Humor writing. It’s important.
Now, I know what you’re thinking:
Screw humor writing. I want to be funnier on dates, with my friends, and around the family table during the holidays. Who cares about work?
Well, that’s a whole other blog post/novel/encyclopedia set. I’m not going to tackle that, mostly because I have no idea what passes for funny at Thanksgiving in your house. In mine, it’s a lot of Mrs. Doubtfire quotes soooo … we may or may not have that in common.
So why do you need to brush up on your humor writing?
The answer is because it’s hard, and that makes it a commodity. Anything you can do that someone else can’t, you can earn money at. Plus, if you’re funny, you’ll have more loyal clients. No joke; not only will they love your product, they’ll like talking to you. That’s what humor writing gets you.
I’m not saying all your jobs will require humor, but if they do, you want to be ready. At least, that’s our approach. And here at New Leaf Writing, we are sooooo funny – so you can take our word for it. (So. Funny. Or that’s what we tell people.)
Now, I want to state very specifically upfront that you will not come away from this post automatically hilarious. It’s just not possible to read a few paragraphs and be a topnotch humor writer. So don’t expect that. I’m not a topnotch humor writer myself … but I would like to be, so I work at it.
So what should you expect? To put several tools in your arsenal that, if you use them regularly, will jumpstart your ability to be funny and over time take your humor writing to a level that clients won’t be able to resist.
Anyhooters. Here’s a list of techniques you can use to boost those humor writing skills today.
I keep a notebook with me wherever I go, and when someone says something funny, I write it down. Then when I need a joke for an article, I can refer back to my notes. I also use this book to write down my own jokes, either things I think of or thigs I say that get a good reaction. Standup comedians do it; you can too.
I also keep jokes that I have written for clients that they cut, for word count or other reasons. I don’t feel bad about it being cut, I simply add it to the list. Face it, there will be days when you are being paid to be funny and you literally have nothing remotely amusing to offer up. Pull out your notebook.
It’s one of the things most clients will expect from you, and it makes jokes so much easier if you know what’s going on. Adding pulp culture references to your humor writing bonds you with your reader because they’re shared experiences.
The caveat here is to make sure you stay current. I don’t care if you have the BEST joke about Britney Spears’ bald umbrella paparazzi attack of 2007; it’s over and done with. Nothing will alienate your client and reader like putting in old references that everyone’s already over. But save them in your notebook because, well, it’s Britney. She could go all bald rage again at any time.
Everyone has a sense of humor.
Okay, that’s a total lie. We all have that one uncle, boss or ex with absolutely no sense of humor. Really, you didn’t like Deadpool at all? (FYI, that is kind of an old reference since it came out last year, BUT they are making a second movie so I squeezed it in there.)
I digress. See, figuring out what kind of humor you have is key to working with your strengths. Do you have a highbrow sense of humor? Are you witty? Punny? Dry? If you aren’t really sure where you land, ask your friends and family. Once you know what comes natural to you, you can work on the areas that don’t – or steal jokes from your friends who are funny in a way you aren’t.
Just don’t tell them you’re doing it.
Had enough? No? Okay, I’ll keep going. You need as many ways as you can get to keep the audience laughing with you (and not at you. Okay, sometimes at you. But mostly with you).
This seems simple enough but we’ve all been to those parties where someone tells a wildly inappropriate story – obviously it wasn’t you – and missed the mark completely. I once went to a comedy club and had the comedian tell a joke that fell so flat you could hear someone open the bathroom door down the hall. He gave his joke a little chuckle and said, “Great joke, wrong crowd.”
And maybe it was. The point is, your jokes are only as funny as the audience thinks they are. So make sure when you take a humor writing job that you really talk to your clients about what kind of tone they’re looking for, then deliver.
Hilarious stories are definitely something you should be writing down in your notebook. (If you don’t know what notebook I’m talking about then you haven’t read the first blog on this subject. Go now. Walk, don’t run. Then come back to us.)
Anecdotal stories are something we all bond over, and it’s a great way to make the reader instantly feel connected to you and what you’re writing about. If you can take something mundane that we all experience and tell a funny story about it, you’ve got us in the palm of your hand.
I read humor writing all the time. I love it, for one thing, and for another, it gives me ideas. I straight up copy and paste funny lines into a document, then peruse them later when I’m stuck for ideas. I NEVER plagiarize, and neither should you. For one thing, you might get caught. But more importantly, another writer worked hard to come up with that content, and it’s theirs to own. Forever. Don’t take it unless you want a lawsuit/one-way ticket to Hell on your hands.
Hard to tell which is worse, really.
Instead, use the work of others as a jumping off point. If someone makes a hilarious joke about giraffe necks that relates to a shovel they’re selling, for instance, you could use this as inspiration for a joke about donkey haunches if you’re selling an anvil. Is this a silly example? Sure. But it demonstrates an important point, which is that you can use another’s work to inspire your own without stealing.
Other ways to do this include scrolling through funny Twitter feeds, reading jokes (yeah, just actual jokes), and interacting with funny people on social media … their off-the-cuff answers might be more entertaining than you think. You can just Google all this stuff. Really. I mean it. Just Google “funny Twitter feeds” and see what pops up. Boom. Inspiration. There for the taking.
This tip is important. Seriously. How can you expect to be funny in your writing if you are busy reading Pride and Prejudice? You need to be reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Stand-up comedians are funny because they watch hours and hours of other comedians perform. They take notes on what does and doesn’t work in others shows. They’re not just “born that way.”
If you’re looking for some great comedic writers, check out David Sedaris, Mindy Kaling, Christopher Moore (no relation, but don’t I wish!) and even latter-days sci-fi greats who rock humor, such as Pierce Brown. Just to name a few.
When you’re writing humorous copy that you want to engage people, you rarely jump in with your proposition upfront. Which is more interesting:
a) Hey! I know you’re busy, but I’d really like you to take time out of your day to spend $149 on my copywriting course.
… or …
b) You’ve always wanted to be a copywriter, but some teeny part of you is absolutely, utterly, completely convinced that you’ll be stuck wrangling a chicken fryer for the rest of your life. Well first of all, at least those chickens are already dead, so life could be worse. Maybe a little gratitude is in order, huh? A little food for thought? (No pun intended.) Anyway …
Now, depending on your client, you may or may not be able to go this dark. Chicken death isn’t humorous to everyone, and if you’re a vegan, you probably think this is really not funny. That’s absolutely your right and I respect your beliefs, but then, you may not be the right audience for a client who does find this humorous … or wants to make a serious point about the American palate, for instance. Some of the best comedians, after all, are super dark. Some clients will love this, and morbidity can be an easy way to score a laugh. But remember: you’re not being paid for pure comedy; you’re being paid to sell products and services, so you have to pull your punches at some point. Where the line gets drawn is up to your client.
And if you’re not into a certain kind of humor, don’t be. It’s not your obligation to write about content you’re not comfortable writing about. For instance, I write about food a lot, and for all sorts of people. The morality of eating meat is something I have a lot of experience covering from all angles, I’m interested in it, and I’m able to take a more detached approach to human eating habits. However, I will not touch politics with a ten-foot pole, whereas you might be totally comfortable doing so. It’s up to you … and it’s up to your client what they want to pay for.
The main point here, however, is that you should avoid consistently jumping into the real point of your blog post or email right away. Have some fun. Sprinkle in some random thoughts, some punchlines, some witty one-word one-liners. Your client’s readers will love you for it, so they will love you for it.
The exception is ad copy. While you can still be funny, the text limitations pretty much throw roundabout out the window. That would be an exercise in futility, so don’t bother.
You should also keep in mind that so much of humor is about context. The buildup, the wind-down, the little cracks along the way.
Try this exercise: pull out any one of the jokes in any humor piece, and see how funny they are on their own. Answer: not. Big ol’ splat. But if you put them back into the flow of the piece, they’re at least engaging, even if you don’t find them downright hilarious. And frankly, most of your assignments are not comedy sketches; they are conversations. So while you can make people laugh out loud from time to time, this really shouldn’t be your end goal. Instead: entertainment. Keep them on the page, or in the email, long enough to sell what you’re selling.
Part of being funny is going outside the bounds of normal speaking. Pauses, chop, parentheses, brackets … these are all excellent ways to make a point, and make it in a funny way.
Want to emphasize something? Try turning “You know you got this” into “You. Know. You. Got. This.”
Looking to throw a joke into a subject line? Instead of “How Copywriting is Like Tying Your Shoes,” try “Copywriting + Tying Your Shoes [+Zombies].” I mean, who wouldn’t rather click the second one? (If you’re curious, this is the subject line I use for the sample email newsletter in the resources section of my Overnight Direct Marketing course.)
And if you’re trying to get a smile from even the toughest customer, turn your writing into real, friend-to-friend conversation. Not:
I warn you against using any medication from an unknown retailer lest you unintentionally ingest a dangerous contaminant.
First of all, OMG duh. Why should anyone have to tell anyone else this?? But it’s actually a thing. Second of all, how much more engaged are your readers when you turn away from fear and jargon and try something more like:
Listen to me when I say: don’t never take no drugs from a company you don’t know and trust. I mean, seriously, are you insane? Suicidal, even?
Switching up your language, employing unusual punctuation, using short and choppy sentences – these are all ways to turn boring, endless-feeling copy into lighter conversations that people actually want to have with you … and with the clients you’re writing for.
Obviously this is far from a complete crash course on being funnier, but it’s a good start. Hone these tools, again and again and again, with each assignment. Try cracking jokes on the phone with clients. Work on being witty by responding to people’s comments on social media with a flippant answer or a zing. Never be rude, but work to be amusing. You’ll get there.
Practice anywhere and everywhere you can, write new material, do these exercises over and over. Whatever you have to do, do it. Soon enough, you truly will begin to see a shift in your writing.
I sincerely hope this helps. If you have any questions about this article, or anything else, I would love to hear from you. Shoot me an email and I’ll reply to you personally, or instruct one of my Oompa Loompas to do it. They’re so biddable.
And if you want to just leave the humor to the professionals, I’m here for you.
So long as you pay me, that is.
(Like the information in this post? It’s from my course, Overnight Direct Marketing, which also includes a dozen videos and worksheets to help you deepen your understanding of copywriting in general and direct marketing in particular. You can find out more by heading to the link and reading up on all the awesome shiz you’ll be able to do if you take it. If you just want to stay in the loop and get access to the Free Resource Library, go ahead and click that pretty picture below.)
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