The Formula for Funny

The Formula for Funny

Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy

Picture it: 1999, an eager freelance writer sells an article to a national magazine about women having clothing custom tailored. She is euphoric when the editor asks for a sidebar piece on women having bras custom fitted. “Of course,” the writer says. “No problem.”vintage-1823596_640

I was that writer, and I was soon to learn an important—and funny—lesson about the writing life.

Now folks, this was before the Internet and search engines were running full steam. We still dialed 411 for information or thumbed through cumbersome phone books with Yellow Pages sections. And remember, for a national magazine, a writer has to do national research. Finding resources in Toronto was no problem back then, but the rest of the country…well, the challenge was set.

A funny thing happened on the way to research

purchasing-1673734_640Through one of my bespoke clothing connections, I found out about a store in Montreal that did custom fitting of bras. So, I called and asked for the store manager, whose name was Savine. I expected someone with a francophone accent, but in fact, Savine sounded like Natasha from the Rocky and Bullwinkle show. So, read her comments with a Russian accent, okay?

Here’s how the conversation went:

ME:    Savine, I’m researching an article on women having bras custom fitted.

SAVINE:      OH, you are going to write about women having the bras custom fitted. That is wonderful, because YOU KNOW, 80 percent of the women in Canada, they wearing the wrong size bra!

(NOTE: I have to interject here what went through my mind at that moment, which was—where did she get that statistic? And did people from StatsCan go around the country measuring women’s boobs and comparing them to their bra sizes? But I digress.)

ME:         Savine, are you telling me that 80 percent of women in Canada are wearing the wrong size bra?

SAVINE:        YES, 80 percent of the women in Canada, they wearing the wrong size bra. YOU, for example. YOU wearing the wrong size bra.

I looked down at my chest and was amazed that she was likely right.

So why am I telling you this story? Because I think, or at least I hope, you laughed at Savine’s comment. This little story contains the TWO things something must have to be considered funny: a basis in reality and surprise.


human-773712_640Although that’s a simplistic formula, it’s also true. Think about anything you have found funny in the past, and note the presence of both of these elements. The basis of reality in my Savine story is the fact that few women know how to choose the right size bra, and most of us have histories of buying too-small or too-large garments that remain at the bottom of our lingerie drawers for years. The surprise is when Savine makes that call on my bra over the phone.

When I teach humour writing, I tell my students that you can’t make up stuff that’s funnier than real life. Some comics make a living by simply pointing out reality. Take George Carlin’s rant about being asked if he was ready to get “on” the plane, when he preferred to get “in” it … Or Stephen Wright’s claim that he has an extensive seashell collection he keeps on beaches around the world. Canadian-born actress, writer and comedian Catherine O’Hara of Second City and “Schitt’s Creek” fame says she believes her success comes from being truthful.

Keep in mind, too, that everything is funnier in threes. Think of the jokes you know, and you’ll realize that many punch lines come after two set-up lines. An example is Lily Tomlin’s leap from pointing out that olive oil comes from olives and corn oil comes from corn, to asking where baby oil comes from.

The Power of Cliché

I always say that all writing helps other writing. For example, did you know that ad writers and humour writers use some of the same techniques? A major challenge for ad writers is to get people’s attention with an ad headline. One common technique they and humour-writers share is reforming clichés. People EXPECT the cliché to be the same, but by changing it or reforming it in some way, the phrase can become funny.radiator-mascot-171428_640

Consider the double entendre. A sign on a radiator repair shop reads: “A good place to take a leak.”

colorful-1836348_640Or think about taking a cliché literally. A major big-box store did an ad for picture frames with the headline “Hang around the house.”

lee-jung-min-decoration-1090766_640There are also funny take-offs on clichés. I once wrote humorous fortune cookies for a women entrepreneur group. One fortune I came up with was “Let a smile be your umbrella, and you’ll be toothless by retirement.”

Recipes for funny

It may seem strange to think of comedy writers using formulas, but we do from time to time, to get those creative juices flowing. Do some research and you’ll discover more techniques for injecting humour into your writing. Check out Writers Digest‘s website for several articles on humour writing. I also recommend any of Emmy award-winning Gene Perret’s books But remember that above all, a basis in reality and the element of surprise are necessary to make something funny.

Now I have to go, because my bra is pinching at the sides.

Read more from Dorothea Helms, a.k.a. The Writing Fairy, at

Did you know

Dorothea and Ruth Walker designed Write to Win, a full-day immersion in the art and skill of entering writing contests. And yes, humour often plays a part in their tag-team teaching style but they are deadly serious about helping writers get to First Place. Look for this workshop spring 2017.

Check out Writescape’s catalogue for all our workshops and programs.

Paging Dr. Edit: Line or copy edit?

Paging Dr. Edit: Line or copy edit?

Ruth E. Walker. When I first started writing, I didn’t know the difference between a line edit and a copy edit. After some workshops and lots of reading, I learned there’s similarity between the two. Which is good to know because not only do I edit my own work, I edit other people’s work.

Both line editing and copyediting skills zero in on how you are using words. When done properly, they both give you helpful notes and editing marks on your manuscript. Check out some of those marks with a free download from Writer’s Digest of 11 Editing Symbols All Writers Should Know.

It’s so easy to miss errors in your own writing. That’s why I’m immensely grateful to have a consistent critique group. Even so, my editor at Seraphim Editions caught things my colleague writers missed. But he commented that mine was a cleaner manuscript than he often sees. Yay critique group! Yay me!

EditingMy editor, George Down at The Book Band, still asked some tough questions and challenged some of my choices. But a good editor is supposed to make you think hard about your work. I was pleased that he didn’t have to spend too much energy on copyediting and line edits. Instead, it was more about substantive editing: he pointed out missed opportunities in the manuscript — areas where I needed important connections, transitions or back story. More on substantive editing in a future post.

So what is the difference between a line edit and copy edit?

A line edit focuses on the creative side of writing: your style, how you use language in each sentence and paragraph. A line edit helps you achieve clear meaning that helps you connect with your reader.

Line edits eliminate unnecessary words, phrases, sentences:

          • weak modifiers (such as: very, really, so)
          • adverbs (such as: suddenly, slowly, allegedly, terribly, utterly)
          • vague references (such as: this, that, those)
          • repetitions (such as: saying the same thing in different ways)
          • clichés (such as: straight as an arrow, dead as a doornail)

Line edits identify weak verbs that could be more active:

• she walked by
• she sauntered; she ambled, she strode…etc.

Line edits alert you to awkward sentence structure and unnecessary details:

• He looked up into her face above him, for a moment.
• For just a moment, he looked up at her face.

Look closely at your own work. Is there clarity in how you’ve constructed those sentences? Are you connecting with your reader in the way you intend? Have you avoided tired, overused clichés?binoculars-1015265_640

Copy edits zero in on the technical aspects of all writing:

  • grammar
  • punctuation
  • spelling
  • typos
  • syntax.

Are you correct and consistent in when and where you capitalize words? Have you missed hyphenations, quotation marks or commas?

If you’re writing non-fiction, a copy edit should catch where you don’t have your facts straight. Accuracy and consistency is important for fiction too: If the moon is out in the beginning of the scene, how come it’s snowing at the end of the paragraph?

I have a confession to make.
I cannot keep my editor’s eye on only one kind of edit. If I’m doing a line edit on someone’s manuscript and I notice a typo, I’m going to point it out. I’ve tried to look the other way, but I want the work to be as good as possible, so I mark the error. Similarly, when asked for a copy edit, well, if the sentences are stumbling over clichés and characters are moving through physical impossibilities, I will mark that too.

But my first pass on my own work is to bring a line edit focus. And it should be the same for your work: focus on the craft, on the language you’ve used, on the images you’ve included, on the mood you want to convey. This focus strengthens your creative voice. You are the chef, so help your sentences offer the kind of magic that swallows your reader’s imagination whole.Imagined Book in Paris cemetary

Don’t spend your energy (or editing budget) on just getting the spelling perfect. That won’t matter if your story doesn’t hold anyone’s attention. And it won’t reflect what you want it to: a great story that connects with the imaginations of readers, editors and publishers.

At our Spring Thaw writers’ retreat, we kick off the weekend with a feedback session. Both Gwynn and I receive, in advance, up to ten manuscript pages from the writers attending the retreat. We each review those ten pages and make line and copy edit notes for the writers. And then we meet with them for a one-on-one chat about their work. We love hearing more about each writer’s plans. We talk about plot, about character development, about markets and agents. And sometimes, writers use that one-on-one to discuss an outline or query letter.

I think Gwynn and I enjoy it so much because we have both benefited whenever an editor or mentor met with either of us to comment on our work. It can make all the difference to be able to ask a question and feel safe in doing so.

Dr. Edit has the answers.radiation-33438

If you have any editing questions, why not write to Dr. Edit? The Doctor is always “IN” and ready to take your questions. Send an email to with Dr. Edit in the subject line; the Doctor will answer you directly and we’ll feature your questions and our answers in upcoming posts.