Editors Will Pay for Articles that Play

Me, in the outfit I wear when I write first paragraphs

This writing life is serious stuff, with its cold deadlines, its fusty grammar rules and its dense packagings of data. But readers in most corners are showing less of an appetite for data density, and more for the conversational, the playful, the light touch that can still deliver information, but deliver it with some sweet sprinkles on top. Editors seem to have more appetite for sprinkles these days.

Obviously, some publications—the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders comes to mind—don’t care much for sprinkles, and rightly so. But if you’re a freelancer like me, who writes for newspapers, magazines and online business publications, it’s heartening to know that editors are more enthusiastic than ever to accept pieces that weave in some humor with their copy threads.

To demonstrate that I’m not making this up, here are a few opening paragraphs from three pieces of mine for which some bewitched editor paid actual money. All establish a certain tone from the outset, and hopefully would make you want to read further.

5 High-Proof Truths That Whiskey Is the Key to a Better Life
There’s advice everywhere on how to be a better person. Meditate, be nice to children, pat puppies on the head, eat arugula. But those things are so superficial, and some are plain tedious. We have more practical advice: drink Whiskey.

Drinking Whiskey will make you a better person. And it’s much more fun than arugula. Here’s why:

That’s the beginning of a blog post for Flaviar, a spirits purveyor that writes about all things booze. Their style is irreverent and somewhat arch, which is fun to do. It gave me the chance to practice that writing trick of jab, jab, punch, with the setup lines and then the punch delivered in the last line of the first paragraph. This piece will come out on their blog sometime in the next couple of weeks.

Trail Mix: An Oahu Hike — Plus Margaritas
I can forgive you, if you’re on Oahu, all excited about taking a shoreline hike. You toss on the shorts, throw a small snack, some binoculars and sunblock into a backpack and — knowing that there are water bottles in the car — drive all the way up the westside toward Ka’ena Point where the road ends, and get out to begin your hike in the sizzling sun. And then you realize that one water bottle is empty and the other half-filled.
I can forgive you, because my girlfriend and I did just that.

This intro is a slight variant on the first trick, using the sustained second-person direct address to put the reader in the driver’s seat—and then pull the driver’s seat out from under the writer with the last line. This is from a short piece recently published in the San Jose Mercury News.

How to Properly Diagnose a Failed Email Campaign
As Mark Twain said after his latest marketing promotion, “The reports of the death of the email campaign are greatly exaggerated.” As any marketing maven knows, email lives, with a vengeance, and remains one of the biggest hammers in any marketer’s toolbox.

But as you know all too well, bad email promotions are death warmed over: email done wrong does your promos and your products a lethal turn.

This one has to take a more businesslike tack, since it was written for The Content Standard, an all-things-content-marketing publication. But still, anytime you can open a piece with a [fake] Mark Twain quote, you’re in good hands.

All of these writings establish a sportive, impish slant from the first lines, which works in the context of each piece. This isn’t writing for the ages, but it’s fun to do, and if someone will pay me for it, I’ll type it up.

If you can produce this kind of work without it seeming labored or too corny or shallow (and perhaps that’s how these ledes struck you), it could be a good approach to your freelance pieces. As I’ve said before, it’s often useful to pitch an editor with what you foresee as the actual first paragraph or two of a piece, so they can taste what they’d be getting.

Do any of you use this kind of breezy style in your work? (If you do, don’t pitch my editors—they’ll be on to you.)

How to Write Humorously (Hint: Put Colonel Sanders on LSD)

The image here is a photo of one of my favorite shirts. If it’s not clear to you, it’s Colonel Sanders with a maniacal look, with the unsubtle graphical suggestion that the good Colonel has had a snootful of LSD. That amuses me on several levels, but the one that’s instructive here is based on a two-step of moving from familiar to farcical. You can employ this comedic trip of incongruity in your writing (though never in your cooking).

Of course, the expression and interpretation of humor is as subjective as declaring that the piccolo is king of wind instruments, hands-down. (Never forget the pan pipe!) What some folks think is funny is just whistling wind to others: Some jokes might have your entire Mongol horde spitting out their teeth, while another of the same caliber might only make your cat laugh. For some it’s poop jokes, for some it’s palindromes, and never the twain shall meet. (Except for this instance, since “poop” is a palindrome.)

So, neatly sidestepping the sheer subjectivity (and the poop) of our subject, I’ll concentrate on a single comedic element that works for me as a writer, and as a consumer of comedy: incongruity. It’s as broad as the princess with the corn stuck in her teeth, or as peculiar as a man in a business suit with briefcase, walking a crocodile, or as off-balance as a garden gnome giving a speech on metaphysics to an assemblage of frogs.

The Setup
Dave Barry is a master of the incongruous in his writing, and a lot of the funny in what he does is structured on a one-two-three of situations or circumstances, where the one and the two are prosaic, but the three is preposterous—but the preposterousness only works because the one and the two are banal enough to lull the reader, and the three puts a moustache on the coffee cup. What’s THAT doing there?

Here’s a Barry quote from an interview that asked him what book changed his life. (Note, Barry has said or written much funnier stuff than this, but this is a good example of the structure of what I’m talking about).

Barry’s reply: “The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky. I was supposed to read it my freshman year in college, but it’s 18 million pages long and I could never get past the first 43. Nevertheless I wrote a paper about it, and I got an OK grade, which taught me that I could write convincingly about things I did not remotely understand. This paved the way for my career in journalism.”

Emily Dickinson, Notable Joker
It’s the old ba-da-bing, done twice here by Dave. Straight answer, a bit of elaboration, and then a kicker; rinse and repeat. The incongruity I’m talking about is often a matter of rhythm: you set up the reader by offering some conventional understanding, and then you goose that understanding with a cheeky thrust. Though it’s not always going for the belly laugh; sometimes it’s more a “Huh? Ah, you’re nuts.” But nuts in a winning way. It’s a variant of ol’ Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

So exactly HOW do you do this? Sheesh, I’m no Svengali; when you try to write funny, it often comes out a miserable hairball-like thing, shaggy and sad. It’s more of an attitude or perspective. Check out this article I wrote on the travails of travel a bit back; it has some of what I mean. Sometimes it’s as “simple” as that Jack Benny stare and shrug that coming from another man would only produce indifference, but from Benny it was hysterical. And sometimes you have to go out on a limb: you have to give an avuncular icon dangerous drugs. It’s the Colonel that gets fried, not that chicken of his.

Bonus Colonel Sanders Sighting!
One reason why I probably find the Colonel reeling on chemicals comic is that when I was 11 or 12, I was selling candy bars outside the local liquor store (it had lots of traffic) in my hometown, fundraising for my Catholic grammar school. I was with my best friend, who can verify: we sold a candy bar to Colonel Sanders. I’m not talking about a guy dressed up like Colonel Sanders: this WAS the Colonel, with the white suit and string tie, the man himself. He was alone, and we gawked at him, and I mumbled my “Wanna buy a school candy bar?” pitch to him as he passed into the store, to no effect.

But when he came out, he stopped and chatted for a moment, and he bought a bar, paying five times as much as it cost (and, like most fundraising candy, it cost five times as much as it should to begin with). The Colonel popped it into his bag (which probably held some of the distilled elements of his secret herbs and spices recipe), and went on his merry way. As a kid, it was a crowning moment for me. I now like to think of the Colonel in chicken heaven, dropping acid every day, and musing over his chance encounters with youths in front of liquor stores. Incongruous, but funny. At least to me.