and point out that, while the jokes are undoubtedly hysterical to me, they may not hit a nerve with the average reader. Make sure your humour isn’t overly esoteric or narrow. Broaden it for the masses.

2. Always stop short of nasty

You know how mean-spirited comics never seem as funny as those who have a kinder approach? There’s a difference between poking fun at things and being malicious. It’s important to recognize this line. You can be ironic, sarcastic, insightful, subversive or teasing without being cruel. Humour absorbs people; cruelty alienates them.

3. It still needs to be about something

Remember that humour works best when used as a device, not as the message itself. Think of it as one of the mechanisms available to you to deliver substance in your writing. In other words, your intended bottom line to readers shouldn’t be, “I am funny,” but rather “This is the point I’m trying to make, and I’m choosing to do it with humour.” Almost all topics can be approached with a bit of comedy or absurdity, at least to some degree. Listen to your instincts – they’ll tell you when it’s appropriate and when it isn’t.

4. Study the masters

If you want to write sonnets, you’ve got to read Shakespeare. Want to master hard-boiled crime fiction? Break out some Dashiel Hammett and Mickey Spillane. And if you want to connect with readers through humour, you have to scrutinize the stylings of those who do it best. For me, that’s Dave Barry, David Sedaris, Woody Allen, and others. Plunge into the works of those you find funniest and try to figure out what they do – or don’t do – to pull it off.

5. Keep chiselling

I’m not sure why, but many people think humour writing is easy, even though it is most decidedly not. I think maybe others see it this way because great humour writers make it look easy, the way great athletes make their performances look effortless. But understand that humour writing takes the same amount of effort as any other writing. I’d argue, in fact, that it takes more.

Communications strategist and award-winning author, interviewer and essayist I.J. Schecter provides corporate, creative and technical writing services to a diverse range of clients spanning the globe.
 

- I.J. Schecter

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