Humor Writing Tutorial - Dilbert Blog

Humor Writing Tutorial

How hard is it to write three sentences for my experimental web comic Robots Read News

Probably harder than it looks.

I think of the writing process as having about eighteen layers. And one of those layers has six dimensions. If you get any of it wrong, your writing lays on the side of the road like a squirrel that had a bad day last week.

How much technique is involved in writing versus, say, instinct? Natural talent? If I know my readers, you will be interested in the answers to those questions because you might pick up some useful tips. So here is a quick tutorial on humor writing.

Humor Diversification Rule

One of the many blind spots we have as humans is the notion that people are similar in their senses of humor. Sure, some folks are more uptight than others, but we think humor is somewhat universal.

It is not even close.

My best guess is that a third of the public doesn’t possess an appreciation for humor of any type. I would go so far as to say they probably have to fake it when other people are watching. I mean that in a literal sense.

Another subset of people are only amused when something socially awkward happens to someone else in real life. For that group, professional comedians are just noise, but a restaurant server dropping a tray is hilarious.

For some people, humor only happens when there is a violation of societal standards. For this crowd, anything that would make a priest uncomfortable is comedy gold no matter how poorly executed.

For some folks, humor lies only in cleverness. This group likes puns and jokes with out-of-box solutions to problems. And they like some complexity and timing in their humor. 

And nearly everyone enjoys humor about subjects and people that are close to them. Nothing interests you more than yourself. And when you see a version of yourself or someone you know played out in comedy it triggers a laugh reflex. This is the only form of humor that everyone enjoys. Even the folks with no humor gene whatsoever find pleasure in being the topic of a good joke. But since we all have different experiences, it is hard to find a topic that works for everyone.

So what do you do when there are so many types of people and your humor can’t please them all?

You do what any economist would do. You add quantity and variety, also known as diversifying. Instead of telling one joke, tell twenty. Make some of them clever, some naughty, and so on. If you spray enough types of humor into the universe, everyone has  a chance to find one they can enjoy.

But is being funny 20% of the time good enough?

Yup. Because…

The Humor False-Memory Rule

My experience as a professional humorist is that if you are funny one time out of five, people will remember you as being funny all the time. So make sure you produce enough volume, and enough different types of humor, so diversification works for you. (Unless you are intentionally targeting a narrow audience.)

Some years ago I developed a formula for humor. I call it the Six Dimensions of Humor. My observation was that you have to use at least two of the six dimensions to be recognized as humor. You can use more than two dimensions for even better results, but two is the minimum. And it does not matter which dimensions you combine. I have written extensively on this topic, so today I will just list the six dimensions and tell you that you need two of them.

Six Dimensions of Humor


Humor is only one layer that a writer must consider. To produce good writing you need to simultaneously balance about… oh, eighteen layers of technique at the same time. Luckily, most of this happens as an automatic process.

Writing Layers

  • Logic
  • Timing
  • Messenger matches message
  • Usefulness
  • Reading level
  • Conversational style 
  • Flow
  • Humor
  • Branding (of the author)
  • Intelligence (write slightly smarter than the reader)
  • Interest
  • Relevance
  • Tense (past, current, future)
  • Whose point of view?
  • Editing (grammar, spelling, vocabulary)
  • Emotion
  • Hypnosis layer (this is just me)
  • musicality

Most of the layers are self-explanatory. The most interesting layer is what I call the musicality layer. Do your words form a beat? Are they smooth and silky? Does the musicality of the sentence match the tone of the piece? How would the sentence sound if read aloud?

Compare these sentences for musicality:

A big kid kicked a milk can. (Yuck. I sprained my brain reading it.)

Now read one line from a Keisha song: Are you dancing on the dance floor or drinking by the bar? (Perfect rhythm.)

Consider one of my popular tweets this week: “Repurpose the shattered pieces of your past. That stuff is useful.” I used a beat in the first sentence and none in the second, for the musicality.

How to Layer

You probably can’t hold eighteen layers of technique in your mind while forming coherent sentences. Writers can’t do that either. That’s why I write a few layers at a time, then add other layers in subsequent passes.

A lot of the work of writing involves picking a topic that will interest your audience. If humor is the goal, 90% of the job involves picking a topic that lends itself to laughs. If the topic makes you smile before you write the joke, that’s a winner. And if a topic is interesting before you add your twist, that is a winner too. Compounding the problem is that all writers are looking for the same gems, so you often end up in picked-over territory. Don’t stay there unless you came with something special.

I start my writing by laying out the logic of what I want to say, often in bullet points or short paragraphs that I can arrange on the page to discover the best order of presentation. If humor is part of the plan, I make sure the logic supports that future humor layer, like scaffolding.

A lot of the writing process is automatic once you have practiced enough. For example, I am typing this sentence without thinking of my hands. I just look at the screen and the words appear. Nor do I think much about vocabulary or grammar. That stuff is mostly automatic now, and I will fix any typos and sloppy wording in subsequent passes. The number one rule of writing is write something.

The last three writing layers (emotion, hypnosis, musicality) are where most of the magic in writing happens. Amateur writers are not aware that those levels even exist. Most folks stop writing as soon as they make their point. For professional writers, that is when the real writing starts

I included hypnosis on my list of writing layers because I have a background in the practice. Most writers would not have a layer by that name. A close substitute is a basic understanding of the psychology of persuasion. 

A quick way to understand the power of the hypnosis layer is to consider how words carry their own emotional weight independent of the sentence. For example, the word “gun” puts your mind in an emotional state that “pillow” does not. The hypnotist puts greater weight on the emotional content of individual words than a normal writer might. As a reader, you will never be aware of this layer; all you will know is that you are having a positive reaction while you read.

That was your mini writing lesson for today. Please let me know if this topic interests you.

Update Notes:

Imagine how hard it is for a book editor to evaluate my first drafts. At that point in the process I have not fully layered on the humor, hypnosis, musicality, timing, or emotion. Editing a first draft means divorcing yourself from the question of how good it is. Normal humans can’t do that. The best editors can smell good writing before they see it.


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And now Ford has technology for reading speed limit signs and adjusting your speed automatically. Other companies have auto-driving technology that keeps you between the lines on a road and away from the back bumper of the car ahead. Human driving skills are becoming less necessary by the minute.

And if you dislike touching germ-covered objects, relief might be coming with this technology.

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