Post 60 / Hour 65: A Humor Critique: Boys to Chimps (Part 2)
By Dave Fox and Colleen Landry
Singapore and Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada
In my last post, Colleen Landry, a student from one of my previous humor writing workshops, boldly offered to let me use one of her stories from the class – not only for us to read, but for us to scrutinize and pick apart. It’s bold of Colleen to share her work in this manner, and I thank her for letting us all learn from her writing process.
Now that you’ve read Colleen’s original story without my comments, here’s that same story from our class a few months ago, with my feedback inserted in blue. See what you can learn from my suggestions for Colleen:
First of all, nice job pegging your story to an actual statistic. (This is real, right?) Doing this lends an air of authority to your writing – and if this is from a study that came out recently, it also gives it a sense of timeliness.
…Which brings me to my next thought: A couple of your classmates have already touched on your tone which at times wafts into a scientific and/or journalistic voice. I would take this and run with it. While conversational, chatty humor is one way of connecting with readers, so is a tone of faux-authority – and that is what I’d do with this. Write it as if you have something extremely important to educate us about….
I recently came across a jarring statistic which revealed teenage boys do 2.5 minutes of household chores/day, as compared with girls who do at least thrice that . It’s appalling I know, but the facts don’t lie: there are obviously mothers out there with clout! How the heck did they get their boys to identify a finger, much less lift it? I was really depressed after reading this because based on my calculations, though our boys do contribute the minimal 2.5 minutes of their time to our household…it’s on a yearly basis: on Christmas morning when in a dazed and blissful gift-bloated state, they help pick up discarded wrapping paper. I quietly hum Kumbaya when it happens but I struggle with the other 364 days. Wondering why chimpanzee boys are easier to train than human ones, I researched some expert advice on the topic and correlated it with my own experiences:
Again, I’m assuming this was a real study. So can you tell us what it is? Watch what happens to your lead if you strip away the accidental, “I recently came across” attitude and instead write as if you are an expert, really on top of this situation. (I am, in spite of my love for Dave Barry, obviously making part of this up here since I don’t have all the info you have):
Teenage boys engage in an average of 2.5 minutes of household chores every day, according to a study published last week in the Vladivostok Journal of Teenage-ology. If you are the parent of a teenage boy, it is therefore imperative that you maximize your teenager’s usefulness during these 2.5 daily minutes….
Continue in that spirit. Keep your words as tight as possible, but also, use the kind of big words and confident phrasing that blowhard academic “experts” might use.
Also, I think you might be on to something with the chimpanzee reference, but you’re not quite there. We need some evidence that chimps are easier to train before you hit us with that assumption. If you don’t have said evidence, make it up! :-)
This could, by the way, be an article in which all hard-hitting and meticulously researched statistics are completely fabricated. If you go that route, just be sure you toss in enough examples that are ridiculous enough for your readers to figure out you have made them up.
- Start early– I did. I prided myself on weekly task charts that were taped to the fridge when our sons were younger. Each boy had his name attached to different chores and they got stickers as rewards for their hard work. It worked beautifully..until the oldest turned two and started whining about having to clean the toilets. Naturally, his 9 –month old brother followed suit and there went the polished floors.
I like the bullet point format, and the staccato first sentences (Start early. Be clear. Etc.) If you do go with this scientific / authoritarian approach, you might now strip away all of the personal references, and change them to instructions. For example, you write:
I prided myself on weekly task charts that were taped to the fridge when our sons were younger. Each boy had his name attached to different chores and they got stickers as rewards for their hard work.
You can change this to an instructive tone, like this:
Tape weekly task charts to the fridge. Award stickers for completed chores. …
(And then can you come up with a punch line concerning the unexpected influence of stickers on boys’ behavior?)
I love the surprise of making your son clean the toilet… when he’s two… and then cranking it up even more with thoughts of nine-month-olds polishing (or refusing to polish) floors. Can you now come up with a suggestion as to how to prevent this societal breakdown from occurring and ensuring your nine-month-old does not start slacking in his duties?
- Be clear– According to the National Institute of Health, teen boys’ developing brains contain more gray matter than girls’. Apparently, this limits their ability to fully process information because of the brain’s inability to make adequate connections. This makes it all the more important to clearly state what you expect from your son, and to include any hazy vocabulary that might trip him up. I tried this recently. I made sure I had his full attention and very slowly and clearly I said, “Alex, I would like you to empty the dishwasher within the next 10 minutes. Do you understand what I’m asking?” A film of confusion washed over his face and he asked, “What’s a dishwasher?”
Nice stretch here. Now… can you offer some advice to rectify the situation? (You will need this in part because of your next point….)
- Set realistic expectations– Overloading your loin fruits will do nothing but overwhelm them and make them feel bad. Remember, no one should suffer here, except you. Making unreasonable demands such as asking them to close the front door behind them and put the milk back in the fridge may cause unnecessary feelings of inadequacy in your children. Instead, build their confidence slowly, one lilliputian chore at a time. Note**If they ask what a fridge or a door is, see above.
Great punch line at the end of this section… except that you say, “See above,” when there is not any advice above – another reason I recommend expanding for one more sentence in the preceding paragraph.
- Use a firm voice– It’s important to use a calm, firm voice that shows you are in control, but not controlling. Keep your tone even, and leave your emotions at the door. Personally, I have never ever ever resorted to such immature tactics as spittle-laced screaming at those I love most in the world: “ Pick your $#@!! clothes up off the floor before I hang myself with them!” However, I do have a friend who did this and she said it doesn’t work, so save your lungs.
- Stand over them until they do what you ask– This one can be exhausting, but don’t give up. Generally, when you ask your strapping, capable and athletic son to perform a strength and agility-challenging task such as taking out the garbage, their response will be: “J’sec”. This is code for “I’ll die first.” Try to block out the fact that you never say “J’sec” when they ask you for drives, money, or your spleen for hockey fundraising auctions. Just rise above the crippling anger and say, “I’d like you to do it now, please.” It’s best to have a good book and a vat of mocha javas handy; those boy-men can be very principled when there is a threat of muscle –pulling and other potential job-related carnage.
Your tone will sound more authoritative if you strip out any “softening” adverbs such as “Generally.”
I love the “j’sec” line, and repeating it reinforces its use.
Well, the evidence is pretty clear. If you use the right combination of eye contact, consistency, clear language, and a firm but loving voice, you will have the same results as if you flushed your head down the toilet. Either adopt a girl or a chimpanzee and get a solid 7 minutes/day of free labor. If that doesn’t work, find your own dazed and blissful state. Studies show that rubbing alcohol is a quick and cheap favorite. You’ll find yourself humming Kumbaya for no reason at all.
Again, you will sound more authoritative if you write tightly and confidently: “Well, the evidence is pretty clear.” You are onto something very funny and strong here, Colleen. Try this over-the-top confident approach – with evidence supported by statistics or fabricated statistics – and watch what happens.
(Ahem… speaking of writing authoritatively, I have written this critique with some very specific suggestions. If you don’t like the tone I am proposing, let me know and we can kick around other approaches too.)
Again, many thanks, Colleen, for sharing your story with us! We’ll take a look at another, multi-sessin critique in a later post sometime before the “100 Hours” blogfest wraps up.
Interested in joining us in the new Globejotters’ Lounge and become a stellar humor writer yourself? Check out the link below.
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