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
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!