Understanding Personal Essays: Funny Business

Abigail Green

By Abigail Green

So you think you’re funny, do you? For essay writers, funny is good. Humor can spice up nearly any topic, from parenting to cooking to travel.

As we all know, however, there are vastly different kinds of humor. There’s David Sedaris funny, and there’s Erma Bombeck funny. There’s Dave Barry funny, and there’s Jon Stewart funny. There’s Christian humor and feminist humor and political humor and nearly any other niche you can think of.

You will have the best luck selling your humor essays if you find a market (or several) that fits your natural voice. That is, if you write in a jokey, “bad-da-boom” style, you’ll probably find markets like Reader’s Digest more receptive to your work than, say, The Atlantic. If you write feel-good, G-rated parenting humor, Family Circle’s a better bet than The Onion. If you’re not already, you should be reading the type of humor essays you like to write. Check out these markets, or Google “humor writers” and start surfing.

Now let’s look at a specific market. Each issue, Smithsonian magazine publishes an approximately 500-word humor essay called “The Last Page.” You can read writer’s guidelines and samples online or in back issues at the library. That will give you an idea of the range of topics and general voice of the department. In targeting any publication, tweak your essay to fit. Are there a lot of punchy one-liners? Or is it a more cerebral type of humor? (BTW, humor essays are always submitted in their entirety. How can you judge funny without reading the whole thing?)

As you might guess, Smithsonian is geared towards a more high-brow audience than, say, Mad magazine. Sometimes a publication’s tastes are obvious, and sometimes they’re a bit more subtle. I only learned through experience, for example, that Washingtonian magazine would never, ever publish an essay about seeing one’s boss naked. Their loss; the Boston Globe had no such qualms. The Christian Science Monitor may balk at an essay about drunken exploits, but Maxim magazine might snap it up.

Sadly, I can’t give you many specifics on HOW to be funny in your essays. I’m afraid funny is either something you are, or you aren’t. However, I CAN tell you that specifics, hyperbole, and the unexpected are keys to “funnying” up an already humorous essay. For example, “This new mom is exhausted” is not nearly as funny as “My new baby keeps me busier than a one-legged man in a butt-kicking contest.” Anyone can be hungry enough to eat a horse, but only the truly funny are so starved they could eat their weight in hot wings. See what I’m saying?

If you want to write funny, start by reading the greats-whether to you that means Woody Allen or Stephen Colbert-and note where you laugh out loud. Personally, I find inspiration from a celebrity fashion blog. Read it! Those gals are masters at crafting witty retorts, I tell you. Then read your own work out loud, preferably to an audience, and note where people laugh. From there, it’s just a matter of time before you tickle the right editor’s funny bone.

Abigail Green is a freelance writer in Baltimore. Over the past 12 years, she has written for national, regional and online publications including AOL, Bride’s, Baltimore Magazine, Cooking Light and Health. She blogs about the lighter side of pregnancy, parenthood and potty training at Diary of a New Mom. She teaches Personal Essays that Get Published, a six-week e-mail class.

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