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Using Humour in Nonfiction Writing

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December 2009
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 In his bestselling book, “On Writing Well”, William Zinsser writes that “humour is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer.” It is often the best tool and only tool for making an important point. Its purpose also needs to be to entertain the reader.

This article summarizes what Zinsser suggests about using humour in nonfiction writing and provides some words of advice on how to write humorous nonfiction.

Humour writing is serious writing. The writer’s intention in using humour is to say something important in a special way. To do this, the writer needs to use the appropriate comic device, such as parody or satire or irony, to emphasize the truth.

Often, the events making news are a good source for writing humour. Yet, writing something funny doesn’t need to be topical. It does, however, need to be based on “fundamental truth.”Instead of writing about a topic in the news, the humorist can write about everyday life, such as the home, family, and work.

Much of the time the humor in nonfiction is intended to make a serious point. The writer must find the right comic device to disguise his/her serious point. The writer can use satire, irony, parody, and lampoon—even nonsense.

Good humour writing makes readers laugh. Frequently, all the writer needs to do is exaggerate the truth. For instance, the book Catch-22 and the script for Dr. Strangelove both use exaggeration to ridicule the absurdities of war. In using exaggeration, the writer makes his/her serious point. The point is disguised as humour.

The humour writer must often go against public opinion to write a humorous piece.

Humour doesn’t need to make a serious point. The writer can use nonsense to make his/her readers laugh.

The humorist must convey enjoyment. In other words, the humorist must communicate to the reader that he is having a good time in writing the piece.

The humorist ought also to represent himself or herself as the “victim” or “dunce.” This gives the reader a sense of superiority.

Zinsser states several principles for a writer of humour. First, the writer should never strain for laughs. Instead, the writer needs to focus on surprising the reader. Secondly, the writer should write about the truth, instead of focusing on the ordinary or outlandish. Thirdly, before writing humour, the writer must learn to write well.

Words of Advice

The writer can create humorous nonfiction by finding humour in the news or by creating a comic reality. What goes on in everyday life can also be funny.

To create a comic effect, the writer needs to use one of the popular comic devices, such as exaggeration, ironic truth, humours anecdotes, wordplay, one-liner, satire, and truth as a form of humour.

Satire is often used. People laugh when they are surprised. People also laugh at the misfortunes of others. So, the writer can often mock or ridicule the follies or vices of other people.

The writer must be careful not to violate social taboos, make sexist comments, or write racial slurs.

The nonfiction writer rarely uses profanity, vulgarisms, or obscenity in his/her writing.

In crafting the opening, the writer needs to capture the attention of the reader very quickly. So, the opening should be funny. To bring the writing to a close, the writer needs to surprise the reader with a punchline or point that is funny.

If you have any questions or comments, please post them to this blog or contact me.

Next, I will write about the comic devices of wordplay, exaggeration, humorous anecdote, irony, satire, parody, and lampoon.

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