Laugh!

Post 82 / Hour 86: Humor Critique: Seizure Lady, Psycho Man and the Jersey Boys, Part 3

By Lynne Paris-Purtle / Dave Fox

100hours-logo2“Shorter is better. You should always make that your mantra in life,” said the five-foot-three-and-a-half-inch tall writing instructor to his class. (That’s 162 centimeters for my friends out there who operate under the metric system.) Of course, he was joking, but there was a point that he was trying to make. You can write some of the best humor in the entire world, but if you are using too many words when you write it, there are several problems that you are going to run into. First of all, a lot of your jokes will get lost in all of the static. In addition, your readers will get bored because you’re making them sift through too many words in order to figure out what it is that you are trying to say, so they will stop reading what you’ve written halfway through your story, and they will never finish it.

Want proof? Let’s rewind and start over….

“Shorter is better. Make that your mantra,” said the five-foot-three writing instructor. (That’s 160 centimeters for my metric friends.) He was joking but he had a point. You can write the best humor in the world, but if you’re too wordy, your jokes get lost in the static. Readers get bored sifting through too many words. They’ll never finish your story.

Whew! Much better! We’ve gone from 147 words in example one to 61 in example two without losing any of the meaning.

 

The preceding example is the beginning of lesson five from my six-lesson humor writing workshop.  If I wrote the entire lesson like that first paragraph, it would take twice as long to read and be harder to absorb.

Here we are in part three of my critique for Lynne Paris-Purtle’s story about teaching a challenging class. In this round, we look at what I consider the most important, most commonly lacking skill in beginning and intermediate writers: the ability to make your points in as few words as possible. Once you master this skill (which comes naturally once you get some practice), your writing will sound much more polished and professional. Tight writing is important in all genres, but especially in humor. Use too many words and your punch lines drown in the static, weakening the comedic impact.

(Disclaimer: As I’ve been blogging like crazy for the last 86 hours and am now on my 82nd post, my own work has not been as tight I would normally make it — so don’t look to articles I’ve written for this “100 Hours” event for good examples of tight editing!)

We saw Lynne’s original story in Post Number 80.  After reading lesson five, Lynne pruned it from 1,103 words to a leaner, meaner 786 — a much easier read. As you will see below, she used a variety of techniques — condensing phrases, eliminating unnecessary words, and lobbing out entire sections that were perhaps good writing, but which weighed down the story’s flow.

I then took her trimmer version and slimmed it down more. (Lynne quickly mastered the art of pruning, so she didn’t leave as much for me to cut as I find in some students’ work.) This is the sort of exercise that’s great to work on with a writing partner. In my class, you’ll find lots of other students to work with in our online classrooms — and if you’d like me to have a whack at your story, and point out recurring habits that keep your own writing wordier than necessary, you are welcome to use the additional add-on critiques for that. (I encourage it at least once if you are making a serious go at the course.)

Speaking of not being excessively wordy, how about if I shut up now so we can move on to Lynne’s edited tale? Below, you’ll see her revised and condensed version, which I have then taken and condensed further. My proposed changes are highlighted in red with other comments in blue. Following the marked-up version is the same revision without the mark-ups so you can read it more smoothly.

 

Hi Lynne!

Excellent job honing this down from 1,013 words to 786. You’ve done a really good job catching lengthy phrases that can be written in fewer words. One thing to still watch for is words and phrases that are unnecessary because they either are redundant or understood from the context. (For example, “A male student raised his hand.”) So I’ve slimmed things down further for you. This all gets easier with practice, and you are on the right track!

Here is my marked-up version:

I should have known it would be a lively semester when I got the letter from Health Services that announced in caps announcing: “ONE OF YOUR STUDENTS IS PRONE TO SEIZURES.  It outlined a series of steps that I was ordered to take in the event that if the student had an episode in my class. The steps included including  running outside to call the paramedics and keeping the student from hurting herself.

[I split that last sentence into two sentences because otherwise, running outside to call the paramedics could refer to the student having an episode, not to the steps you were supposed to take.]

I am I’m not good with anything medical. I get nauseous opening a Tylenol bottles.  So I figured  that this would be one for the books.

The first night of the class, I took the student,  aside, and asked her how likely she was to have a seizure.

“Oh, I have them all the time,” she chirped. “They took a MRI of my head but they didn’t find nothing there.”

Okay, so I knew why she had been placed in my remedial class.

Apprehensive, I began reading the roster. When I got to reached the “M’s,”  the woman  began stamping her feet and messing up her hair with both hands.  I sent a student out to call 911.   Four EMTs rushed in, in full regalia, including heavy duty firefighters’ raincoats (in case of spontaneous combustion?) and big bags of medical equipment.

The class gaped, as I herded them into the corner and continued roll.

After the paramedics left, as I  began my lesson, for the night when a male student in his early twenties stood up and unleashed an impressive stream of obscenities at me.  As I struggled to make sense of what was happening, “Seizure Lady”  began stomping her feet and messing up her hair again, so The paramedics were summoned and  trouped back in.  As they worked on the woman, “Psycho Man,” chimed in to provide a Rated X background to the mayhem.  Then two Italian boys from Jersey swaggered up to my desk, clenching their fists, to ask and asked, “Do you want us to take him out, Mrs. Purtle?”

The EMTs left again, and maybe Psycho Man’s meds kicked in, because all was quiet until the end of class.

I vowed that the next class would be better.  I called the Dean of Students and asked to have Psycho Man removed from the class.

“No, that isn’t possible,” she said.  The student has rights.” She looked up his record, which must have been impressive, though not in an academically-successful way, because she said, “Tell you what.  I willI’ll post an officer outside your door for the next 15 weeks.”

So that’s how I came to have a uniformed officer with a German shepherd pacing by the entrance to the classroom.

Class two began:  No foot stomping or hair ruffling from Seizure Lady.  No profanities from Psycho Man. However, there was a new character in town: Marty, the self-appointed social director for the class.

He raised his hand and asked if the class could have a party on the last day of the semester. “I make a marvelous orange chiffon cake,” he said.

When I let the class out for a  break, Marty started assigning students to bring paper goods, candy, chips and soda—for a party 14 weeks away.  Then  Seizure Lady came back from break and announced, “I just had another seizure!” and we ran to call the EMTs.  Right on cue, Psycho Man began swearing, causing the German shepherd to bark and growl.  None of this fazed Marty, who continued going from person to person jotting down on his list who would be responsible for bringing onion dip.

At the end of the class, the Jersey Boys stood protectively in front of my desk, clenching and unclenching their fists, and saying, “Why don’t you let us take him out, Mrs. P?”

For the rest of the semester, Seizure Lady, Psycho Man, the Jersey Boys, Marty, and Rin Tin Tin continued to make making it impossible to conduct a class.

On the last day, after Marty’s orange chiffon cake,  when I had waved goodbye to Psycho Man, pushed the Jersey Boys out the door, and given the German shepherd a thank you biscuit, Seizure Lady  told methat she was about to fly to Ireland—to testify in a lawsuit against a rental car company. The company that had rented her and her husband a car to drive to her cousin’s wedding. [I recommend splitting the previous sentence into two sentences simply because of its length.] Her husband, who had downed one too many glasses of Guinness, and crashed the car, and She was claiming a traumatic brain injury. The strange foot stomping, the wild hand waving of hands, the announcements she had a seizures during breaksall of it it all made sense now in light of the looming lawsuit.

Her parting words were, “I had another MRI, and they still didn’t find nothing in my head.

 

 

And for smoother reading, here are my proposed edits without the mark-up:

I should have known it would be a lively semester when I got the letter from Health Services announcing: “ONE OF YOUR STUDENTS IS PRONE TO SEIZURES.”  It outlined a series of steps to take if the student had an episode in my class. The steps included running outside to call the paramedics and keeping the student form hurting herself.:

I’m not good with anything medical. I get nauseous opening Tylenol bottles.  So I figured  this would be one for the books.

The first night of the class, I took the student,  aside, and asked her how likely she was to have a seizure.

“Oh, I have them all the time,” she chirped. “They took a MRI of my head but they didn’t find nothing.”

Okay, so I knew why she had been placed in my remedial class.

Apprehensive, I began reading the roster. When I reached the “M’s,”  the woman  began stamping her feet and messing up her hair with both hands.  I sent a student to call 911.   Four EMTs rushed in, in full regalia, including heavy duty firefighters’ raincoats (in case of spontaneous combustion?) and big bags of medical equipment.

The class gaped as I herded them into the corner and continued roll.

After the paramedics left, as I  began my lesson, a student in his early twenties stood up and unleashed an impressive stream of obscenities at me.  As I struggled to make sense of what was happening, “Seizure Lady”  began stomping her feet and messing up her hair again. The paramedics were summoned and  trouped back in.  As they worked on the woman, “Psycho Man,” chimed in to provide a Rated X background to the mayhem.  Then two Italian boys from Jersey swaggered up to my desk, clenching their fists, and asked, “Do you want us to take him out, Mrs. Purtle?”

The EMTs left again, and maybe Psycho Man’s meds kicked in, because all was quiet until the end of class.

I vowed the next class would be better.  I called the Dean of Students and asked to have Psycho Man removed.

“No, that isn’t possible,” she said.  The student has rights.” She looked up his record, which must have been impressive, though not in an academically-successful way, because she said, “Tell you what.  I’ll post an officer outside your door for the next 15 weeks.”

So that’s how I came to have a uniformed officer with a German shepherd pacing by the entrance to the classroom.

Class two began:  No foot stomping or hair ruffling from Seizure Lady.  No profanities from Psycho Man. However, there was a new character in town: Marty, the self-appointed social director.

He raised his hand and asked if the class could have a party on the last day. “I make a marvelous orange chiffon cake,” he said.

When I let the class out for a  break, Marty started assigning students to bring paper goods, candy, chips and soda—for a party 14 weeks away.  Then  Seizure Lady came back from break and announced, “I just had another seizure!” and we ran to call the EMTS.  Right on cue, Psycho Man began swearing, causing the German shepherd to bark and growl.  None of this fazed Marty, who continued going from person to person jotting down who would be responsible for bringing onion dip.

At the end of the class, the Jersey Boys stood protectively in front of my desk, clenching and unclenching their fists, and saying, “Why don’t you let us take him out, Mrs. P?”

For the rest of the semester, Seizure Lady, Psycho Man, the Jersey Boys, Marty, and Rin Tin Tin continued making it impossible to conduct a class.

On the last day, after Marty’s orange chiffon cake,  when I had waved goodbye to Psycho Man, pushed the Jersey Boys out the door, and given the German shepherd a thank you biscuit, Seizure Lady  told me she was about to fly to Ireland—to testify in a lawsuit against a rental car company. The company had rented her and her husband a car to drive to her cousin’s wedding. Her husband had downed one too many glasses of Guinness and crashed the car. She was claiming a traumatic brain injury. The strange foot stomping, the wild hand waving, the announcements she had seizures during breaks—it all made sense now in light of the looming lawsuit.

Her parting words were, “I had another MRI, and they still didn’t find nothing in my head.”           

Original version: 786 words
Edited version: 747 words

Again, many thanks to Lynne Paris-Purtle for letting us eavesdrop on her progress!


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Published on Tuesday, March 5, 2013

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