THE BLOG
09/12/2014 01:55 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

Why Every Writer Should Take a Humor Writing Class

Maybe you're a journalist, maybe you're trying to write your novel, maybe you're a blogger or a copywriter or maybe you're working on your memoir. Or your cat's memoir. Whatever or whoever you are, there's one very enjoyable step you can take, right now -- or at least, fairly soon -- to make yourself a better writer: Take a course in humor writing.

Why humor writing, as opposed to some other kind? Because studying humor writing -- by which I mean any humorous fiction or non-fiction, from comic essays to parody to satire to funny stories and poems of every stripe -- is a serious deep-dive into what makes any piece of writing work. Humor is rigorous stuff. Taking apart a funny piece of writing in search of the gears and levers and clown-noses that make it tick is one of the best ways to learn how to write almost anything well, or better.

I had the great pleasure of teaching a humor writing course for several years, and although I no longer teach that class, I still call back to what it taught me, almost every day. Here's why I think every writer should take a humor writing class:

Because we read to be surprised. If there's a fundamental rule that applies across the board to all kinds of writing, this is it: Humans read in order to be surprised. Surprised by delight, by information we didn't previously possess, by emotion, by truth, or, in the case of humor writing, by wracking, stomach-cramping belly laughs.

The study of how a great humor writer -- Steve Martin, Erma Bombeck, Lena Dunham -- makes something funny, sentence by sentence and page by page, reveals that humor requires making unpredictable choices...over and over again. As anyone who's heard the "orange you glad I didn't say banana" joke can tell you, predictable is the enemy of funny. Predictability is also, as it turns out, the enemy of good writing in general. A humor writing class will teach you to stay surprising, line by line.

Because funny is harder than sad. Nervous about trying to be funny on paper? You should be. It's hard as hell. But here's the good and the bad news: Humor writing is about 90 percent technique. Meaning there are some specific, time-tested writing techniques you can wield to deliver funny results, among them, exaggeration, understatement, juxtaposition of opposites, and the rule of three (ever wonder why there are so many "an X, a Y, and a Z walk into a bar" jokes? that's the rule of three, right there). What this means is that you have to master some technical stuff. But mastery of technical stuff is what separates good writers from great ones. A humor writing class will take you through writing boot camp.

Because sentences. As many a standup comedian will tell you, delivery is everything -- you will never labor over your sentences with more obsessive, scrupulous attention than when you are trying to produce a comic effect. Word choice, sentence structure, and pacing are critical to humor -- one off-tone choice can make the difference between a phoenix and a Hindenburg. As Dave Barry once wrote: "It can be as detailed as using the word 'got' instead of 'received,' for example. Even slight variations in punctuation can make a difference in the way humor is transmitted to the reader." Eats, shoots, leaves. A humor writing class will teach you how to revise your sentences more effectively than almost any other kind of writing exercise.

Because structure. You're making a meticulously crafted monkey suit -- you gotta remember to put a tail-hole in the pants. Humor writing is about technique and precision, but it's also about becoming an expert in story and sentence structure. Again, there are technical writerly concepts that come into play here: Snowballing, conflict, reversal, and the good old rule of three writ large ("Get your hero up in a tree, throw rocks at him, get him down" -- see how that rule of three works on the plot level as well as the punchline level?) are just a few of them. A humor writing class will force you to learn how to put together a really sharp-looking monkey suit.

Because you will love your classmates like puppies. Seriously, they will be horrifically lovable. Writing workshops have a reputation for being serious and earnest and boring and unproductive and self-indulgent and the kind of thing that "real" writers like to make fun of after they've benefitted from participating in them. But to paraphrase the great humorist G.K. Chesterton, as writers, we are all in the same boat -- in fact we are the boat -- and we owe each other a terrible loyalty. The sort of loyalty we usually look to puppies for. The sort of loyalty that involves cleaning up poop.

Once you've struggled to write something funny alongside another writer who's trying to do the same thing, you'll appreciate that someone was willing to clean up after you. Humor writing classes tend to create community -- because as part of the work you're doing together, you're laughing together. A humor writing class will teach you that there's nothing better than having a writing community.

Because it will help you find your voice. Whether you are naturally funny or not (and some people are not -- I'm looking at you, Putin), whether you are destined to make millions writing hilarious scripts or novels or knock-knock jokes or not, what trying to write funny will force you to do is write a lot, and revise a lot. Writing a lot and then revising a lot is, as I am far from the first person to declare, the only way for a writer to discover that little thing that some people insist on calling their "natural voice." Listen, there's nothing natural about the voice of any writer worth reading.

The most effortless-sounding sentence ever written (which for my money might be this, from George Saunders, "Humor is what happens when we're told the truth quicker and more directly than we're used to.") came about as the result of someone doing a lot of work, and usually that someone is the writer herself. Douglas Adams once said, "If you try and take a cat apart to see how it works, the first thing you have on your hands is a nonworking cat." But in a humor writing class, the other, next thing you might have on your hands is a piece of work you can be really proud of.