How Humor Can Make You a Better Writer

How Humor Can Make You a Better Writer

This post is by Gene Perret.

Following are a few quips that have something interesting in common:

You know what an agnostic is? A cowardly atheist.

Income tax returns are the most imaginative fiction being written today.

Be careful about reading health books. You may die of a misprint.

The common factor is that they were all created by distinguished writers. The first by novelist Herman Wouk; the second by journalist and author Studs Terkel; and the third by Mark Twain.



Many respected writers have dabbled in short, humorous writing. Mark Twain may be quoted as frequently as Will Rogers or Bob Hope. In fact, people probably read more of Twain’s
short, clever observations than they do his novels. Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward both are known for memorable one-liners. Herman Wouk, who authored The Caine Mutiny and Winds of War among other revered novels, actually began as a gag-writer for radio comedian, Fred Allen.

Creating short humorous sayings can be not only a pleasant diversion from more serious writing chores, but it can also enhance many writing skills. Following are a few:


Short, pithy one-liners have a structure just as longer forms do. Most witty sayings have a beginning, a middle, and an end—a form familiar to all writers. Spending a brief amount of time composing witticism can be excellent practice for all sorts of story telling. For instance, consider the tale told by this offering from James Thurber:

One martini is all right. Two are too many. Three is not enough.


Shakespeare warned that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Good humor should be short and to the point. Writing of any genre is more pleasant when it is compact and purposeful. Consider this short, sage, cleverly worded bit of advice from the legendary Ray Bradbury:

If you don’t like what you’re doing, then don’t do it.

Powerful Statement

All writing should be powerful, compelling, and persuasive. Aphorisms are an excellent exercise in writing energetically. Consider how strongly Mark Twain got the following message across:

It is better to remain silent and thought a fool than to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.

Clear Meaning

Excellent writing conveys the author’s meaning accurately and definitely. It avoids ambiguity and says to the reader exactly what it means to say. Brief, witty quips accomplish that superbly. They make a statement and they leave no doubt in the reader’s mind what is being said. Writing a few of them from time to time can sharpen any writer’s ability to communicate.

Noel Coward left no logical escape with this short statement:

I like long walks, especially when they are taken by people who annoy me.

Sentence Structure

One-liners often depend on the wording to deliver the punchline. How a sentence reads can often be as important to its effectiveness as what that sentence is saying. All writing, in fact, is dependent to a large part on the arrangement of the words. Once again, composing short, witty quips is excellent training in arranging the words to deliver the most powerful payload.

Here are a couple of superb examples from Mark Twain:

The coldest winter I ever spent in my life was one summer in San Francisco.

It’s better to deserve honors and not have them than to have them and not deserve them.


Writers deal in words.  They are the medium we use to paint our images. It was Mark Twain again who said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” Some wag amended that later to read, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between chicken and chicken pox.” Both quotes make the point that vocabulary is important to a writer.  Finding and using the perfect word makes the text crisper and more readable. The perfect word is often essential in writing short, humorous quotes.

Notice how adroitly Noel Coward employs vocabulary to make this point:

Work is much more fun than fun.

And Ring Lardner manipulated vocabulary superbly and whimsically in this famous quote:

“Shut up,” he explained.

All of us, of course, are busy with our writing responsibilities, both contractual obligations and speculative projects. Nevertheless, we should take relaxation breaks occasionally. Why not use that time to develop more writing techniques? Creating short, pithy quotes is not only beneficial, but fun. Write one, two, or three a day. Heck, write one, two, or three a week. The number doesn’t matter so much as the effort. I’m sure you’ll find the exercise helpful.

Keep a notebook of your “gems” and perhaps someday you’ll be quoted as often as Mark Twain, Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, and other writers who may be almost as witty as you.

Have fun doing it.

About the Author: Gene Perret has written comedy material for such legendary performers as Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller, Carol Burnett, Tim Conway, and others, and has worked on many classic television shows, including The Carol Burnett Show, Welcome Back, Kotter, and Threes Company. Perret has won three Emmy Awards and one Writer’s Guild Award, and he is the author of over 40 books, including his latest, The Ten Commandments of Comedy. available from Quill Driver Books.

Tell me your opinion: Do you try to include comic elements in your stories?

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K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. I don’t try, but recently it keeps happening. Weird.


  2. Thanks so much for stopping by and sharing with us today, Gene!

  3. Anonymous says

    Lauren…often it’s the ones that happen spontaneously that are the most effective. Go with it and enjoy.

    Gene Perret

  4. I believe that the classic elements of comedy, as described here, are almost a lost art. People rely these days too much on ridicule and foul language. Learning what real humor is and using it is a valuable tool and never out of style. Thank you so much for this clear, reminder.

  5. Anonymous says

    Steve…I agree with you. Sometimes we abandon the basics so much that we forget how to get back to them. Humor is a powerful tool and a way for people to share and spread enjoyment. It’s a pity when we get away from that. Thanks for your comment.

    Gene Perret

  6. Pithy post, Gene. Pithy it’s not longer.

  7. Trevor…

    I tried to read your comment out loud and bit my tongue. Thanks for your comment. It’s easy to tell that you have a good sense of humor and do enjoy laughing. That’s great.

  8. I personally find witty and sarcastic humor to be the most effective. Those sorts of jokes that can fly over some people’s heads, are funnier for those of us who get it. I re-read Tom Sawyer not that long ago, and had never laughed so much reading a book. Mark Twain is hilarious.

  9. Karoline…Intelligent humor is powerful. Some of the writers in television call those sort of lines “think jokes.” A technique that I call “saying it by not saying it” can be quite effective. That’s where the comic doesn’t give the punchline, but allows the audience to figure it out for themselves. One example — Bob Hope said of Jerry Ford when he retired to Palm Springs, “There are 86 golf courses in the Palm Springs area and Jerry Ford never knows which one he’s going to play until his second shot.” It doesn’t “say” that Ford hits the ball all over the place, but the audience figures it out. Henny Youngman did a joke — “I didn’t talk to my wife for three months. I didn’t want to interrupt.” The audience gets the implication even though HY doesn’t say it explicitly.

  10. I also love Mark Twain — his brand of humor is the only kind I find funny, since everything else tends to be repetitive or too predictable. I’m trying to add some to my WIP, even though it isn’t particularly humorous, just to lighten it up a bit and add character to some of the secondaries, since I think books without any levity or witticism are often boring.

  11. Great tips K.M. I’m going to use some of these in my next humor post.

  12. I should not have read this post with a sore jaw. Laughing hurts!

  13. Fantabulous post! And so true! Thank you!

    Now, we all go behind the lightning… and not the lightning bug!

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