Fasten your seat belts – this is another killer post by Mark Pepper, the pen wielding new star blogger at Freelance Writing. Enjoy, and don’t forget your tissue stack, you’ll need it.
This week, I’d like to address the issue of humour in writing. (Yeah, I know … who died and made me Pope of the Comedic Church? It’s just my opinion, chill.)
Personally, I love to read something that makes me smile, or better still makes me laugh out loud. But trying to be funny in your writing can cause problems. It all depends on the context. If you are writing for yourself, then it’s obviously a moot point. Equally, if you are a celebrity being paid for expressing your universally-acknowledged wit and repartee in some newspaper or magazine column or blog post, then you also pretty much have free reign. Outside of those circumstances, you have to be careful.
About last week …
I was very pleased that my previous blog seemed to go down well, but I am fully aware that it was perhaps the vocal minority who responded positively. There may be a larger number of people who just thought tosser, and moved on. It is very easy when using humour (or being facetious) to create entirely the wrong impression. I’m sure no one actually believed I was writing from inside a secure institution (although some – my wife – may like to see me in one), but, as a first impression, I ran the risk of alienating some readers who didn’t click with what passes for my sense of humour.
The danger is that you overdo it and undermine yourself, which can make people lose interest. You become the Class Clown who no one takes seriously despite a mini-Einstein lurking within. Once you create a certain reputation for yourself, and it becomes engrained in a person’s mind, it is not very easy to dispel, even though it may be a total misrepresentation of your true character.
Nevertheless, for the freelance writer, having a sense of humour is essential. Forget the physical act of writing for a moment; I mean if you can’t see the funny side of self-employment in such a competitive industry, you’ll crack up. Trying to make a living in any creative pursuit is tough. Sometimes you have to laugh or you’ll cry.
Injecting that humour into your writing, however, is a potential minefield. We’re all wired differently. Have you ever been to see a stand-up comedian and been left utterly stoney-faced, whilst the person next to you is wetting their pants with laughter? Closer to home, have you ever watched a comedy show on the TV with your spouse or partner sitting next to you, and halfway through you notice they are giving you a rather scathing sidelong glance because you are cackling away at something they don’t find at all funny? My God, you’re spending your life with this person and you don’t find the same things funny; what hope is there for gauging how amused a complete stranger will be by your humour?
I think you have to try, though. I think you need to at least put a few tentative funny-bone feelers out there when you write. If you have ever scanned a lonely hearts column, you’ll have noticed everyone has a GSOH – Good Sense of Humour. Clearly, it would be somewhat self-defeating to put SSOH, just as no one ever describes themselves as “ugly as sin with BO, halitosis and persistent flatulence”, but it says an awful lot about how universally attractive a good sense of humour is perceived to be.
Getting a job
So why should it be any different in business? Humour is a great ice-breaker; it can bounce a professional relationship forward months, because laughter makes you feel more at ease. It is always said in the direct sales arena that customers buy from people they like, and I can’t see why it would be any different in freelance writing.
On a practical level, how early should you start? How about when you are applying for that freelance writing job? Is that too early? I don’t think so. I have had a number of careers in my past, and whenever I have been a tad cheeky in an application I have made to a potential employer, the response has always been positive. Okay, not always. There was one time I went a bit over the top when I was about to emigrate to Spain and thought I’d give the acting one last shot with an utterly facetious letter and picture that I snail-mailed to around seventy casting directors. My agent received just one response, from a casting director my agent described as sounding “deeply disturbed” by my missive. You can view these pitiful pleas for work here: To Whom It May Concern
Clearly, you must choose your moments. If you are creating web copy for a funeral director, you may want to think twice about any “dead” jokes. You know, “it’s dead easy to find us”, “our profession is dead good”, “we’re dead cheap”, etc. Apart from that, though, you will probably be writing for an audience that won’t string you up for making them smile whilst they learn.
I also believe humour is very closely linked to the fabled writer’s “voice” – which deserves a blog of its own. It is only when I am at my most facetious that I feel my writing style becomes more distinctive and I gain my voice. I may be wrong; it’s all highly subjective.
If you do decide to tinker with the odd jape in your writing, please refrain from putting an exclamation mark at the end of it. No, really, don’t do that. Exclamation marks are for exclamations: the written equivalent of raising your voice or making your point a little more forcefully. There is no surer was to rob a joke of its humour than by instructing your readers to “laugh now” by using an exclamation mark. It’s even worse here in Spain because they put an inverted one at the start of the sentence as well – “get ready to laugh”. It’s like a comic actor dropping out of character to wink at the audience every time he thinks he’s delivered a witty line. Trust your readers to find the humour on their own. If they need an exclamation mark to point the way, either they or your attempts at humour are somewhat lacking.
The only time you might want to drop in an exclamation mark is if you know you’ve made a pretty offensive/insulting remark, but you just couldn’t stop yourself. A kind of literary Tourettes! (See what I did there? I just ruined that joke with an exclamation mark.) In this case, an exclamation mark may serve to take the edge off it slightly. I am quite sure that Salman Rushdie would not have had a fatwa placed on him by the Iranian Ayatollah back in 1988 – calling on all good Muslims to kill him and his publishers – had he entitled his novel, The Satanic Verses!, rather than The Satanic Verses.
“Hey, think we should place a fatwa on this dude? That’s some heavy shit he’s layin’ down on our beliefs.”
“Ah, what the Jahannam, man – the guy’s just shootin’ the breeze.”
(These are Iranians in a Hollywood movie, by the way.)
That would have saved the British taxpayer over £10,000,000 in round-the-clock police protection for the man.
I may have veered a bit.
So, next time you’re thinking of taking a risk and slipping a little humour into your writing, just go for it. However … if you’re the type of writer who ends up alone in the kitchen at parties, rearranging your neighbour’s cupboards so that all the tins have their labels facing forward and none of them are touching each other, then you’re excused! (Damn, I did it again.)