Friday, March 1, 2013

How To Write Funny

My friend, Julie Winterbottom, writes funny stuff. She was editor-in-chief of Nickelodeon Magazine, and she has a new book coming out on March 19. Since I sometimes find it challenging to write funny, I thought I'd ask her to take my I.N.K. slot this month and explain how she does it.

I was a little surprised when Sue asked me to write a guest post for I.N.K. because my forthcoming book, Pranklopedia, while technically nonfiction, is more likely to get shelved under “Humor.” But Sue’s invitation got me thinking about the role of humor in nonfiction. Humor can draw kids who don’t like to read into enjoying nonfiction as much as they enjoy short-sheeting a bed (well, almost). In fact, my hope is that kids will pick up Pranklopedia to learn new pranks and end up reading the many (nonfiction) sidebars about creative capers in history, art, sports, and the White House.

There was another surprise: I found myself thinking about something I don’t usually pay much attention to—the process of writing humor and more specifically, the techniques I use to get myself into a funny frame of mind. I thought I’d share them here. I learned most of them during my 12 years as an editor at Nickelodeon Magazine, where the humor bar was set high. Even the masthead had to be funny! At Nick Mag, we often wrote humor pieces in pairs or small groups. It strikes me now that most of my techniques bring collaborators—real or imagined—into the writing process.

1. Read Something Funny
When I’m not feeling funny, I read someone who is. While working on Pranklopedia, I often started the day by reading a few pages from How to Play In Traffic, one of Penn & Teller’s hilarious books of pranks for adults. It helped me find a devious, slightly conspiratorial voice that was perfect for writing about pranks. On days when my ideas seemed too tame, I would dip into Mad Magazine to unleash my more irreverent side. For those who are more literary, one nonfiction writer I know suggests reading P.G. Wodehouse to get into funny mode.

2. Live With Someone Funny (or have easy phone access)
My boyfriend Stephen should probably be listed as co-author of Pranklopedia. He isn’t a prankster himself, and he doesn’t know much about writing for kids. But he has a fine ear for what’s funny and what isn’t. Whenever I had doubts about something I wrote, I would run it by Stephen. He would not only nix the bad ideas, he would help me brainstorm better ones.

3. Ask Yourself: What Would Jim Do?
My friend Jim is a natural-born prankster. Where other people see a boring trip to the supermarket or another tedious day at the office, Jim sees opportunities for pranks. Whenever I got stuck trying to come up with new pranks, I would pretend to be Jim. I’d find myself looking at everything around me, from the eggs in the refrigerator to the houseplants in the living room, as potential prank material. This technique let me ditch the cautious editor inside me and come up with lots of crazy ideas—some of which actually worked. Who knew that the musical birthday card on my living room shelf would make an excellent prank when taped to the inside edge of a closet door?

4. Wait a Day
When you’re working alone, it can be hard to know if what you wrote is actually funny. One way to find out (besides asking Stephen) is to put the writing aside and read it first thing in the morning. You will know right away whether or not it is funny. This can be a very disappointing experience. I’ve spent whole days writing what I thought was hysterical material only to read it the next morning and cringe: It was forced, unoriginal, and definitely not funny. The good part is that when this happens, it usually leads me to write a much better replacement.

5. Pray for a Last-Minute Request From Your Editor
Some of the funniest pranks and sidebars in Pranklopedia are the ones I added very late in the game, after the book had been designed and there were holes that needed filling. There’s something about a tight deadline that produces superior comedy. I saw this happen all the time at Nick Mag: The humor piece that we wrote in two hours because an ad dropped out at the last minute was always the funniest. Of course it’s hard to employ this technique if external forces are not cooperating. Hmm…maybe I can get writers to hire me to impersonate their editors and then I will make last-minute requests for new material. Any takers?


Ms. Yingling said...

There are a lot of writers who could benefit from this description-- we need more funny books! I'll have to look at the Pranklopedia-- looks like a must have for middle school!

Vicki Cobb said...

Thanks for this post Sue and Julie! I try to embed a sort of low grade humor in my books, as if I'm winking at the reader. Isn't there a spectrum in humor writing? Writing something that makes people LOL has a much higher bar than a witty little comment. My book, Science Experiments You Can Eat, has been in print more than 40 years largely because the title still makes people smile. But I don't think I could write something hilarious.

Lorraine said...

Nice post, Julie! I'm finding a muse at, which is way off the charts for kids (too crude) but has a very strong voice and tone, punctuated by the perfect visuals, a kind of one-two punchine. Good luck with the book.

Julie said...

Vicki, I agree that there is a spectrum in humor writing and I like your notion of "low-grade" humor when it comes to nonfiction. Often finding a witty tone works much better than striving for LOL comedy. But it's also good to be open to a finding the occasional funny angle to a serious subject, even if the material becomes just one sidebar in a book. I once interviewed Kofi Annan for Nick Mag and in addition to the more serious questions, I asked him who he thought was the funniest world leader (Jacques Chirac) and what his favorite joke was (too long to tell here).

And, Lorraine, I agree about!