Using humor to sell your magazine articles
Funny you should ask!
One rule always: some editors/publications don’t use humor, so don’t even try. At best the editor may open her lips to chuckle (or groan), then reconsider and toss the query. I can’t tell you which such publications to avoid because I don’t read them. But it used to be that the AARP magazines were humor dry. That getting old must be grim stuff. (So when I did write for them I kept surefire rip-roarers, even tepid jests, out of my mind lest one slide down to my pecking finger and be read by the paymaster.)
I can’t remember any editor who wanted truckloads of comedy dumped on their desk. They bought humor in measured bits deftly worked into actual (or near-) truths. Except the fillers editors who seemed to weigh jokes by the word so they could be squeezed into advertising holes. They actually did pay a pittance, when they stopped laughing–but I don’t ever recall them buying two jokes at the same time. I had a colleague who sold a joke to Reader’s Digest and included the sale in his credits in every query. One editor wrote back, rejecting his idea, and added, “I bet that RD joke was the only thing you ever sold.” Mean editors are rare, but they can be perceptive. It was about a third of his freelance bounty.
Puns sometimes worked, but if I used one I used two so they knew it was intentional. I’ve sold 1,700+ freelance articles but only once did I use a full-out joke in an article, and that was about 10 or 15 words long and the joke was the article’s lead! (Alas, it must have been far below my personal humor standard because I can’t remember a word of it!) On the other hand I wrote a travel short about 800 words long about eating guinea pig sandwiches that were cooked on the street in Quito, Ecuador. (At least they looked like guinea pigs.) I found out years later, through a Peace Corps kid stationed near Cuenca, that one of his projects was to help multiply the stock of domesticated guinea pigs to increase the meat available on the local table. (Whatever it was, it sure tasted good.)
Here was my system of weaving humor into an article’s otherwise deadly prose.
(1) Mostly I lifted deadly prose appreciably heavenward by keeping the tone light and the descriptions spry (good synonyms adorned with festive adjectives helped).
(2) I relied a lot on word play, but you have to spread it out and only do that now and then. For example, I might refer to Buffy, a wee, yapping dog, as a furry feral killer-companion or a drooling pet growler. Or a woman’s date as her knight of the night. That’s enough wit: the blog censors just told me to stop–they are thinking of your humor health.
(3) A funny, related thought to what is being said in a paragraph almost always ended that paragraph.
(4) It’s hard to give isolated examples. Find an article that intentionally makes you laugh and highlight every funny item in it with yellow underliner. You’ll see that the humor is discretely bundled in 93% topic-related facts.
(5) Just as the writer did in (5) above, if the subject had humor wanting to get out, I made the content worth reading, and let some of that humor escape.
(6) I always put some humor in the query letter, in the actual selling message, so the editor knew there would be humor in the copy that followed. I’m convinced that the humor helped sell the query. But you can’t overdue it.
(7) As a friend who teaches journalism tells his wards: if you can’t keep your humor in control, get a talk show!
Some loose how-to’s but I hope it helps. Life’s a whole lot more fun when you’re part of the wit and mirth. It’s even better when you get paid to share it.