Be Your Own Humor Writing Coach

Use This Questionnaire to Punch Up Your Humor Writing and Make it Funnier

By Dave Fox

The view of Bùi Viện Street from one of my many makeshift offices.

I’ve developed this questionnaire to help students in my online humor writing course. I’m also posting it here for anyone to use. (Please note, this is offered for personal use and may not be redistributed to others or published without my permission.)

If you would like more in-depth, professional feedback on your writing, please visit my writing coach page. I work with writers in a wide range of genres and coach students all over the world via Skype, FaceTime, and phone. (I live in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and am also available for in-person coaching sessions if you happen to be here.)

You can also download a printable, PDF version of this questionnaire. The printable version does not include all of the instructions and suggestions you see on this page; however, it has space after each question for you to fill in your answers.


How to Use this Self-Critique Humor Writing Questionnaire

When you finish writing a story, use the questions below to analyze your writing and make sure your story is as strong as it can be. If you’re feeling stuck on something, you’ll find more info at the end of this page on how I can help.

Ready? Let’s go!


Your Lead

Does your lead paragraph hook your readers and make them laugh right away? How and why is your lead effective?

  • If you make people laugh from the outset, how do you do this?
  • If you don’t start out with a strong punch line, have you delayed the laughter for a reason, or does your lead need more work?
  • Usually, when writing a humor column, it’s best to hit readers with some hard laughter right away.
  • Occasionally, you can start with a lead paragraph that isn’t so funny, but it’s interesting enough that it still hooks your readers and lures them deeper into the story. If that is what you’re trying to do, then what in your lead makes the story compelling enough for people to want to keep reading?
  • If you don’t have any strong humor right off the bat, remember: comedy requires conflict. Find the conflict in your story (or create some) and you have a petri dish for laughter. Experiment and brainstorm lots of ideas!

Is there anything further down in your story that would make for a stronger lead?

  • Often when we write our rough drafts, we go through a “warm-up” process and don’t start hitting our comedy bulls-eyes until further down in the story. This is important to consider when revising. Sometimes, we discover that our super-hilarious sixth paragraph would actually be a great first paragraph.


Building Your Story

A common site in Vietnam: Your “tree” might actually be a motorbike. (Photo: flickr/peuplier – CC BY2.0)

Have you followed the “Hero Up a Tree” formula? If so, who is the “hero” in your story?

  • Remember, the term “hero” in this context is really just a word for “main character.” Your “hero” could actually be a villain. The hero in your story could also be you.
  • Your hero might not be a single person. It could be a group of people, creatures, or even inanimate objects; for example, your “hero” could be a political party, football fans, tourists, amoebas, karaoke machines, spam, etc.

What is the “tree” in your story and how does your hero get up in it?

What are the “rocks” you throw at your hero?

  • Your metaphorical “rocks” are anything that goes wrong or creates conflict in your story. What is the conflict in your story and why does it matter?
  • Are your rocks strong enough? Do you sustain, or build the laughter as your story moves forward? If yes, how and why? If no, what’s missing?
  • If your jokes aren’t hitting hard enough, remember, comedy requires lots of brainstorming. Look for lulls in the story. Is the problem in the set-up? The punch line?
  • “Rock throwing” is especially effective when the rocks get bigger as you go – in other words, the conflict builds, the situations get more absurd, etc. This isn’t always possible. If you’re writing a non-fiction humor column, you can’t always control the chronology in which events unfold. As a general rule, however, if you can start funny and get funnier, you’ve got a winning story.
  • One contradiction / caveat regarding the above point: Remember to still begin your story with something that will get a big laugh. Throw a real rock in your lead, not a pebble.

Have you “stretched your Silly Putty” for maximum laughs?

  • Is there anywhere you could stretch your proverbial Silly Putty further?
  • Is there anywhere you have overstretched and broken your Silly Putty?
  • (The Silly Putty concept is something I explain in my online humor writing course. Thanks to my pal, Bill Stainton, for introducing this idea to me many years ago!)


Wording and Structure

Is your writing as crisp and tight as it can be?

  • Have you combed through your story, sentence by sentence, to be sure you’ve not been excessively wordy? Are there words, phrases, or sentences that could still be deleted or tightened?
  • In places where you do use more words than necessary, is that intentional – for comedic effect (for example, if using the repetition technique, or making a character long-winded to exaggerate his or her personality) – or are there phrases you should shorten or eliminate altogether so that the laughs come more quickly?

ass-transportDoes each sentence and paragraph have a purpose that moves your story forward?

  • Is your story streamlined? Have you shot off on tangents in your rough draft that you should cut now? (Deleting your precious words can feel painful at times, but once you do it enough, you’ll realize that sometimes, throwing away funny material that drifts from your main point will improve a story. Remember, you can always use the jokes you throw out in other stories.
  • If you are struggling to cut sentences or paragraphs because you’ve fallen madly, obsessively in love with your words, then create a duplicate file. Save the original version. Shorten the duplicate. Then walk away from the story for at least a day. When you go back to it, read the shortened version first, then the original one, and see which one you like better.

How is your word choice? Have you examined the words, particularly in your punch lines, and considered funnier alternatives?

  • For example, if you’re sitting down in a cramped space, “I sat down,” is not as funny as “I squished (or wiggled, slithered, slunk down, etc.) into my seat.”
  • Also look at the actual things (a.k.a. nouns) in your story. Can you make your rocks bigger (more absurd)? For example, if you’re the hero in a fictional or semi-fictional tale, “I was attacked by a cat,” might be a funny rock to throw, but consider other less likely animals such as a raccoon, a badger, a platypus, a walrus, etc.

Do your punch lines fall in the right spot? Is there anywhere you need to fix this?

  • The funniest part of a joke, sentence, paragraph, etc., should land at the end of that word sequence. If you have extraneous details that trail off afterward, they swallow the punch line. (Like everything in comedy and writing, there are exceptions to this rule, but if you’re breaking the rule, be sure you have a good reason why.)
  • If you find spots where your punch line has not come at the end, you can deal with it by either moving that gangly, post-punch-line info into your set-up, or you can delete it.


Characters and Dialogue

When opportunity strikes, you must be ready to jump (for example, when your wife wants to take a selfie and she can’t see what you’re doing behind her.)

How do your characters’ personalities, mannerisms, etc., contribute to the humor?

  • Have you given your character(s) enough description for your readers to get a good sense of who they are? (And on the flip-side, have you given us too much detail that bogs your story down?)

Is there dialogue in your story? Is there enough of it? Does it add to the humor and are there any spots where it could be stronger?

  • You don’t need to have dialogue in a humor column but it can be useful in lending a variety of voices and attitudes.
  • Two or more people disagreeing or misunderstanding each other is an easy way to create comedic conflict.
  • Dialogue can also be a fun way to exaggerate a character’s quirks. The dialogue might be absurd, or it might be calm and laid back in a situation that doesn’t warrant being calm, for example.


Conclusion and General Review

How does your hero get down from the tree?

  • Endings are often the most challenging part of a story to write. One way or another, your “hero” needs some sort of a resolution.
  • When I’m stuck with an ending for my humor columns, my go-to technique is the callback, though all twelve of the comedy techniques I teach in this course can work, depending on the situation.
  • If you’re enrolled in this course, you’ll find more tips on how to wrap up your stories in the lesson entitled, “The End: Spiders Down the Drain and How to Take Advantage of Short Attention Spans.”

How do you feel about the end of your story? Do you leave your readers laughing? Will they feel like reading the story has been worth their time?


Final Thoughts

What do you like best about your story?

Is there anything in your story you are not happy with? Now that you’ve worked through this questionnaire you think of ways to fix this? Can you identify / describe what isn’t working for you?

Is there anything you can’t figure out how to improve or fix? Anything specific you need help with?

  • If you’re enrolled in my humor writing course on Udemy, please feel free to post your story in Udemy’s online Q&A forums for this course, along with a note about what you would like help with. I’ll take a look at it and see if I can offer suggestions.
  • Please be specific. I’m happy to answer questions such as, “I’m not sure this joke is working. What do you think?” Or, “My writing feels too wordy but I’m having trouble condensing it.” Or, “What would be funnier in paragraph five: a turtle or an emu?”
  • A thorough, paragraph-by-paragraph critique of a 600-800 word story takes me about an hour and we’ve got six story writing exercises in this course. Because Udemy sells my courses at very low prices, I thank you for understanding that I can’t respond to broad questions such as “Could you please read all of my stories and give me feedback.” Again, however, if you are signed up for my Udemy course, I’m very happy to answer more pinpointed questions in our Q&A forum once you’ve completed this questionnaire.
  • If you’d like more in-depth writing and humor coaching than I offer on Udemy, please keep reading!
  • If you’re not enrolled in my online humor course but you’d like to be, you can follow this link for a big discount.


Want More Help?

If you would like more in-depth professional critiquing, I also offer one-on-one writing and humor coaching, separate from Udemy, via phone, Skype, FaceTime, and e-mail. (And in person if you happen to be in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where I live.) Please see my writing and humor coaching page for details on how to hire me as your personal writing coach.

I’m also a certified life coach and work with creative people of all sorts on issues such as writing and creative blocks, productivity, distraction management, and publishing / performing fears.

For details on how to hire me as your coach, please check out my writing coach page.


Super-Affordable Online Travel Writing Courses

When I started offering online humor writing courses more than a decade ago, my workshops cost $389. I now offer a much cheaper, do-it-yourself version of my online humor writing course on Udemy. (The preceding link includes a coupon code to let you enroll for just $12.99!)

My Udemy course includes all of the same lessons and information as my original course (plus some new bonus material). It is, however, in more of a do-it-yourself format. The $389 version included six detailed, paragraph-by paragraph story critiques from me, plus six weeks of daily, online check-ins for students to talk about their writing.

If the more in-depth, more expensive version of this course sounds better to you, you can still have all the feedback I used to offer! Just sign up for a some one-on-one writer coaching sessions to go along with my Udemy course. You can can choose detailed written critiques, live conversations (on Skype, FaceTime, Google Hangouts, or the phone), or a combination of the two. (I live in Vietnam but have an American phone number that forwards to me here. I also offer in-person writing and life coaching in Ho Chi Minh City.) Drop me an e-mail if you’d like more info.

Published on Monday, September 3, 2018

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