5 Ways to Add Humor to Your Writing

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Humor is a life-giving stress reliever and ice breaker. I often sprinkle my talks, articles and books with funny word pictures and phrases, because laughter opens a reader/listener’s heart to the serious points I want to make. Thankfully, my home is full of crazy guys (including my husband, who’s the most hilarious person I’ve ever met) and I’m a ditzy, accident-prone bundle of midlife hormones. Thus, I’m never short on material.

It’s true that humor, like writing, is an innate gift, and some people have it in abundance. Others…well, not so much. However, certain aspects of both crafts can be taught. As a follow-up to this popular post, here are a few ways to humorously pump up your prose:

1. Wordplay.

Mae West said, “I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” Classic!

Cultivate your LOL quotient by reading children’s books, which are full of 1362536802le12smarvelous wordplay. Humor writers and comedians are childlike spirits–playing constantly with sounds, alliteration, and rhyme. Let loose a little, and see what happens.

2. Exaggeration.

Never stop at one when fourteen will do. In humor, less is not more and more is better. Erma Bombeck, one of my all-time favorites, was a master at exaggeration: “I’ve exercised with women so thin that buzzards followed them to their cars.”

Remember George Burns? He often exaggerated about his age: “When I was a boy the Dead Sea was alive.”

3. Surprise.

When my nine-year-old saw that our local drive-in was up for sale, he said, “Mom, I’m sad about that. It’s such an iconic part of our town.” I laughed because I was surprised that he knew the word at all, let alone used it correctly.

Want your reader to laugh? Take a phrase and change the ending to something unexpected, like Jim Carrey did:  “Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes.” Stephen Wright makes a living by crafting surprise endings to one-liners: “A lot of people are afraid of heights. Not me, I’m afraid of widths.”

4. Parody.

“Weird” Al Yankovich has been doing parody songs for years. More recently, Christian comedians Tim Hawkins (“Cletus, Take the Reel,” etc.) and Anita Renfroe (“All the Wrinkled Ladies”) have gotten into the act. There’s even a clever parody of the infamous song “Blurred Lines” called “Church Signs.” The writers make fun of Christians’ tendency to preach mini-sermons with little plastic letters.

A word of caution (especially for Christian writers): let’s be careful when poking fun at other people. Sarcasm can be soul-crushing, as can insult humor. Remember the Golden Rule.

5. Learn from the best.

Read funny writers, watch comedy videos on Netflix, take courses in humor writing, or read books about the craft. You can also hire professional humor writers to spice up your work (I did this with the first book proposal I sold, and learned a ton from the experience.)

While you’re learning, though, remember to be yourself and not a copy of someone else. Readers can tell when you’re trying to force a joke, and it will make them uncomfortable. Find a style of humor you like, and try it on for size. Ask for opinions from people you trust–if it doesn’t fit, simply try another.

Most of all, have fun!

How have you used humor in your writing?

Ten (Plus) Tips on Humor Writing

file0001122505692I’ve had the pleasure of incorporating humor into several of my books, most notably Grace for the Race: Meditations for Busy Moms and Let the Crow’s Feet and Laugh Lines Come. Funny enough, humor is not easy to write. It was a learning process–one I’m still undergoing.

Humor writers James Watkins and Rhonda Rhea are two of the most genuinely hilarious authors I know. When I asked them for tips, they didn’t disappoint. (They’re also incredibly generous and insightful…and they didn’t even pay me to say that!) So, without further ado, I present their helpful comedic insights.

James’ Watkins’ top ten tips for ending up on welfare having a successful comedy career:

10. Eat cold pizza for breakfast. Wash it down with large quantities of Diet Coke. After three cans, I can type 470 words of side-splitting humor per minute but unfortuwythdly nonr ofit maks anv senze aftcher tke thirddddddd . . .

9. Travel. Some of my best columns have come from three weeks in India (“The Land Without Toilet Paper”) and being stuck in traffic in downtown Chicago, in August with a stick shift with no air-conditioning and two kids in the backseat waging a fight to the death.

8. Get married, have kids. Dave Barry provides positive proof that marriage and raising children is a source for hundreds of columns, thousands of dollars, and even a Pulitzer Prize. However, use discretion! He’s also on his third or fourth marriage and is buying baby diapers with his AARP discount card.

7. Read, read, read. Essential reads include Dave Barry, Erma Bombeck and, of course, my very funny friend, Rhonda Rhea! And every morning NewsMax.com provides transcripts of late night comics.

6. Pass a kidney stone. I keep reminding students at writers conferences, “Nothing terrible happens to authors. [It’s all] just terrific anecdotes.” The old adage is so true: Comedy is tragedy plus time.

5. Tackle a home-improvement project. This is always good for at least two or three columns and one visit to the ER.

4. Look at life from just a few degrees off normal. Successful humorists look at life through their twisted point of view. It doesn’t have to 360 degrees from normal, because that would put you right back at normal. Just a few degrees keeps it plausible yet humorous.

3. Don’t be afraid of people thinking you’re crazy. St. Francis, who is viewed as, well, saintly, said, “I am God’s clown. People look at me and laugh.” Humor is a brutal business, so if you’re thin-skinned, take up a less stressful occupation such as bomb technician, rodeo clown or drug runner.

2. Hang out with people who are even crazier than you. I enjoyed having lunch with a fellow columnist while working as a humor columnist at a local paper. Most of our brainstorms were not “fit for print,” such as low-tech terrorist “Amish bin Laden” who drives around Lancaster county with a buggy armed with kerosene-filled milk cans! However, my friend never ceased to get my brain cells firing on all neurons.

1. Read my book, Writing with Banana Peels. It’s required reading for a humor class I teach at Taylor University and contains principles, practices and pratfalls of writing humor. (And always, whenever you have the chance, shamelessly self-promote your work.)

file000111849428Rhonda says:

I’m going to have to agree with Jim—especially the part where he says to read my stuff. Brilliant. Instead of cold pizza and Diet Coke, however, I don’t know how any writing is ever fueled without coffee. I walk into Starbucks and almost always find my muse sitting in a hip leather chair in the corner. I can get at least three chapters from a couple of shots of espresso. They’re all one sentence with no punctuation, but still.

Exploiting every experience for its comedic value—family, friends, travel, projects—is also great counsel. They say nothing bad ever happens to writers; it’s all just material. Read Jim’s book. More great things to exploit there. Or plagiarize. Whichever.

I suggest keeping a running “funny file,” as well. Anytime something makes you laugh or you come up with something hilariously brilliant, take a little note. Then when you’re ready to start an article or chapter you can peruse your file for a kick-start.

It doesn’t hurt to test-drive a few lines as Facebook statuses, either. See what people like and then…milk those things for all they’re worth. Getting a handle on comedic timing in print is no easy task. Your friends can help you polish. They can also make fun of you, mercilessly. And that’s usually helpful too.

I’m proud to say I taught Jim Watkins everything he knows about being funny. And about the funny sound of the letter “C.” If my children let me name any of my grandchildren, I’m naming one Carl–after Jim.