Sunday, 10 June 2018

Writing for Beginners (41)

Writing humour

There’s a view among some aspiring writers that the only thing you have to do to write humorous material is to string together a list of jokes. That this doesn’t work will become painfully obvious by the speed with which rejections hit your doormat. The fact is, many editors – especially magazine editors - say they receive very few useable examples of humour, which surely leaves a space to be filled by those who can do it successfully.

First, what’s the difference between comedy and humour? My rule of thumb is that comedy is performed - often, but not always before a live audience - and intended to raise a laugh. Humour aims more at achieving a wry smile or at the most a quiet chuckle. (Unlike a business colleague of mine who once spent an entire flight from Paris to Toulouse, hooting like a Thames barge when I unwisely showed him a copy of a Bill Bryson book I was reading. Apart from the embarrassment of being sat next to him, I hadn’t got the heart to tear it off him, so had to make do with the in-flight magazine instead, which was no fun at all).

Ironically, writing humour can be a serious subject; what strikes one person as amusing may hit the next like shingles. But some magazines are prepared to consider lighter material if it fits their subject matter.

This is perhaps the key guideline for budding humour writers: produce something geared to the wry appreciation of a subject close to a reader’s heart, and you may strike lucky. In a magazine about caravans, for example, an item most likely to get a caravan enthusiast smiling is a humorous piece about caravans… or anything associated with them. It’s a question of making a connection.

Describing a journey from A to B, for example, could be mundane and, on our current busy roads, about as funny as gangrene. The same journey with a line of washing caught on the back, however, might take on an entirely different tone.

The first thing to do is - surprise, surprise - study the market. In this case, identify those titles containing light or humorous material. Then zero in on those where the subject matter appeals to you, or is ‘open’ in nature.

Ask yourself whether the tone and content indicates that readers do not take themselves or the subject matter too seriously. Does the editorial show a tendency to swipe fondly at anything surrounding its core subject? Are the other articles light-hearted? Are there any cartoons? If the answer to these points is yes, then plainly a degree of humour is acceptable.

The next point is to identify a gap. Most editors like to vary the content, and much of it these days is of the ‘quick-bite’ size, digestible between other tasks. By its nature, humour material falls into this category.

Once you have a feel for the magazine’s slant, then you can start building something around the subject matter which will appeal to the editor (most important), and thus the readers. And if you can treat the subject humorously, yet with a degree of knowledge, rather than simply ranting on about your favourite bete noir, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in getting a foot in the door.
The idea of trying to get inside the mind of a magazine reader might seem a little daunting, but in the main, readers who regularly buy a particular title do so because they have specific interests. The advantage for us is, this makes their likes and dislikes easier to identify.

Pitching unsolicited humour to an editor is like any other kind of writing; there’s a lot of competition. It’s a numbers game, so the best way of approaching a magazine is to suggest multiple-choice ideas. Give them an A, B and C to choose from, and you might stand a better chance of getting beyond an initial weary glance on a cold, wet Monday morning.
Assuming you have three ideas in mind, make them as varied as possible. If the magazine has recently done a piece (funny or not) on, say, the spending habits of young women, they are unlikely to repeat it too quickly. Spread the net as wide as possible, and your submissions have a better chance of attracting a second look.

Whatever the topics, they should fit the tone and style of your target market. Whether you use a first-person ‘opinion’ piece (seen through the eyes of the author), or an anecdotal ‘interview’ style, there should at least be a solid basis to the article and it should reach a conclusion (humorous, preferably). If your article, as well as being funny, has something readers can learn from, so much the better. Just because it’s humour doesn’t mean it can’t be educational.

Most importantly, the article should not offend the reader. You are writing to entertain, not cause apoplexy over their cornflakes. It can even - subject to the editor - inspire discussion, which is why some letters pages feature loud support and vitriolic condemnation of the same subject in equal measure – and many of them are a riot.

·       Don’t offend the reader just to be funny.
·       Avoid starting open warfare – controversy has its limits.
·       Go for a chuckle, not a belly-laugh.
·       As a benchmark, think about what makes you smile.
This article was taken from my book 'Write On! - the Writer's Help Book' - (Accent Press) - available in p/b and ebook.


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