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Humor Writing - Brevity (2)

Original Posted on Yahoo Humor-Writing Groups

Brevity is the soul of wit - Mark Twain

It is my contention that most articles and many books are twice as long as they have a right to be, based on the volume and quality of their content.

When you signed on to this forum, you may have been thinking, I need to learn how to be funny. Humor writing exercises, new humor techniques, that must be the thing for me, you say. Here, I'll learn to dazzle the readers with my brilliant jokes; I'll slay them with my rapier wit.

It may be you already have those tools, that ability, but are keeping them buried under layers, even mountains of clutter.

In his statement, "Brevity is the soul of wit," Mark Twain distilled for us the essence of the laugh. Very often, we relate an experience we found humorous, and turn it into an article of 1000 words. Then we call it humor.

But does a 1000 word joke qualify as humor?

In his book, Excursions into the writing of humor, Pat McManus teaches us that most writers waste far too many words to be really funny. We waste them on descriptions, trivia, dialogue, setting; all things that make for a fine novel, but a terrible joke.

McManus relates that in a university literature class he taught, he used a certain exercise. He would give the six word phrase 'tarnished walnut paneling on the stairs.' From this simple phrase, he asked his students to describe the bathroom, the front yard, and the color of the house the phrase referred to.

To his astonishment he found, almost without fail, that the students placed the house in the deep southern US, and a decrepit picket fence surrounds the yard. Often, the house has a oak tree in the front yard with a tire swing in it, and a claw foot bathtub. Yet these details are in no way mentioned in the phrase 'tarnished walnut paneling on the stairs.'

As humor writers, we usually have very limited space in which to perform our magic. We may be working within a 600 word column. If it's to be a humor column, it should probably have ten to 20 distinct jokes in it, in addition to an overall humorous tone. That's 30- 60 words per joke, and this means we have to be succinct. "Brevity is the soul of wit."

How can we give our humor 'soul?' By collaborating with the reader. Let the reader do some of the work. We know he's willing, otherwise he wouldn't be reading. So we give him a few carefully selected clues. For example, in my own story, Digging for the Truth, I speak of a friend, Slim:

"Just then Slim Shambles came puffing up on his bicycle, winded from
the long glide down Slumberland hill."

From the clues in this sentence, we know Slim is a skinny guy who is
in deplorable physical condition. But that is never said. The knowledge is derived solely from the clues 'Slim,' 'puffing,' long glide,' and 'winded.'

And the description is itself inherently humorous.


In this exercise, we will humorously describe something by giving a few carefully selected clues. Do not *describe* the item with a description. Use only clues, as in the examples above.

Using only one sentence, less that 20 words, and no more than 1 comma for each of the items below, describe :

1)a physical trait or character trait of an acquaintance
2)a decrepit bicycle or other toy you played with as a child
3)a local politician

Do not use description in the common sense, but let the reader fill in the blanks with his imagination. Give him only clues to work with.

I have been very quiet on this group lately.

Too busy reading and writing 'humour' stuff on the forums!

Lunatic asylum that it is!rolling on the floor laughing
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