Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Writing humor isn’t as easy as it looks. If it were, everyone would be a comedian. For this reason, authors should use caution when labeling their work a romantic comedy. Here are a few editing tips for writing humor:

Don’t overthink the punch line: Actually, when writing humor, the punch line should be seamless and subtle. Authors are not comedians on the stage. They are, in a sense, playwrights, setting the scene in their readers’ heads. For comedy to work, there are two factors that should be reviewed.

            Characterization: No, characters don’t have to be clowns in order to pull off a humorous scene, but we must see something in their nature that makes the scene funny. For example, if someone is by nature a bitter person, they wouldn’t just rip out a joke to make someone laugh. No, the humor would come from their sarcasm.

            The Setup: The setup will make or break a comedic scene. Again, this may involve characterization, but it also involves the location, the event that is occurring, and even the character’s personality. If these areas come together, it takes only one line (the author’s punch line, if you will) to bring out a guffaw.

Let the humor flow: This goes hand-in-hand with not overthinking the punch line. If an author knows his characters well enough, the humor—if it is meant to be a part of the story—will flow easily. I have on several occasions finished a draft, and when I’ve gone back in to edit, I’ll see that the humor flowed without my intention to do so. Authors should let their characters rule in this regard.

Keep it clean: Recently, I’ve seen so many posts on Facebook and on Pinterest that could be very funny. Unfortunately, some folks mistake shock value for humor. The best jokes are those written without sexual innuendo, without racial slurs, and without four letter words.

One of my favorite characteristics of God is His understated sense of humor. It’s alive and well, and we could do well to model our humor after His. I think of the story of the ten plagues. Yes, it was a sad time in Egypt for Israel and for the Egyptians, but in the midst of this drama, God allowed something humorous to happen.

God didn’t overthink the punch line. In fact, it is very subtle. No, he brought some characters into the mix and played the setup quite well. Who were these characters? They were Pharaoh’s magicians. What was the setup? The location was Egypt by the Nile. God had introduced plagues that mimicked the gods of the Egyptians. One of those plagues was frogs.

I couldn’t imagine the smell of dead frogs littering the ground, the house, and every corner of Egypt. To prove that God had nothing over on them, what did the magicians do? They brought forth more frogs. I get this clear vision of Moses and Aaron walking away from that one, shaking their heads and laughing.

So, when editing for humor, an author should make sure the comedy is not forced, that the humor flows naturally from characters and from the setup, and he should always double check his humor-meter to assure that it is not offensive to others. The best way to do this is to ask several people to read the scene—without author comment—and to see if it works for some of them. Remember, humor, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Not everyone will get it, but the majority should.


  1. There's nothing I enjoy more than humor, well written. If I've ever done it, it was completely unintentional. Thanks for the reminder that subtle humor is often best. But if you write subtle humor, be forewarned: many of your readers won't get it.

  2. Betty: Very true. That's why setting the stage and the character are so important. I've thrown in a few private jokes in my work, and I'll have people write to me, and they got them.