Advice to the Young Humor Writer

My advice to the young humor writer who wants to improve at humor writing.

I sometimes get asked by young humor writers for advice. I pretty much tell them all the same thing: I don’t know anything. Stop bothering me. But they pester me until I relent and give them something resembling advice. In the interest of saving myself time, I’m putting it all down here for future reference.

Dear Youngster,

The thing that’s helped me the most as a writer is asking the question–and please pardon my language– “Would anyone give a shit about this?” If I can honestly say that people would, I write it. If I can’t think of a reason anyone in the world would care, I don’t write it.

Now, “Would anyone give a shit about this?” sounds like common sense advice.

But let’s break it down.

“Would anyone…”
This means you should consider the audience. Does your idea have an audience? Who is the audience? Will they agree? Disagree? Both are good. Book authors, screenwriters, columnists – they all know their audiences. If you don’t know who yours is, think about who you would want to be your audience and what would be interesting to them.

I know that writers often say they “write purely for myself,” but those authors generally have gigantic followings already and live in large writer mansions by the time people ask them for advice. Of course they write for themselves. Now. They didn’t always. The liars.

“…give a shit…”
What is your intended audience not getting enough of? What would they enjoy? What would they share with each other? Be brutally honest when you answer these questions.

Because YOU wrote it doesn’t mean the heavens will rain page views down on your 8,000-word take about how lame the Oscars were this year. Don’t hope or expect an audience to react BECAUSE IT’S YOU writing it, and don’t become disappointed if no one reacts or likes it. Negative feedback is the best feedback of all.

“…about this?”
“This” is your work, and it has to be good. It should be funny. It should include the unexpected. It should be well-written with perfect grammar and spelling. “This” should make you laugh when you read it or think about it. If it’s not funny to you, why would it be funny to anyone else?

Have you ever seen a stand-up comedian bomb? It’s horrible to watch. It makes me want to hide under the table until it’s over. Nine times out of ten it’s because they’re telling jokes even they don’t think are funny. Enthusiasm about your own work is infectious, provided it’s good work. If it’s not good, enthusiasm wanders into the realm of derangement, which is also funny but the target of your humor becomes your own dignity. There are better, juicier targets out there because as a wannabe humor writer you are most likely bereft of dignity.

I say this all because, having browsed through your website, I see you writing a lot for yourself but not with a reader in mind.

You obviously have things to say about the world, and the fact that you reached out means this is more than a passing interest to you.

So if you’re serious, here’s what I would advise:

1. Read all of the humor writing you can, online and in books. Look at what these authors are doing structurally–not just the funny lines, but how the humor is built and constructed. Deconstruct until you understand all of the invisible writer tricks that allow writers to be so clever. Then look at what they choose to write about. Are they talking about things they think, or are they going out and experiencing life and telling interesting stories that happened to them? They’re probably not doing much of the first and more of the rest. The more active choices you make in life and the more you leave your desk and do things and then return to write, the higher the ceiling for your comedy.


2. Write all the time. Even if you don’t publish it, write. When something strikes you as truly funny, build off that idea. I have notebooks and Word docs filled with terrible, terrible ideas that no one — thank God — will ever see. But I needed to get all of those crummy ideas down on paper before the good ones came out. I still do a lot of crummy writing. But the more writing you do, the faster you can spot when it’s crummy. Here’s a screen-grab from my Word doc of rejected ideas:


This idea is mildly humorous, but it would need to make fun of celebrities, not people living in their car, who are a group of people who don’t deserve ridicule. Does the world need another article bashing celebs? Not really. So into the reject pile it went.

3. Cultivate an audience. Make 10 hardcore fans. Then 50. Then 100. Go where the people are – Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc. I even publish on LinkedIn, that thing everyone with a job knows they’re supposed to be on but just can’t bring themselves to join. I crank out a quick column, and I pick up new followers and grow my audience.

4. Be as real as possible in your writing. I enjoy McSweeney’s and The Onion, but for the individual blogger there is more humor in reality than in exaggeration. Anyone can comment on pop culture or write a fake news story, but you are the only one who can tell your stories and who cares about the specific things you care about in the way that you do. The things that make you unlike anyone else on earth are your advantages as a writer.

Think of a Venn diagram – where your interests and an audience’s interests overlap, that’s your sweet spot.

For my American readers who failed math and are the reason we’re losing ground economically to Asia, here is a Venn diagram:

Venn Diagram

There are a lot of folks who want to write humor, and you’re in the game because you’re doing it. But the trick to get better is to really immerse yourself in it and be brutally, brutally honest when you write and ask yourself, “Is this funny?” and “Would anyone give a shit?” If you’re right more than you’re wrong when you answer those questions, you’ll improve and there will be sweet writer boats and huge writer mansions waiting for you in the future. Good luck.



Author: Joe Donatelli

Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles. He publishes The Humor Columnist.

  • SFX

    Thanks Joe. (I simply can’t believe nobody thanked you for this). It’s actually good advice. Every time I hammer punch somebody with facts I think of you, and you know why.

  • It’s the only way they’ll learn.

  • SFX

    Oh yeah! But the learnin ain’t what you want em to larn. Why am I talkin in a southern accent all of a sudden?

  • SFX

    If only that were actually true