How to Write Humor: Funny Essay Writing Tips

Written by MasterClass

Mar 25, 2019 • 5 min read

Humor brings people together and has the power to transform how we think about the world. Of course, not everyone is adept at being funny—particularly in writing. Making people laugh takes some skill and finesse, and, because so much relies on instinct, is harder to teach than other techniques. However, all writers can benefit from learning more about how humor functions in writing.

Below, you will find a brief explanation of how humor works in both fiction and nonfiction writing, as well as some common humor writing techniques.


What Is Humor Writing?

Humor writing is a piece of fiction or nonfiction written with the express purpose of being funny. How it strikes a humorous chord and the resulting laughs (or groans) it produces depends on the piece. For example, a piece may be satirical without necessarily being laugh-out-loud funny.

Three Types of Humor Writing

Stand-up comedy and comedic tv shows are two forms of humor writing; humor can also be used in both fiction and nonfiction writing.

  • Humor novels. Humor novels are their own genre. These can be both fiction and nonfiction. In fiction, satirical novels fall in this category. Satire fiction uses humor, irony, and exaggeration to critique or expose a corrupt aspect of society. Two of literature’s most popular satire novels are George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (1961).
  • Short form. Short humor pieces usually take the form of a short story or piece of humor fiction. A short humor piece is usually a piece of writing under 1,000 words whose main purpose is to amuse. These are the kind typically published by literary journals.
  • Humor essay. Humor essays are usually a personal essay whose primary aim is to amuse rather than inform or persuade. Sometimes, writers mix fiction with nonfiction in humor essays for comedic effect.

Four Golden Rules for Writing Humor

E. B. White, American writer, editor, and longtime contributor to The New Yorker, once said this of comedy writing: “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

However, there are certain rules you can use to try your hand at a good joke, humor essay, or short humor piece.

1.Identify your style of humor

Everyone has a different sense of humor. We all find different things funny for different reasons. This is why it’s important that before you sit down and try to write funny things, you think about your own personal sense of humor and how you want to mine that to produce a piece of humor writing.

Trying to mimic other people’s styles in creative writing won’t work. If you try and write in a style that is not your own, or if you try and force yourself to be funny in a way that you are not, the effort behind your writing will show.

There are many kinds of humor. Look at this list of some popular types of humor and try and analyze where your individual strengths are and what you feel most comfortable with.

  • Observational/situational humor. This involves finding humor in mundane, everyday situations.
  • Anecdotal humor. This involves mining personal stories for humor.
  • Dark (or gallows) humor. Finding humor in darker, more unpleasant circumstances or aspects of life, like death, suffering, and unhappiness.
  • Self-deprecating humor. This involves you, the writer, making fun of yourself for comedic effect. Having a sense of humor about yourself endears you to others.
  • Satirical humor. Looking to the various faults of individuals, organizations, or society and mining them for comedic purposes.

2. Use the rule of three

The rule of three is a common rule in humor writing and one of the most common comedy writing secrets. It involves establishing a set pattern with two ideas and then subverting that pattern with a third, incompatible idea. For example:

“Can I get you anything? Coffee? Doughnut? A better attitude?”

3. Mine humorous anecdotes from your real life

This is especially pertinent for humor essays. If you think about it, most of the funny things in your own life are things that our friends and family also find funny. These are the stories we tell over and over. These are the stories we use to bond or connect with others.

Sometimes, we mine these stories for a more humorous effect. This is exactly what a humor essay does. Before you start writing, make sure you identify why a particular story or anecdote is funny. Is it funny to you because of your unique circumstances or understanding of a wider context? If so, it’s unlikely to be funny to your readers without that prior context.

4. Leverage cliches

While clichés are something most writers try to avoid, it’s important to recognize them. Humor relies in part on twisting a cliché—transforming or undermining it. You do this by setting up an expectation based on the cliché and then providing a surprise outcome. For example: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stranger.” In humor writing, this process is called reforming.

Quick Tips For Writing Humor

  • Surprise the reader. Twist a cliché or undermine any expectation you’ve set up.
  • Put your funny expressions at the end of a sentence. Humor is often a release of tension, so the sentence builds that tension, and the pay-off happens most naturally at the end.
  • Use contrast. Are your characters in a terrifying situation? Add something light, like a man obsessing about his briefcase instead of the T-Rex looming behind him.
  • Find funny words. Some words are just funnier than others, so make a list of those that amuse you the most.
  • Try a “figgin” —a story element that promises to be something horrible or disgusting but which turns out to be humorous, and yet later has a pay-off, or a moment where the item becomes important to the plot.
  • Give them “sherbet lemon” —minor details you put in a text to make the reader smile. These small pulses are in the text just for humor; they don’t necessarily have a pay-off later.

Writing Humor Exercise

Come up with a clichéd character or choose one from the list below. On one page, describe the character or a scene with the character in it, using any of the humor techniques from this chapter.

  • The old wise man who magically has the one tool a protagonist needs to save himself/herself/the universe
  • The evil, vain queen who wants to destroy anything good
  • The chosen one
  • The evil villain (Bonus: include his inept sidekick)
  • The abusive, alcoholic father who beats his wife
  • The prostitute with a heart of gold
  • The thug with a heart of gold
  • The disillusioned private detective/police officer