Teachers Write 7.10.15 What’s So Funny? with guest author Sarah Albee

Fridays at Teachers Write are officially Friday Feedback days, hosted on Gae’s blog, so I hope you’ll pop over there if you’re ready to share a bit of your writing and to help others by providing supportive, thoughtful feedback. But we’re *also* going to have the occasional Friday posts here, too, because honestly…we had so many amazing volunteer authors that we couldn’t fit all of our mini-lessons on Mondays.

So today, Sarah Albee joins us. Sarah’s written dozens and dozens of books, including great, high interest nonfiction titles like Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Why’d They Wear That?

You’ve probably already guessed from these titles, Sarah has both a great fascination with history and science and a terrific sense of humor. Her post today is all about how that sense of humor can show itself in nonfiction writing.

What’s So Funny?

Hello, teachers! It’s lovely to be back again for Teachers Write. Today I want to talk about voice, and particularly, how to channel the funny, lively, entertaining, engaging, charming side of you onto the page. Adding humor and energy to my own writing is something I usually do at a late stage of revision. I’ve done the research, figured out the structure, and written a billion drafts. If it’s gone well, I hope there’s at least some liveliness in the writing voice already, but it’s at the late stages of drafting that I carefully examine each sentence to see where I might be able to enliven the tone. How can I make this funnier, or at least more vivid, for my reader? Good comic writing—actually, any good writing—jars the reader’s brain away from its customary expectations by expressing something in a unique way.

So how does a writer add zing to her writing? It is possible, and you can get better at it with practice. Here are three strategies to try:

1. Surprise your reader with the unexpected.

Last week I heard Dave Barry on the radio. Terry Gross was interviewing him about his new book. He was talking about the good old days when he was a kid, in the pre- helicopter-parenting days when parents basically ignored their kids. “On a summer morning we’d leave the house,” he said, “and my mom would say, ‘Be sure you’re back by September.’” It’s funny because your brain is expecting “by dinner” of course, and he jolts you with the unexpected.

You can use surprise by twisting clichés and hackneyed phrases, the ones you tell your students not to use. It can work well with titles. Here are some chapter headers I have used in my last few books:

 The Age of Shovelry

 Twentieth Century Pox

 It’s all Fun and Games until Someone Loses an Isle

 Make New Friends But Keep the Gold

 Padded Bros

 Caulk Like an Egyptian

2. Use strong, unconventional, or unexpected verbs.

One of my favorite nonfiction mentor authors, Mary Roach, comes up with brilliant verbs. I love the one she uses in this sentence from Bonk:

If you can machete through the lingo and obfuscated writing, you will find an extraordinary body of work.

In How They Choked, Georgia Bragg’s unconventional description of Henry VIII paints a very apt picture of him :

Henry VIII was thirty-one and he looked so-so in his royal Spanx. He enjoyed making up laws that worked in his favor, power-eating, and spending time with his wife’s ladies-in-waiting.

3. Make a funny comparison (with simile and metaphor).

If you can come up with a good simile or a metaphor, you’ve got your reader in the midst of one world and then you suddenly make her mind jump the track by introducing a comparison to a totally different situation. And then the reader’s mind jumps back to your first world and she laughs at the surprising yet apt parallel you’ve drawn. You can do it with a short phrase. For example, in this New York Times article about ice cream, the author talks about how much he hated when his parents cheaped out and bought ice milk, “which tastes of nothing so much as frozen sadness.”

Or you can do it with a more extended comparison. Here’s Mary Roach again, in her book Stiff:

The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you. 

See how your mind jumps from cadaver to cruise traveler and back to the cadaver? And then your brain processes what you just read, and you laugh.

Here’s a late-stage revision I made in my book Bugged: How Insects Changed History. I wanted to enliven this rather dull passage:

The mouthparts of assassin bugs puncture their victim. The bug injects a poison that liquefies the soft tissues of its prey, enabling it to ingest the contents.

So I swapped in two metaphors and changed to this version:

The mouthparts of assassin bugs are pointy two-way straws. The bug injects a poison that turns its prey’s insides to soup.

Nicola Davies’ Big Blue Whale is not meant to be a funny book per se, but it’s got this unexpected, evocative description of the blue whale’s skin:

It’s springy and smooth like a hard-boiled egg, and it’s as slippery as wet soap.

Your mind jumps from the whale track onto the hard boiled egg track, to the wet soap track, and then back to the whale. And you can picture its skin perfectly, can’t you?

One of my favorite humor writers, PG Wodehouse, is the master of extended metaphors. Whenever I want to write “funny,” I read Wodehouse. Here are a few of my favorites:

She looked at me like someone who has just solved the crossword puzzle with a shrewd “Emu” in the top right hand corner.

Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.

Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.

Try it with your work-in-progress. Check the sentences that don’t yet zing. Is there a comparison you can make that’s unexpected? Can you swap in a more surprising verb?

It’s fun. Just be your charming self.

Note from Kate: This is a GREAT post to share with students who equate informational writing with dry, boring writing. It doesn’t have to be that way, and Sarah’s books are terrific mentor texts for teaching this kind of zingy nonfiction style.

Don’t forget to head on over to Gae’s blog now for Friday Feedback!

50 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.10.15 What’s So Funny? with guest author Sarah Albee

  1. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your suggestions and advice for those of us writing nonfiction! Most of my writing centers around random acts of kindness (my passion), but your references to voice and humor intrigued me. Most of my writing is “shoot-from-the-hip” conversational tone and I haven’t considered the impact of purposeful editing for these two aspects. Here is a post I wrote yesterday, summarizing various RAKs done at a conference: http://bit.ly/1LUOY7C if you want to take a peek. I’m curious if the elements that are humorous to me are also humorous to others.

    I also love Kate’s postscript that this is a great activity for students who equate nonfictional writing with dry, boring text. I know many adults who have the same perception!

    1. Good morning, Tamara-
      I LOVE how you are discovering RAK in our world and drawing attention to this! It was such a delight to wake up, read the writing posts and see your comment and link first thing this morning. Here is my connection to RAK….

      I ask my students to give “Gifts of Happiness” in my classroom- (there are several posts here http://tinyurl.com/pzqxkua that explain the idea) – they need to go out and give 3 positive compliments to people. Some days it may be to their friends, while other days, I give them a list: the bus driver, the garbage man, the Greeters desk, the cafeteria ladies, etc…

      We discuss RAK first. Then, we actually hold a contest to create a little “notecard”. The kids vote on the best ones, then I always have them ready to go in the classroom.

      Giving the Gift is in their control. It’s awkward at first, that’s why I start off with familiar people, friends and family, one teacher on the team at a time. In addition, we write reflective paragraphs about how the exchange occurred, why the Gift was given, and the emotions they felt before and after. We write 3 rounds of reflections over the course of several weeks. As they become familiar with the task, the kids end up loving it! This really builds a community in my class. We extend the process of giving 2-3 positive comments to classmates after presentations of projects and sharing writing pieces. I watch as kids evolve into confident presenters.

      Thank you for sharing your post this morning!

    2. Tamara I LOVED your RAK post–and agree completely that it’s always best to laugh if you can. (And I love the skirts on you and your twin!)

  2. Hello, Sarah!

    Teaching kids the hows of injecting humor into their writing has been challenging. Thank you for deconstructing it here. My younger students who haven’t had a lot of formal writing training are better at it than the older students. They’re naturally funny, and they tend to write exactly in their own voice. The middle schoolers and I will work on humor this year.

    I LOVE “Poop Happened!” I’m buying it for my 6 year old’s birthday. I taught a class at my zoo called “The Scoop on Poop.” It was wildly popular (poopular?). I always tell zoo educators that they only need to know two things – what the animal eats and anything interesting about how it poops. Our Gaboon viper only goes once every three months, which probably explains her crappy attitude.

    1. Ha! Love your post–and that is SO fascinating about younger kids being better and less inhibited about being funny. That’s the best thing about TW for me–I learn so much from you teachers.
      (But doing all this math on Kate’s comment form is going to kill me. )What the hell-damn is 63 + 38??

  3. Thanks for stopping by! This is only my second summer….but you’re already a favorite. I need humor….like NEED humor. As a kid I was “too serious” (helloo—-caring adults should figure out why!)and one teacher tried to “jostle” me out of it by teasing–which was a huge disaster with lots of tears and angry calls from my mom. BUT, a result is that I learned humor to cope and I appreciate the medicinal quality of humor as an adult. I need….like NEED….your writing. As a Teacher Librarian I sometimes have trouble with my middle school boys and their humor…but your books are my “go to” when we don’t quite relate at first.
    Thank you for cracking a smile on this school marm face. Can’t wait for your next book!

  4. Thank you for your post, Sarah. I love knowing you wait until the revising process to punch it up. It makes complete sense- palm to forehead. It is probably easier for me to be humorous while teaching and facilitating than writing because that is what I am doing there- punching it up. I don’t set out to write a stand up routine; I set out to write a lesson. Levity is my new favorite word. In everything levity. Thank you. xo

  5. Thanks for the great post! It is really helpful to get this insight into how you build your awesome non-fiction work, and YES to your books being great mentor texts to get our kids writing INTERESTING non-fiction!

  6. Good Morning, Ms. Albee!

    My goal this summer is to research (currently reading Discovering Voice: Voice Lesson for Middle and High School by Nancy Dean) different strategies to teach writing voice and construct lessons to use in the upcoming school year. Today’s lesson is very helpful because most sixth graders adore humor and it makes my lessons, especially in social studies class, more memorable. Thank you.

    Knowing that you enjoy history, I need to share a project that we worked on in social studies this year. I teach world history to sixth graders. During the Middle Ages (Europe) unit, the students worked in small groups to argue whether the Dark Ages were truly dark (Dark Ages or Not? Project). After doing five days of research in the library, they presented their three-minute argument to a panel of professors (two medieval history professors from SU, one rhetorical studies/communication professor from SU, one history professor from SUNY Cortland, and one history professor from the local community college). Two of the groups began their presentations with a slide that read the “Bright Ages” and from the title I am sure that you can guess their stance.:)

    Thank you again for today’s lessons and your wonderful books.

  7. When tackling a weightier topic—thinking of child labor.

    I can still see the use of well-placed metaphors, but I’m guessing that humor and too much voice might not work there. Thoughts?

    1. Whoops–the first line was lost there. It should have said, “What place does humor and voice have when tackling a weightier topic…” Sorry.

      1. I struggle with that a LOT, David. I try really hard not to cross a line when something just isn’t a laughing matter. For instance, I’m working now on a book about colonial America, and I just don’t see much to joke about with the Native American story, or slavery, for example. But that doesn’t mean the language has to go flat. But you raise an excellent issue.

  8. Thanks so much for these! I especially LOVE that you shared a before & after of your own work. My third graders always come in believing that their writing is done right the first time, and it’s wonderful to have examples to drawn on for reinforcing the importance of revision.

    1. Thanks, Katie! Yes I love to share plenty of before-and-after examples of my own writing when I visit schools. I also love to share pictures of my seventeenth draft, with my editor’s many comments on it!

  9. I know the power of mentor texts. So, when I read Sarah’s post with its illuminating examples, what was my first reaction?

    Trove at first sight!

    Thanks for sharing these gems.

  10. Enjoyed reading these ideas about adding humor. I looked back over some of my blogs for times when I tried using humor. Some of these slice of life stories might go into another story someday. Here’s one:

    I was driving home one afternoon, and traffic was very bad. It was frustrating getting over to the exit lane. I was feeling kind of grumbly. As I merged into traffic off the interstate, a car squeezed in front of me.I was feeling like much more than grumbling. Then I noticed. It was a Smart car. The license plate, directly under the “Smart” emblem, read “Aleck.” It made me laugh out loud!

    1. Ha! That’s great Diane. And you never know when you might be able to use this, or a variation. Wodehouse re-framed many of his jokes in many different ways–and they remained funny.

  11. Thank you so much, Sarah, for these lessons in how to infuse humour into our writing. I’ll be using them next school year with my middle school students and on my own this summer. My WIP deals with difficult themes (loss, grief) and I hope that the use of humour will save lives – characters’ lives – and keep readers reading.

    1. That’s great, Rhonda. And yes, even difficult topics can benefit from moments of levity–it can make them all the more poignant. I can think of a number of very sad books with very funny parts to them.

  12. I’m sitting in a library laughing out loud at your post. Thank you so much for the great ideas. I will use them when working on nonfiction and revision with my students next school year.

  13. Thanks for the specific ideas to add a few good chuckles to my writing!
    I am currently working on a collection of special recipes and the stories that surround these recipes. A few weeks ago, I began the section about pie making. I reworked it today, and here is what I came up with. I think it still needs work but I felt like I was able to add more humor to my voice.

    Apparently, pie making is a big deal-the Everest of the kitchen-luring the young and invincible, but inevitably leaving most to turn back, exhausted, ashamed and still sore the next morning. Consequently, many novice chefs will henceforth resign to purchase premade crust. But to me, a buttery, golden crust seemed like a pretty spectacular feat to be known for, and I was up for the challenge. So, I found a recipe, followed it, and made a pie. It really was that simple. I wasn’t sure what all the hype was about or why people thought pie making was difficult. Amateurs.

    (It goes on to tell of the disaster that followed when I attempted pie #2)

    1. LOVE this Joy! And I love the “amateurs” at the end. I didn’t talk about sentence length/rhythm, but varying them up is huge with comic timing.

  14. This advice is definitely worth keeping (and practicing!) When I’m trying for the “funny” I read Russell Hoban’s Bedtime for Frances…gets me every time!

  15. Sarah – Thank you for the 3 ways to add, “zing”. I was with 4th graders the end of last year and they were working on biographies of important people to Colorado, talk about dry, boring reading! I did have one that interjected “voice” into her writing and I really enjoyed seeing her sense of humor on paper. Reading your thoughts and examples has me thinking and writing.

    I don’t have a specific WIP, but here are a few of my thoughts:
    Keeping his nose to the grind, hard work had finally paid off.
    She stood, deer in the headlights look, and was at a complete loss for words.
    The night was as dark as a stack of black cows.
    Her eyes twinkled like a thousand fireflies as she pondered her success.

    I am definitely putting this into my lesson plans for the upcoming year. I love your suggestion of waiting until final revisions because; I feel it will give students a desire to revise! Again, Thank You!

    1. That’s great, Sheila, glad it was helpful. I especially like your third and fourth examples–they are original and “surprising,” and it’s always a plus to go with a simile or metaphor that hasn’t been done before. 😀

  16. I love the recent push to genre mash in kid lit. I think that this is more “true to life” and ends up feeling more natural to students than to their teachers (or at least from what I observe). I look forward to using this with my third graders.

  17. Thank you, Sarah and Kate, for teaching me ways to help my students add “pizazz” to their writing.

    I don’t have a WIP, but I am keeping a Writer’s Notebook this summer, so I have a model for my students. Here are a few lines from one entry in my notebook.

    My original:

    The smell of popcorn makes my mouth water. It permeates the air around the mall. I think my nose enjoys it more than my mouth.

    My latest version:

    I don’t have to stop and smell the popcorn! Its smell permeates the air. My nose tells me to butter up my husband when I get home, so he will make me some.

  18. I feel like the current trend to genre mashing and having nonfiction have more voice is so natural for kids and just a bit harder for us teachers. This will be great to share with my third graders.

  19. Thank you Sarah – As someone who has mostly done academic writing, and now blogging, I decided to try this course. I had an inkling it would make me a better writer. I\’ve been out of my depths trying fiction.

    Your non-fiction focus with a delightful twist has wrapped me in a familiar embrace. A hug before I head back out the door to the wide-world of fiction again. I look forward to reading your books!

  20. I appreciate the need for humor! Teaching first and second graders can be challenging. Living with humor, writing with humor, and laughing at ourselves is such a critical life goal! I tend to get so serious about teaching and learning, I forget to laugh! Thanks for the reminder. I’m going to try and laugh a lot tonight!

  21. Dear Sarah,

    I must say it is refreshing to have someone FINALLY acknowledge the “funny, lively, entertaining, engaging, and charming sides” of me. It seems as if we must have met already!

    Your suggestions are so refreshing, especially for those of us who enjoy non-fiction scribbling. Many of my students think of NF books as No Frills, No Fun, and No Farts, but you have shown that there is a time and place for the deftly placed humorous releases. I think that’s a gas!

    One of our favorite exercises is inventing words, like the old sniglets, those words that don’t yet appear in the dictionary, but really should. You know, like “musquirt” (that watery substance that comes out of the mustard bottle if you forget to shake it first. Or “arachnidiot” the person who wanders into an “invisible” spider web and then gyrates and flails about wildly. This is a great way for us to manufacture some of the necessary strong, unexpected verbiage you recommend.

    I look forward to sharing your delicious books (well, maybe not the POOP one) with my students. Thanks for encouraging us to let it rip!

  22. Hi Sarah! You are the best and continue to help me out when I need it! These are excellent tips as I am working on my children’s story – thank you thank you!

  23. 7/15/15
    Hi Christina ~
    Thank you for joining us today at camp! I am a huge RED UMBRELLA fan and can’t wait to read MOVING TARGET. Our 800 7/8th graders will make a great audience.
    I find your advice compelling. My WIP is set in a retirement community and the two HS protagonists have to work there to pay off damage they incurred. I was inspired by my parents’ stay in a retirement community and the folks who were so active. Their stories are terrific primary sources. Visiting a retirement community nearby my school is a must to continue observing, researching, and adding. In my WIP, Theodora Seyforth is a 70 year old woman in the community who is lively, lucid, and wants to learn to skateboard. The boys are stunned. The premise that friendship is an ageless phenomenon is my intent.
    Thanks again for your insight,
    Kate Schoedinger