Humor: How and how much can you use in freelance articles?


Sometimes (actually, often) absolutely none. No joke: even provoking a smile by a touch of word play will release you to the path of penury. The editor won’t buy it, and she probably won’t look at future queries from you either!

Why? Because either the topic (death, disaster, rape, and so on) won’t allow it or because somebody sometime decided that that publication will be not be a carrier of mirth, probably forever.

Don’t avoid those publications if your writing means eating. Send serious queries and non-risible copy and spend their payment (probably not much of a laughing matter either). Don’t try to change their mind, as it is. Stay away or get in line.

Focus your funny-pen on the rest. I sold way more than 1,700 freelance pieces to almost any kind of rag that was sold on paper. I didn’t count but maybe 30 total were all humor, the “funny piece” that, under 1,000 words, could quickly fill an extra page when ads fell short. (I can’t remember ever querying any of those. What would I say? “Do you want to read something really funny?” At best, the editor would say, “Send it to me. I’ll decide if it’s funny.” So I just sent it, with a cover note.)

That left about 1,000 articles that loosely fell into the “humorous” category, some just barely, some so witty they made me laugh all day and thrice on Sundays.

“Humorous” means that there was humor sprinkled judiciously (maybe riotously) throughout the article. (You couldn’t just pack four tall tales of jest into the lead, then lumber through a Sahara of text for the rest of the piece.) You wrote humorous copy into the query letter too so they knew what to expect. And the humor was at the same level and the same kind throughout. (Noisy slapstick or thigh-slapping jokes usually don’t work, but they never do when squeezed between painful puns. Pick your poison, then dilute it and sprinkle evenly.)

If humor was obvious, the editor would expect a title with some humor, plus a lead and conclusion gently containing the same ingredient.

You have to remember that the humor is the seasoning
, like mazzarella cheese scattered on top of spaghetti—or is it pizza? The editor is buying a subject (sometimes with a specific angle or slant), and the humor, if added, is to make the telling better and lighter.

If the editor wanted 1200 words about nose hairs, or the fading of seminaries, or how to have fun in Finland, any mirth I cared to inject into my telling about that topic was extra. It almost always came out of the topic or referred to it. Not side-slapping bon mots dropped in like aliens at a wedding.

Also, the humor didn’t have to incite raucous guffaws every time (or ever). It had to bring a smile to the more intelligent readers. Four or five smiles might be enough. They were easiest to get with clever word play, or witty quotes, or the juxtapositioning of two unlike things. But there had to be enough of them, regularly, so the reader (and editor) didn’t think they were accidental miscues that the editor didn’t notice.

Every time I wrote a humorous piece (which was every time when the topics were funny) was a gamble that the flat-faced expository devotees (my rivals) were afraid to try. Simply, not all editors think what you write is funny (even if you can include a dozen testimonials to its guaranteed hilarity). The risk was less if the topic itself was well covered and interesting (which has to be your minimum standard anyway). Some editors might reject the humor, but most would edit it (pluck it out), let you know, and use it anyway.

Why would I write and send humor at the risk of certain starvation? Because most of the editors wanted it, sought a “funny piece” every month, and once I had proven that I could do it, it got me many more query “go-aheads,” and sales. It also made reprints much easier to sell. Even rewrites, queried elsewhere, later, were easier to adapt and sell—and reprints from them too. (That was important because then I earned more from reprints and rewrites.)

I haven’t told you how to write with humor here because it’s so much related to the topic that I can’t figure how to do it in a blog. But I don’t have to. Find any “funny” article in a magazine or newspaper (they are still the best freelance markets) and study and study it. Circle anything funny (or meant to be) and see why it’s funny, where it is in the article, and how complementary they are in tone. Study the lead and conclusion, plus the title. Since that article is in print, it’s a successful model to build from. Try it yourself again and again and you’ll catch on. See you in print, my funny friend.

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. I explain the full process in a much earlier book which is still (sometimes) on Kindle’s used book list: How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing. Most of the process is also explained in the Travel Writer’s Guide, plus how to make good money writing and selling travel articles. Humor helps there too.

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