Three Tips for Writing Humor: Write Blind, First Things First, and Get Some Help, Already by @writingmatthew and @drawingrobbi plus a #Giveaway

Perhaps my greatest pleasure is making people laugh. Which is why pretty much everything I write is anchored in humor. It keeps my readers engaged. It allows for higher highs and lower lows. But how to create humor? Heck if I know. Writing this post forced me to think the question through. I’ve come up with a few suggestions. Maybe they will help you.

Swanson 11. Write blind. The key to all humor is surprise—a turn of phrase or twist of events that feels unexpected, and sometimes delightfully so. As a writer, I seek humor by creating voices that reflect the world with a pleasing slant. But for these voices to surprise my readers, I also have to surprise myself in creating them. Too much thinking makes for plodding prose. The more calculating I get, the less natural (and therefore, less funny) the writing becomes. For me, the trick is finding a way to think less, not more.

A few months back, I stumbled on a tool that makes it nearly impossible to censor and judge yourself while writing that first draft—because it sweeps away the fruits of your labor before you have a chance to realize how bad they might smell. I describe how it works in our exercise. It might be the simplest, most elegant way I’ve ever encountered to get the mind out of the way so that intuition can steer the writing process in the direction of fresh, uninhibited, funny prose. It’s also a fail-safe cure for writer’s block. And it’s free.

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2. First Things First. My best jokes usually don’t show up until the end of a writing project. First I lay the foundation (character, plot arc, etc.), then I frame the structure (the specific business that makes up the story), and only then do add the siding and the windows, the molding and the mailbox. My brain has to do a lot of thinking to build the house. But once the guts are in place and relatively watertight, the imps are free come out and romp, elevating the voice and the dialogue, making the tiny adjustments that transform a solid manuscript into a delightful one. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be hilarious at the outset. Toil all day, then play all night.

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3. Humor Loves Company. It’s impossible to be funny in a vacuum. Landing a joke is completing a circuit. It’s a gamble, a gambit, a leap of pure faith. If you are struggling to write humor, find someone to laugh with. It could be a friend to read your draft and tell you what’s working and what isn’t. Or it could be someone to help you build your jokes by making their own contributions. (Remember that comedic TV shows are written by groups of funny people sitting in a room making magic together.)Every book I write is created in close collaboration with my wife, the illustrator Robbi Behr (she who decided to electrocute me above). Sometimes, Robbi’s drawings elevate and extend my jokes by making them visual. Other times, the humor results from tension between the written and visual takes on a given situation. But Robbi is also my first editor, giving me an early gut check on my manuscripts and helping me develop jokes by lending an extra ear.Finally, just spending time with funny people can help get you into the right frame of mind. Humor depends so much on timing and pacing and instinct. Soak it in, and then channel what you’ve learned. Watch funny shows and standup. Read funny books. Be humor’s companion. Call it research. It’s not such a bad way to pass the hours.

Writing humor: the really short version:

Babies RuinTurn off your conscious thinking, judging brain. Humor comes from someplace deeper. If you can’t force yourself to be funny, let the app in our exercise help.
Don’t feel pressure to make your manuscript funny until you have the basics in place. Funny is the icing. Once you bake the cake, you can turn off your boring old brain and start to play.
Commune with humor, whether through collaboration or seeking feedback, whether by hanging out with funny people or gorging on funny material.

SwansonM_BehrR_headshotHusband/wife, author/illustrator duo Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr have collaborated to create the picture books Babies Ruin Everything (July 2016) and Everywhere, Wonder (February 2017) and the middle grades series The Real McCoys (Fall 2017), all with Macmillan Kids. In addition to speaking and leading workshops on collaboration and creative entrepreneurship, they have produced three small children and more than 70 self-published picture books for children and adults. You can follow Matthew at https://twitter.com/writingmatthew and Robbi at https://twitter.com/drawingrobbi and visit their website at www.robbiandmatthew.com and their Babies Ruin Everything page at http://robbiandmatthew.com/babies-ruin-everything/ and their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Robbi-and-Matthew-819948174807508/?fref=ts

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of Matthew and Robbi’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

GIVEAWAY! Matthew and Robbi are kindly giving away a  Ridiculous Skype conversation . For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

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162 comments on “Three Tips for Writing Humor: Write Blind, First Things First, and Get Some Help, Already by @writingmatthew and @drawingrobbi plus a #Giveaway

  1. Thanks for the fun post and great advice! Can’t wait to try the app–even if it sounds a little terrifying!

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  2. It is so helpful to turn off the conscious brain every now and then! Thanks for a great post.

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  3. Not sure how one turns off the conscious brain…last time I did that, I could fly. Really. Without using my arms!

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  4. Love this approach and these ideas. Thank you!

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  5. “Commune with humor”! I love it!

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  6. Val McCammon says:

    Excellent advice — the app looks really fun! Thanks, Matthew & Robbi.

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  7. Great idea–stop thinking so much. I love it!

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  8. Maria Marshall says:

    I love the hoework. Thanks for the encouraging post. Off to commune with humor.

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  9. Megan Cason says:

    Great tips! Thanks to you both!!

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  10. Beverly R. Marsh says:

    TGIF, thanks for starting my weekend with lots of humor strategies.

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  11. Sandy Perlic says:

    I agree: overthinking makes it hard to write humor that sounds natural. I have the most success when I let myself play. Thanks for a great post!

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  12. Amy Benoit says:

    What fun to work with your spouse!!! Someone who gets “the funny” and can encourage more of it! I also agree with your advice to stop overthinking and just write. Such freedom! When I feel my humor is falling flat, I take a break and head straight for BEDTIME FOR FRANCES – I love its comedic timing which seems effortless. Thank you, Matthew.

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  13. Jenifer says:

    Fun post about how to find your funny and humorous bones.

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  14. Debbie Vilardi says:

    I make word lists on themes, just straight word association, and then throw those words in where they mostly make sense but not quite. This gives you tons of puns or options to go wild without derailing story.

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  15. DebbieLubbert says:

    I love humor. Thanks for the great post!

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  16. Mary Worley says:

    This must be why waking up with an idea on how to fix a current draft works so well. I’m not awake enough to remember what shouldn’t work. 🙂 The exercise looks fun. Thanks!

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  17. Susan Schade says:

    Great advice! I love it and can’t wait to apply it to my own exercises. Thank you!

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  18. A wealth of humor knowledge! Thanks, Matthew and Robbi. I appreciate the’Writing humor: the really short version’ section. 🙂

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  19. Monique says:

    Thanks for the fun post:)

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  20. susanzonca says:

    Bring in the clowns! Thanks for the encouragement. Looking forward to practicing.

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  21. Thanks for a fun and useful post. I have Babies Ruin everything on order and am looking forward to reading it.

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  22. Mavis Penney says:

    Humor loves company… Yes! It does, for sure. Thanks for the tips and the great author images. 🙂

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  23. Lori Mozdzierz says:

    A dynamic duo that yucks it up . . . How fun 😀

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  24. A hilarious post! Thanks Matthew and Robbi. Off to “think less, not more.”

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  25. Judy Sobanski says:

    Who doesn’t love funny? Thanks for the great tips!

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  26. Deborah Allmand says:

    Great post. Really glad to have a glimpse into your process. Thanks again.

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  27. Thank you Matthew and Robbi for three outstanding tips.
    ~Suzy Leopold

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  28. judyrubin13 says:

    Great ideas. Thank you for sharing.

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  29. Shelly says:

    Great post – I will certainly try to “think less”!

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  30. bucklessclass says:

    Thanks for the great tips!

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  31. Natalie Lynn Tanner says:

    I TOTALLY agree: The best humor is NEVER forced! Think Barney Fife!

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  32. Debbie Austin says:

    Such great tips. I like the homework, too. Going to go give my funny friends a call. 🙂

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  33. Kristen Browning says:

    Thanks for the fun post and the great tips. I especially like #2–getting the basics in place first without worrying about being funny/clever. Very helpful!

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  34. laurielyoung says:

    Less thinking. I believe I can do that. Thanks!

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  35. Kim Chaffee says:

    I love this. Write the basics first, then turn up the funny! Thank yiu

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  36. I am excited to try your strategies. Thank you!❤️

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  37. Aimee Haburjak says:

    What a great team you make! Excited to try your exercise and examples.
    Thanks

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  38. Lynn Alpert says:

    Another great comedy duo! Thanks for the great post and the exercise!

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  39. Mindy Hudon says:

    Ha ha. Thanks so much

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  40. shirley Johnson says:

    A fun post! Thanks for sharing.

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  41. Kirsten Bock says:

    Excellent advice! Thanks so much for sharing.

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  42. donnacangelosi says:

    Love this post Matthew & Robbi! Thanks for the reminder to “think less” and let intuition steer the writing process.

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  43. Nicola Tapson says:

    Thank you for the excellent post. I struggle to switch off the critical brain. That is my challenge and hopefully through your exercise I will learn how to turn the the key 🙂

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  44. mkresk says:

    I always enjoy unexpected tips. Thanks!

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  45. @luvthatword says:

    Thanks for permission to gorge on funny. Research, here I come. Love the electrocution solution too. Can’t wait to check out the exercise.

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  46. I just tried the app!! It was Awesome! I’m not trying to write a humorous dialog for the scene I chose, but I went with it just for fun and it came out hilarious (i think, anyway). AND bc my character was trying so hard not to pause for those 3 seconds, he made an unexpected declaration of love to my impact character! It took me and her completely by surprise.
    I feel all infused with inspiration after trying it out, thank you!

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    • Hello Erica Anne, I’m so pleased the app did it’s trick. Eliciting the surprising result is exactly the point. We are full of genius impulses that never make it to the surface. Have fun continuing to experiment and explore. Whether funny or not, revel in the uninhibited utterance. It’s the purest gold.

      Like

  47. Kristen C.S. says:

    Love the idea of hanging out with humor–like a levity leavening thing to lighten up life and craft. =)

    Like

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