Monthly Archives: May 2016

Be an Online Critique Geek

Not so long ago, when you were ready to share your writing, your only option was to collect a few creative people with printouts of their manuscripts and bring them together in the same place. Many writers still critique this way—sitting together around a café table or living room. The feedback they receive and the relationships they build are an important part of their writing lives.

But today, we have more choices. The Internet offers possibilities most of us never imagined, and the evolution of critique forums is no exception. Some writers seem to think online critique groups are simply a fallback for those who can’t find an in-person group—but in fact, online forums offer their own unique set of advantages for critiquers. More and more writers are making active choices to critique online, and they’re reaping the benefits.

Whether you’re considering critiquing online, or already using these forums but wondering if you’re approaching them the best way, read on to find out how to master the domain.

Maximizing the Medium
Everybody has their reasons for communicating on the Web, from a tight schedule to a portable lifestyle to an introverted personality. Among the biggest advantages unique to the online critique format are:

FLEXIBILITY: When you critique online, you have no group meetings to schedule and no commute to receive feedback. You never have to spend precious writing time cleaning your house or preparing refreshments because it’s your turn to host the weekly meeting. Many online critiquers happily read manuscripts in their pajamas and bunny slippers. L.K. Madigan, author of Flash Burnout, says, “I don’t have time to meet regularly in person with a group, but I can always critique a manuscript and deliver the feedback, at 5:30 a.m. or 10 p.m.”

YOUR CHOICE OF GROUPS: Would you prefer to exchange feedback only with other writers who have firsthand experience with the ins and outs of your genre? Are you looking for critique partners who share the challenges of your lifestyle or routine—say, other working moms? Or do you want to find experts who can help you get your how-to book into shape? When you’re confined to your local area, it can be tough to find a group that matches your specific needs. Online, critique forums abound for every level of experience and every type of writing. Spend a little time searching, and you’ll find one that’s just the right fit.

FOCUS AND EFFICIENCY: Any group—in person or online—can be committed to serious critiquing and writing progress. Something happens, though, when you get rid of the coffeehouse lattes and the circle of chairs. Many writers active in online forums say critiquing across the Internet cuts down on chitchat and amps up productivity. “There are no wasted meetings, no meetings where we don’t discuss everyone’s work, no meetings where we veer off topic,” says Angie Fox, author of A Tale of Two Demon Slayers. What there is, in an online group, is critiquing.

Finding a Group
Let’s face it. The Internet is big. So once you’ve decided to critique online, where’s the best place to look for partners? If you don’t already have some potential candidates in mind, here are some good places to start your hunt.

TAKE AN ONLINE WORKSHOP. Online writing classes are some of the best places to connect with other writers looking to improve their craft. When choosing a course, look for one in which you’ll be submitting your writing for critique feedback from both the instructor and the other students. After spending six or eight weeks with these writers, you’ll have a strong idea of the group’s “chemistry,” how everybody writes and how they critique. When the class finishes, consider inviting a few favorites to start a separate critique group with you, or—if everybody works well together—you can all decide to continue what you’ve already started.

GET INVOLVED. Many online writing communities, such as Absolute Write (, have discussion boards where participants can talk about writing, publishing and, yes, critiquing. Some have a single forum where you can browse for openings in existing groups or post a note about looking for critique partners. Others offer an entire section of genre-based critique forums, where you can find and join established groups of children’s authors, memoirists, you name it. Many such groups implement a simple application process for writers interested in joining, so be sure to have a chapter or story ready to submit in case a writing sample is requested.

JOIN A CRITIQUE FORUM. If you are ready to start getting feedback and all you need are partners, consider joining a forum designed exclusively for online critiquing, such as Critique Circle ( Some of these forums are free, while others require a sign-up fee. These platforms typically have a structured system for you to critique other writers’ submissions and to receive feedback on your own work. At some sites, you’ll be asked to deliver a few critiques to start, until you’ve built up a “credit”—at which point you’ll be allowed to post your own writing. This ensures a balanced level of give and take so all members are participating equally. Other forums are managed in a more open style, with those writers who critique consistently being rewarded organically with a steady flow of feedback. “People who submit too much—without doing a commensurate amount of critiquing—soon find their submissions languishing,” says Gary Presley, assistant administrator for The Internet Writing Workshop ( “There is an element of self-correction in any cooperative endeavor.”

Choosing the Right Partners
If you’re used to making friends face to face, meeting writers online can feel a bit intimidating. Shake yourself out of the old ways, and try these steps to find the best fit for you and your writing.

SET GOALS. What do you want in a critique group? Take an honest look at yourself—how much critiquing and writing you’ve done, how focused you are on a specific genre, and how much time you’ll be able to commit to reading and critiquing the work of your future partners. Give yourself the most honest answers possible and, as you browse for groups, see how well the authors and their writing mesh with what you’re hoping to get from the whole critiquing process—and with what you’re willing to give. A strong group can support writers with a wide range of skills and experience, but the more you know about yourself and your needs, the more likely you are to find the right group quickly.

TAKE TIME TO GET ACQUAINTED. When you decide to start critiquing online, don’t jump into the first group you find. If you’re exploring a writing community, stop in at a few of the forums designed for conversation, rather than critiquing, and start participating and connecting. If you sign up with a forum, go happily into any requirement that asks you to critique before being critiqued—it’s an opportunity to see what others are writing, to watch responses to your feedback, to participate in an exchange of ideas and to see who fits nicely into your comfort zone.

Maybe you’re looking to build your own group,independent of any writing website. Read some blogs, chat with writers on Facebook and Twitter, and touch base with your new friends about who’s interested in swapping critiques. Then build your own partnerships from there.

One of the common myths about online groups is that they’re all business, that online critique partners can’t be as close as those who share a physical space every two weeks. Not so. “We’re friends,” says Kate Douglas, author of HellFire. “We communicate about everything, from grandkids, kids and husbands, to the current state of the publishing business.” These days, a critique group is a group, no matter “where” it meets.

GIVE YOURSELF A TRIAL PERIOD. When you join a group or start critiquing at a forum, you are not stepping into a puddle of glue. You don’t have to stick with any group that isn’t working for you, and it can actually be simpler to step out of an online group than an in-person one. Submit a few short pieces, or a few chapters of your book, and take time to think about the comments you receive. Critique the other writers’ work, see how you feel about their projects, and watch how they respond to your feedback. Don’t lower your commitment level to your writing or critiquing, but do decide whether or not a specific group is the best place for you to be sharing your work. If you’re not in the right place, ease out with respect and professionalism, and keep looking. Remember, it’s your choice.

Build Platform in 5 Minutes a Day

But as long as you view your writing as art and your self-promotion efforts as the furthest thing from art, your chances of ramping up a successful 21st-century writing career are going to remain slim to none.
These days, there’s an art to writing and an art to self-promotion. From the moment you start putting words to the page, it’s never too early to start thinking about how you’re going to share them. And once you begin to see your writing and promotional efforts as equally artful, something wonderful starts to happen: You find readers.

Books aren’t written overnight—they’re developed one day at a time. And it’s the same with our platforms, which comprise all the ways we make ourselves visible to our readers. The idea that you need a platform might seem overwhelming at first. But if you consistently take small steps to put yourself out there, before you know it, you’ll have built a strong, sturdy foundation for your work.

So, if you’re the kind of writer who prefers being read to being unknown (who doesn’t?), here are 50 quick, simple ways to launch your platform into action. Think of each small step as a giant leap toward finding readers—and a fun, rewarding opportunity to share your hard-wrought words with others.

Listen & Learn

1. Find Your Keepers. Clarify the kinds of readers you want to connect with now, and you’ll be glad you did later. First, jot down a quick list of all the types of readers you’ve ever had. Now, decide which groups you want to stay connected with for the long haul, and make them your keepers.

2. Start Surveillance. Google Alerts ( can help you become practically omnipresent in only a few clicks. Take five to set up alerts to notify you when your name, articles, book(s), Twitter handle, site URL and/or specialty topics pop up online. When you’re alerted to people promoting your name, supporting your work or sharing your ideas, stick out your virtual hand and say, “Hey, thanks! I appreciate that.”

3. Poll for Solutions. Ask questions. You’ll get answers. If you’re wondering which online photo hosting service to use, or if others are having the same server problems that you are, try posting the question on Facebook and Twitter. I do this often, and love coming back and reading what others have said. If it’s a decision you’re making, share which advice you followed.

4. Show Respect. On social networks, follow and friend folks in your field whom you admire. Steer clear of anyone shifty, clingy or shilling stuff all the time. A good rule of thumb: Don’t promote or forward the causes of anyone online who you wouldn’t in regular life. It takes time to get to know people, but it’s worth it when your reputation is on the line.

5. Study the Competition. Jump on a search engine and type in the keywords that describe what you write about. See who pops up on your radar. Don’t be afraid of the competition; study your competitors. What are they doing better than you? Add what you learn to your to-do list.

Create Context

6. Introduce Yourself. Take a few minutes to write a brief bio you can use wherever your name appears online. Include your URL, relevant professional credentials, recent publications (online or off), significant self-published efforts and professional partnerships.

7. Show Yourself in Action. I’m willing to bet you have a whole bunch of photos of yourself out and about doing what you do. If some are shots of you writing, great. But even better if you have some decent-quality photos of you speaking, teaching a workshop, signing books or the like. Collect them, and use them to accompany your posts online.

8. Post Ads and Affiliate Links. You need to make money to invest money in your platform, so why not make the most of the resources and tools you already like? You won’t get rich from affiliate revenue, but it can add up over the course of a year and cover some of your ongoing platform expenses. It takes minutes to post an ad or affiliate link on your website or blog.

9. Hold an Event. Have an event with a time limit (like one week only, or 30 days). Create whatever type of environment is appropriate for what you write—perhaps an activity where something has to be completed in a certain amount of time so there is a ticking-clock factor (think NaNoWriMo). Create an environment that draws your tribe in, helps people interact and get to know one another, and converts folks into loyal fans who will keep coming back for more. Dream something up.

10 Grade Yourself. HubSpot makes free graders ( that can gauge the effectiveness of your website, blog, Google Alerts, Facebook page, Twitter account and more. Each grader takes less than five minutes to run. Do so periodically, and add its suggestions to your to-do list.

Contribute Content

11. Give It Away. Spread the word across your social networks for everyone to come and get whatever you can give for free. If you already wrote an article that you don’t plan to sell, why not give it away? Maybe you created something inspirational or uplifting. Give it away. People love free.

12. Brainstorm 20 Ideas. If you don’t constantly ask yourself what new ideas you have, half of them will get away. And then you’ll have to read your idea on someone else’s blog, or in a magazine or newspaper with someone else’s byline. That’s how the zeitgeist works. So get in the habit of writing down your ideas, perhaps in a special idea journal. Drain your brain into it five minutes at a time.

13. Put Your Best Forward. Make sure people who are just discovering your offerings can go straight to some of your best online writing that has passed the test of time. Otherwise it’s just going to get buried under your latest efforts. Most blogs have widgets that will do the rounding up for you. Create a way to send fans and followers straight to your best posts.

14. Recycle. Take a few minutes to pitch content you’ve already written to a new outlet. Can you find a blog, forum or association newsletter that might be interested in your topic? Put some of your old writing to work all over again for fresh eyes.

15. Review Worthy Writers. Inquiring readers want to know what books you like and why. Briefly review books as you read them and post your insights on review sites (like GoodReads, and Red Room). For good karma, sing the praises of your all-time favorites, too.

Cultivate Community

16. Prompt a Response. A prompt is a suggestive word or theme that cues an interactive response from others. It can be as simple as a photo, symbol or word, or as complicated as a riddle. When hosting an annual book giveaway, I asked a question each day for a month, and everyone who answered was entered in the drawing. Participants loved the prompt more than the free books. It’s a fun way
to interact with your growing online community.

17. Take Five to Interact. Reply to commenters on your blog. Thank people who used your free content. Think of three people to appreciate for any reason at all. Spend a little bit of time with those who’ve gone out of their way to care about you.

18. Make an Engaging Offer. If you’re working on a project and you need people to get involved, offer something—say, a discount or kickback—to the first 50 who express interest. Create excitement for those who are willing to work with you.

19. Form Strategic Partnerships. Who do you want to partner with? Being friendly and helpful should have no strings attached—but true partnerships are mutually beneficial, formal agreements in which each party is hoping to gain something specific. List three likely partners and reach out to them.

20. Create a Quickie Blogroll. Make a quick list of writers you admire. Then search for links to their blogs or sites to create your blogroll. Position your blog as an inspiring resource by going for quality, not quantity.

Be Authentic

21. Be Yourself. Advice that tells authors to act like brands encourages us to forget to act like regular people. But social media is made for people, not robots. The fact that you’re a writer and a parent or an uncle and a Packers fan or a vegetarian makes you interesting. Your readers and fans want you to be personable, not a one-topic ever-plugging broken record. Spend five minutes making a profile more you.

22. Put Passion Into Action. Let’s say you write literary fiction. Isn’t that harder to build a platform around? Nope. Take your passion online and put it to work. Don’t assume no one cares. Assume there are a million people out there like you, and start connecting with them. Take five to write a quickie mission statement about why you’re on fire about your topic. Reread it every time you get online. It will help focus your efforts.

23. Get Together. Let folks know that you’ll be speaking or signing or teaching (or whatever else you do) near them when you travel. Make yourself accessible.

24. Spark Conversations. Other people are just as passionate about your topic as you are. So get on Google, do a Twitter search, visit forums where your topic is trending and spend five minutes participating in a chat. If nothing is happening, strike up your own conversation.

25. Share the Journey. I bet you have a lot going on right now. Surely some of it is interesting. Or perhaps you have a fresh take on what you have on your plate that others would find humorous or refreshing. Update others on what’s happening right now. Don’t try to keep your ups and downs a secret. Curious fans love to be treated like insiders.

Synergize Connections

26. Friend and Follow Media Pros. Track down media folks related to your career thrust, and friend and follow them on social networks. Never come on too strong. Just be laid-back and friendly. And if you have social-media clout, don’t be surprised if they’re looking for you, too. Influential people will come to you when your passionate action makes you stand out.

27. Say Thanks. In five minutes you could crank out a handwritten thank-you note, stick a coffee or book gift card in there, address and stamp it. Why not do this at least once a month?

28. Articulate Your Allies. Who supports your work? Whose work do you champion? Identify someone you have mutually compatible goals with, and see how you can help each other. Suggest ways to cheer each other on.

29. Generate a Q&A. Create a series of questions on a topic you find fascinating, and then get interesting people in your genre or area of expertise to answer them in any format: a video chat, a written Q&A or an audio chat. It makes compelling content.

30. Shake Things Up. Don’t be one-note. Stop agreeing with everyone about everything and take five minutes to form a rebuttal (without turning it into a rant). Take a dull topic and make it interesting by putting a new spin on it or taking a contrarian stance. Get people engaged in the conversation.

Produce Yourself

31. Capture E-mail Addresses. Use a newsletter service or RSS feed service to create a place front and center on your site where folks can sign up to receive correspondence from you or to have your blog posts delivered to their inbox.

32. Go Multimedia. Bring old content to life using fresh media. Spend five minutes practicing reading something you’ve written out loud into your smartphone. Or boil down a chapter or article into five tips off the cuff and record them unscripted. Let your words riff. Don’t try to make it perfect.

33. Ask for Feedback. To learn to do what you do better, get your audience involved. Create a five-minute feedback form and send it out.

34. Outsource Something. Take five to consider all the hats you wear: the creative, the closer, the perpetual student, the accountant, the publicist, etc. Identify a weakness that someone can help you with now. Then hire or solicit the support you need.

35. Share More. One common mistake we make is slaving over our content to make it perfect, thinking that if we do, readers will come to us. But too often, no one comes! Work hard to maximize everything you write. I’ve counted 49 ways you can use the “Share This” button to buzz content you want to champion. Get this button for your blog and browser now.

Publicize Yourself

36. Hunt and Answer. Don’t forget the traditional media. Answer media requests at Help a Reporter Out ( In five minutes you can find and respond to at least one appropriate media request. Make a game of how fast you can weigh in. Every post is another way to get your name out there.

37. Grow Your List. Wherever you go, whatever you do, bring along your e-mail sign-up sheet on a clipboard. Even better if you can offer a benefit for signing up, such as a free story, checklist or special report. Never sell or share contact information.

38. Think Ahead. What do you have coming up? Keep a list of any future events and publications on your blog, in your newsletter, on social media and in your e-mail signature. Update it often.

39. Compartmentalize. Segment your e-mail lists by what folks need from you, not what you need from them. I wouldn’t send attendees of my Northwest Author Series the same correspondence that I send my former students or my e-zine subscribers. Each e-mail group gets its own type of correspondence. Reorganize your e-mail groupings.

40. Master the 5-Minute Release. Zoom in on the latest happenings, holidays and story hooks and tie your career news in with what else is going on in the world. Write five-minute mini press releases and send them out at least monthly. Short is good.

Very Hungry Caterpillar

unduhan (6)Let’s step once again into the role of the unconvinced, perhaps even curmudgeonly or fool-hearted editor: What harsh rejection letters might the authors of some of our favorite hit books have had to endure?

This issue’s contribution comes from Kristina Wojtaszek, who tackled Eric Carle’s children’s classic, The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

March 2, 1968

Dear Mr. Carle,

Thank you for the submission of your colorful book THE VERY HUNGRY CATERPILLAR. We appreciate all efforts to bring the natural world to life for our young readers. Unfortunately, I found quite a few holes in your story.

I’m going to assume you meant your main character to be a representation of the azalea caterpillar (Datana major). This is the closest match I can make to your fearsome, redheaded caricature. It seems you intended the caterpillar to be the larva of a butterfly (in which case you should have called its “home” a chrysalis), but this species is in fact a drab moth. I’m sure you can see how this could be quite confusing for a budding naturalist.

Also, I was highly disappointed by the sudden gluttony exhibited as your creature gorged on such ridiculous foods as sausage and suckers. I was reminded of the Danish folk tale “The Fat Cat,” and wondered if next he might eat his way through a child! In fact, most caterpillars thrive on the leaves of a singular species of plant. It would also have been prudent to show that caterpillars do not simply inhale anything in sight and instantly become portly (per your depiction). There is a succession of skin shedding that usually occurs over a longer time period than one week.

In short, I don’t think the parents of our sensitive readers would appreciate a caterpillar with a face like “The Scream” that revels in obesity and then morphs into an alien species of butterfly. We wish to inspire a great wonder for animals in nature with our published works, as well as to portray them as accurately as feasible. I suggest you take a course in entomology before submitting another such fantastical tale.

The funny of Consistent Tone

unduhan (5)If you find yourself having a difficult time sustaining one tone over a long work, try these three tricks.

1. Find a paragraph that sounds exactly the way you want to sound for this work, and tape it to your computer so that it’s always in front of you.

2. Each time you’re about to return to the piece, spend 20 minutes reading the work of an author who writes in the tone you’re after. We’re natural mimics. You might try taking this a step further by more closely examining the sentence rhythms and word choices and looking for ways to make them your own. John Lukacs once said, “Style begins the way fashion begins: Somebody admires how the other man dresses and adapts it for himself.”

3. Starts and finishes are especially important to tone. When revising your work, try moving some of your best sentences, the ones with energy and just the right tone, up to the top of your document: “I’m so looking forward to Christmas this year. It will be the only day in December not entirely consumed by children’s theater performances.” Could the piece begin this way? Experiment with moving equally strong sentences to the conclusion of your piece, for a cohesive ending.

Dear Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,

Thank you for submitting your gothic horror manuscript, Frankenstein. Or, 
The Modern Prometheus. While I personally consider myself an avid and open-minded fan of science-fiction fare, I must respectfully decline your monster story for several reasons:

* Your mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein, is merely a student of chemistry and alchemy, and not a licensed physician. He is a researcher, at best. With nary a mention of a medical degree, an aide, midwife, shaman or nurse, I believe Frankenstein’s surgical tomfoolery would be libelous.

* The 8-foot-tall yellow-skinned monster is described as parentless, nameless and devoid of a sense of self and identity. Furthermore, you refer to your protagonist as a  “creature,” “fiend,” “demon,” “wretch,” “devil” and “ogre.” How can a semi-mute, yellow beast be a child’s favorite plaything? I’m not quite sure what textile the world’s leading doll maker in England—or even Europe—could possibly develop to lure kids to buy a soft, cuddly Frankenstein doll, but I doubt such material even exists. An electric Frankenstein rattle? Once again, I predict lawsuit.

* From the beginning, the monster is rejected by everyone he meets, and by receiving no love, he becomes embittered. Where’s the absurdist comedy?! A long way from being light and escapist, this monster fantasy forces the heart and mind to do flip-flops. I am still experiencing nightmares. And your book jostled sad memories of my own fatherless upbringing, though you couldn’t have known my private affairs—or, could you?

* Your comparison to Prometheus is rather sloppy: Prometheus’ goal was to better mankind by providing fire from the heavens. Victor Frankenstein believes his experiment will create an ultimate being, which will help mankind … but the creature turns on him and kills all of his loved ones. So, to recap: A workaholic, self-centered non-doctor creates a monster that ends up disloyal and homicidal.  Like a person can dabble in cloning! My, my, Mrs. Shelley, you do possess a comedic flair, after all.
With no relation whatsoever,

Best Humor on Dialy

Stuck at a lamentably uninspiring family reunion, kids’ birthday party, corporate team-building workshop or never-ending conference call? Don’t sneak off to hide in the bathroom just yet. We’ve got the top 10 humor websites guaranteed to make you laugh and waste untold hours your time. Check out our picks for the best time-wasters on the web. You’re welcome.

College Humor. It doesn’t matter if you are 5, 10 or even 25 years out of college. The epic humor on this  site is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud and continuously spam all your friends on Facebook. Who could pass up hits like 5 Websites Your Parents Think Exist, John Stamos’ Guide to Cuddling and classic infographics such as Flowchart: Does the Person You’re Talking to Want to Hear About Your Dream?

The Onion. One of the most popular satirical newspapers on the web, the Onion features humorous parodies of national and international news such as Report: Fax Machines Still Pretty Impressive If You Think About It and God Urges Rick Perry Not To Run For President.

Aiming Low. Why try to be perfect and set yourself up for hideous failure when you can aim low and be a superstar at mediocrity all year long? Join the tribe at Aiming Low where you can find out how Your Awkward Phase Made You Awesome and how to abide by simple social graces like Don’t Soil Your Drawers and Other Tips for Living a Successful Life.

I Can Has Cheezburger. Lolcats, loldogs, memes, funny videos, fail blogs and more. The side-splitting viral buzz at I Can Has Cheezburger will keep you from being productive now or ever. Warning: Don’t visit this site unless you have copious amounts of time on your hands and/or a good excuse lined up for your impressive unproductivity.

Funny or Die. Don’t miss out on this popular website where you get to enjoy pee-in-your-pants content and then vote whether it’s funny or die.

Insert Eyeroll. Take a looksie at the wickedly hilarious satirical journalism on this site where you can read LOL parodies like 4 Sex Moves that Will Keep Your Man on The Couch and Internet Believes Jessica Alba Would be Even Hotter with a Can Opener for a Foot. Click. Laugh. Repeat.

The Animated Woman. Is animated humor your gig? Then swing by the Animated Woman where hilarious and heartfelt cartoons are sure to make you smile. ROFL faves include The Tinkle Fairy, My Boobs and 6 Top Reasons To Avoid DIY.

I Am Bored. You’ll never be bored with all the amusing videos, games and pics on this site. Watch and rank your personal favorites FTW.

Oddee. Are you the kind of person who can’t pass up a chance to read about the 8 Most Bizarre Body Modifications or the 14 Strangest Canned Foods? Then, make sure to visit Oddee where you will waste away countless hours of your day immersed in the odd, unusual and bizarre things of our world.

Cracked. Kill some time at the non-stop awesome Cracked where you will find yourself enlightened and entertained by articles like 25 Hidden Upsides to Living in a Zombie Apocalypseand 8 Ways Suburban Apathy Got Me Through Irene: A Hero’s Story.

The Funny Moment is Writing While Thinking Like a Comedy Writer

Does it sometimes feel as if your writing is a dog chasing its tail you circle around and around, but keep returning to the same themes, characters and ideas? But does the thought of going down a new path cause your palms to sweat and your heart to beat like a hummingbird who’s downed a double espresso? If so, you may have SWEATS: Serious Writer Experiencing Anxiety and Timidity Syndrome. The surest sign: You have on occasion referred to yourself as a “Serious Writer” without cracking a smile.

Fortunately, you don’t need medication to cope with your ailment all you need is a shot of Comedy Writing 101.

It doesn’t matter what writing style you call home; every writer can benefit from learning a few new tricks. If you’re a fan of such bestselling authors as Carl Hiaasen, Janet Evanovich, Christopher Moore or Maureen Dowd, you know that humor can be a great tool in many different genres. But beyond that, the reckless act of trying to be funny can free any writer from the fear of taking chances and boost creativity in unexpected ways.
With that in mind, here are 10 ways you can improve your writing by thinking like a comedy writer.

Incongruity is the main reason we laugh. When logic and familiarity are replaced by things that don’t normally go together, such as a man lying in a hammock in an elevator, humor arises naturally as our minds recognize that things are out of place and try to find a way to make them connect.

Donna Gephart, author of the Sid Fleischman Humor Award winning middle-grade novel As If Being 12¾ Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is President, notes: “I always strive for the unexpected quirky characters, unusual settings, wild plot ideas, etc. And I tend to find opportunities to sneak more humor into my books through successive revisions.” But incongruity is effective in other ways, too. Even if your goal isn’t laughter but simply keeping your readers engaged, you can use incongruity to keep things fresh by finding ways to combine unexpected elements.

A great way to summon incongruity is an exercise I call the Journalistic Association List. Simply write the words who, what, where, when and why across the top of a sheet of paper and separate the columns with vertical lines. Then draw a horizontal line about halfway down the page. Choose your topic (the more concrete, the better—for example, “space travel”) and in the appropriate columns in the upper half of the grid, fill in all the words you naturally associate with the topic. Then ask yourself, What don’t I associate with this topic? Fill the bottom half of the page with your answers. (See Page 20 for a short example of what this exercise might look like, though yours should be much longer.) Select the most interesting associations, and consider: How can you use them to add interest to your work-in-progress?

Similar to incongruity is the idea of misdirection, a concept used by all writers who make readers believe they
are going down one path and then lead them astray. In comedy, the setup of a joke provides direction and the punch line provides misdirection, which is why it goes at the end.

“Learning the art of misdirection has benefited both my novels and my stand-up comedy by giving me the ability to zap an audience with the unexpected,” says bestselling mystery author L.J. Sellers, a former comedy-writing student of mine. But that doesn’t mean just throwing in a twist near the end of a story. Instead, consider using misdirection throughout any given piece in order to keep your readers guessing.

One of my favorite exercises for generating misdirected ideas is called Illogical Ways. First, choose a problem you’d like to resolve with misdirection. For example, let’s say you’re writing a novel and your main character needs to have a broken leg. Your goal is to find illogical ways for that to happen. Starting at the end of the alphabet (because it makes your brain work differently), list one illogical way for each letter. For example:

• In a ZEBRA stampede
• Slipping on nonfat YOGURT
• A XYLOPHONE accident
• WEARING pantyhose too tight, causing her to trip …

You can use this exercise to push even the most benign details of your stories beyond the obvious, keeping your readers enthralled along the way.

Comedy relies on repetition. Watch a sitcom and notice how often something is repeated before the big laughs come. The magic number is usually three—an action is repeated twice, and then the third time, the writer goes for the hilarity.

But repetition serves a purpose beyond just building the joke: It gives readers a feeling of being an insider, someone who knows what’s going on because they were there the first time. Whether you’re striving for humor or not, consider how you might use repetition and the “rule of three” as devices to achieve this.

Building on the idea of repetition, the running gag is a popular comedy device. A running gag is an amusing character, situation or catchphrase that reappears throughout a work. It’s easiest to illustrate this concept using examples from TV comedies: On “Cheers,” everyone yells “Norm!” every time that character comes into the bar; on “Home Improvement,” Wilson’s face is always obscured by something; and whenever Rose (Betty White) starts to tell the other women on “The Golden Girls” a St. Olaf story, the laughs begin before she even reaches the punch line.

You can draw on the effective idea of a running gag without it actually being a “gag.” Simply introduce an endearing character quirk into your next short story, or end an essay or article with a recognizable tagline, and you’re there.

A callback refers to using a memorable line from the beginning of a piece later in another context. This is an excellent tool for creating a feeling of completion in readers’ minds. Fans of Dave Barry will recognize this as something he frequently uses to close his humor columns. (Once you’ve finished reading this article, you’ll see I’ve used it as well). The great news is, a callback doesn’t have to be funny to work. Try it and see.

It’s very hard to write funny or innovative stuff if you’re in a serious mood, so I always strive to be as childlike as possible when approaching my craft. As children we were motivated by fun and didn’t have an inner critic whispering in our ear, “Is this project leading to something worthwhile and productive?” Most researchers and parents agree that young children (from 3-7) laugh much more often than most adults. Clearly we knew something decades ago that would come in handy now.

No matter your genre, lack of playfulness can drain the creativity out of your writing faster than a leaky bathtub drains chocolate milk and Lucky Charms. The best way to introduce more childlike fun to your writing is to follow Shakespeare’s advice: “The play’s the thing.” Of course, he meant this in another context—but this article is about taking things out of context, so go for it! Play with your children or your pets. Take an improv class. Dance badly to your favorite music. Take recess instead of a coffee break. Just make sure your inner 5-year-old has a chance to play at least once a day, and even more often when you’re facing a writing deadline.

Of all genres, humor is one that lends itself best to short-form writing, which is why it’s a great field for writers with commitment issues. Stalled in your efforts to write the Great American Novel? Take a break and write sticky notes, greeting cards, one-liners and T-shirts instead. I do. Behold, some of my recent work:

• On an apron: My other apron burned in the fire.
• On a sticky note: You’re not the boss of me. Oh, wait, you are. My mistake.
• On a button: I’m now available in 3-D. Glasses not included.

The beauty about learning to write short and snappy is that it can help anyone create attention-grabbing titles, subtitles and sidebars. Gephart, who has written for a humorous greeting card company, agrees: “I think my practice writing short, funny lines … helped tremendously in my ability to come up with catchy titles for my novels.”

A great exercise for honing this talent is to set a clock for 10 minutes and try to write as many bumper
stickers as you can on a topic you’re currently exploring in your writing. When you’re done, choose a favorite.

How might you put it to good use?

One of the truisms in comedy writing is that it takes most writers approximately 10 attempts at a joke to create the funniest punch line. This is a great rule to remember as you’re rewriting your feature article for the seventh time. If things are going well, you’re way ahead of the game.

The rule of 10 also works in brainstorming, which is why I teach my writing students to use top 10 lists to come up with titles, plot points or character names. The most important part of this exercise is writing a headline that stimulates creativity. Instead of Top 10 Good Names for a Bad Guy, for example, try Top 10 Unexpected Names for a Bad Guy, or Top 10 Nicknames a Bad Guy Might Have Had in Middle School. The point is this: No matter what you’re writing, you should never settle for the first thing that comes to mind. Only good can come when you push yourself further.

Comedy writers and comedians tend to push buttons and boundaries. Think of Mae West, George Carlin, The Smothers Brothers, Larry Gelbart, Richard Pryor, Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock, to name a few. It may be that people who are attracted to writing funny have fearlessness built into their DNA, or perhaps comedy is a socially acceptable form of expressing outrage at society’s foibles.

Fearlessness and unflappability, however, are important for any writer. The minute a voice says, “Don’t go there,” you may find that rejecting that advice will lead you to the most important writing adventure of your life. I’ve written many humorous political essays and wondered what consequences might ensue. But I haven’t let it stop me—despite the fact that I once came home to a message on my answering machine that began, “This is a call from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. …”

Comedy writers who also perform are regularly exposed to others’ material. As a stand-up comic for the past 20 years, I’ve witnessed the work of several hundred other comedians. Watching and listening to them has influenced who I’ve become as a writer and performer.

In the same way, all writers should regularly learn from other writers. If you’re a poet and don’t attend local poetry slams, you’re missing out on the rush of creative thought that happens when you’re around others who do what you do. If you’re a writer and don’t participate in writing groups or conferences, now is a great time to change that.

With the idea in mind of exposing yourself to others’ work, I’ll leave you with one last exercise, which I call Where Do We Go from Here? Just write down a sentence or two from any piece of writing by a favorite author, then use that as a prompt to write two pages in your own style, going in any direction you want. For example, where would you go from Dorothy Parker’s, “I’d love to dance with you. I’d love to be caught in a midnight fire at sea”? Or how about Gelbart’s, “I don’t know why they’re shooting at us. All we want to do is bring them democracy and white bread”?

With all these techniques for pushing beyond the expected, learning to be silly and reaching outside your genre, it should be easier to approach new projects from a different perspective. And if you become a better laugher and have more fun at the same time, I won’t tell anyone. Your status as a Serious Writer is safe with me.