How to Use Humor in Writing (Without Being Cringy)

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to know how to use humor in writing? How do you make your humor sound natural rather than forced?

The rule of thumb is that if you find something funny, include it. Just make sure you’re not trying to force humor into your writing because the readers will be able to tell.

Here are some tips on how to add humor to your writing, from On Writing Well by William Zinsser.

Spice Up Your Writing

Humor is a writing form that uses a lighthearted or funny approach to reveal absurd or harsh truths about humanity. Zinsser believes sometimes not being “serious” is the best and only way to talk about serious topics, like war, famine, violence, and so on.

For example, in “Thirty-Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral into a Drinking Game,” Kristiana Kahakauwila reveals truths about family dynamics and cultural traditions by turning the emotional experience of a funeral into a humorous drinking game. 

If you’re writing and find something humorous, include it. Zinsser advises against worrying about whether or not people will think it’s funny—if you genuinely think it’s funny, someone else will too. And you can always change your mind about it later. 

Zinsser provides a few tips on how to include humor in writing:

  • Be comfortable writing well without humor. You should be comfortable with the fundamentals of writing instead of relying on humor to cover up a lack of writing skill. 
  • Don’t be afraid to talk about everyday life, rather than seeking out quirky topics. Even something mundane can be turned into humor. 
  • Don’t force humor. Understand that humor is subjective and not everyone will find your humor funny. Let it come naturally, and people will either gravitate toward your humor or not.
  • Don’t use exclamation marks. Humor is best written subtly, and an exclamation point will ruin that. 
  • Avoid overstatements. Like exclamation marks, overstatements aren’t subtle. 

How to Write Humor

If you’re struggling to write humor, first try identifying your own sense of humor. What do you find funny? One-liners? Wit? Sarcasm? Dark humor? Anecdotes? Self-deprecation? Read different types of humor to identify your style. Once you’ve identified your humor, try drawing from your personal experience for inspiration. What kind of funny anecdotes could you write about? 

  • Once you’ve identified what type of humor you like, you can incorporate it into your writing. David Sedaris offers a few tips for writing humor
  • Test out your humor in a casual situation. Tell your story to friends or family and include the humor—did they laugh? If not, consider workshopping the story or joke.
  • Be honest about your own flaws. The more honest you are about yourself, the more relatable you’ll be to your audience. And readers enjoy personal accounts that they can relate to.
  • Don’t be afraid of writing about a negative or sad personal experience. You can connect with your audience on a deeper level when you explore a wider range of emotions.
  • Unlike Zinsser, Sedaris encourages exaggerating parts of your story. Doing so will highlight the ridiculousness of a situation.

The next time you’re writing, try some of these tips to incorporate humor to connect with your reader through laughter.

How to Use Humor in Writing (Without Being Cringy)

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of William Zinsser's "On Writing Well" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full On Writing Well summary:

  • A back-to-basics approach to the craft of writing
  • How to practice simple, clear, and engaging writing—even if you're not a writer
  • How to effectively put your ideas into words

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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