Writing Advice: Comedy, Minimalism, and Beavis & Butt-Head

I recently had the opportunity to offer some advice to a young (and potential new GameCola staff) writer, about how to maximize the potential of his work and, more specifically, to bring out an article’s humor. A lot of the feedback was tailored to his writing sample in particular, but some of it was advice any writer might find useful, so I thought I’d republish it here.

(Please note that I’m in no way qualifying myself as an expert in writing, humor, giving advice, or republishing e-mails and passing them off as blog content. This is all just based on my experience writing and editing for GameCola and elsewhere; I don’t actually know anything.)

Here’s some bullet points!

– Presentation is key when trying to write comedy. In my experience, it’s best not to be too direct with a joke—it’s better to let it sneak up on the reader. Don’t just come right out with a joke; hide it somewhere where the reader won’t expect it. Surprise is an essential part of humor. Also, you can’t let a joke go on for too long, because the reader starts to lose interest and wonder when you’re gonna get back to the point. (Unless the joke’s really that funny…but it’s usually not.) Try to be punchy, and then move on.

That said, one classic humor trick is to make reference to a gag later in your piece. If you do it right, it almost feels like an inside joke between you and the reader. Dave Barry is great at this; I’d suggest checking out some of his stuff if you haven’t already.

– Precise wording is also key. I usually don’t send an article out if I haven’t read it over at least a half-dozen times (in fact, I tend to get stressed out if I don’t). Reading it over for cohesion, for grammar and typos, for additional places I could add dumb jokes—re-reading your article a number of times allows you opportunity to nail down your wording and ensure that the reader gets the message you’re trying to express. (You may already do this, but this is just general advice I give to everyone.)

– Also—this is nit-picky, but I try to avoid using the word “very” (or its BFF, “really”) (or their hoity-toity cousin “quite”) whenever I can avoid it. You can usually just cut the word out without changing the meaning of the sentence, and your text sounds cleaner and more confident for it.

– Similarly, whenever you can use fewer words to describe something, it’s almost always best to do so. This might just be my journalism training talking (we were taught to use as few words as possible to take up less print space), but IMO, when an article has extraneous words, it looks cluttered and reads dense. Additionally, using fewer words helps you to maintain your reader’s attention, since the longer an article is, the less likely they are to read the whole thing.

 

And that’s it!* The rest of the e-mail isn’t for public consumption. …Actually, none of it is for anyone’s consumption. Stop eating e-mails, weirdos!

 

* No, wait, one more tip: Despite what your English teacher told you, there is nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction. Or ending it with a preposition, for that matter. It’s oftentimes much more awkward to find a workaround than it is to just go with it, as this clip from Beavis & Butt-Head Do America aptly demonstrates. (Do not, however, take any other grammar advice from Beavis & Butt-Head. The AP stylebook still maintains that using “huh-huh” in lieu of a comma is never acceptable.)

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