William Strunk Jr. Vs. Comedy Part 1
If you haven’t heard of William Strunk Junior, I forgive you. He’s not exactly famous, and even if you have read his work, it’s likely that you forgot his name. The reason he is the subject of this theory post is because of a thin paperback he wrote called called “The Elements of Style.”
Purchasing it for 14 dollars was possibly one of the best investments I’ve ever made in my writing. For realz.
The Elements of Style is primarily a book about grammar principles, and the wording can get a little tricky if you’re not familiar with grammar lingo such as “preposition, conjunction,” and “appositive.” While Strunk definitely injects some personality into his writing, you can only make verb agreements and dependent clauses so interesting.
I got into this book for a couple of reasons. First, I started a job at an ESL school, and the curriculum called for a hardcore knowledge of grammar. I thought: “No sweat, I’ve got an English degree from the esteemed Trent University sitting in an envelope in my closet. I’ve got a golden ticket.”
On my first day, when a student asked me what verb agreement meant, and I said “Don’t you know?” and laughed with haughty derision. What I was THINKING was “Holy Hell, what IS a verb agreement?!”
It was a bad time to make the terrible realization that in over 2 decades of schooling, 4 of them specifically geared toward the study of English, that I didn’t know nuffink about grammar. I had spent that time mostly reading old books and making up a bunch of BS that I exchanged for grades in the low 70s and a carefree lifestyle:
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great skill for real life, but it ain’t grammar. And that’s where most of us are. We know how to write, but not concisely. We know what reads well, but not why.
So, fearing that my inept abilities would be discovered I nabbed Strunk’s handy little tome. And when I’ve had JUST enough coffee, I sit on the subway and read about why a comma must always be placed before a conjunction connecting two independent clauses, and try not to barf all over the place.
But that’s neither here nor there. Most stand-up comics care exactly zero about anything other than drinking and laughing, much less the grammatic errors in notes about bad airplane food they’ve scribbled down on a napkin. In fact, too much grammatical perfection actually hinders good delivery, stepping on the more natural but error-littered delivery that dialogue provides.
SO. I did you a big fat favour. I plucked 5 of my favourite tips, the ones I have found most useful in my writing development. I found these tips ABSOLUTELY FANTASTIC for learning how to improve the urgency, fluidity and clarity of my writing.
I urge you to buy a copy of this neat little book for yourself, because there’s lots more than what we’ll look at today. But in the meantime, here are 5 solid writing tips from Ol’ Strunky:
1)Use the Active Voice
“Brevity [the quality of being brief in duration] is a by-product of vigor [exertion of energy].”
Compare these two sentences:
Mel Gibson called me Sugar-tits
I was called Sugar-tits by Mel Gibson
If the goal of stand-up comedy is to deliver humour and meaning with the least amount of cognitive slow-down possible, the first sentence is vastly preferable because it is more direct.
The second aspect of this rule is that active voice sounds exactly that: active. There is a reason why scientific studies use the passive voice: they are meant to sound professional, academic, and detached. These are great attributes for a treatise on tortoise reproduction, but absolute garbage for a stand-up act.
A word of caution from the Strunkster:
“This rule, does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”
2) Put statements in positive form
“Make definite assertions. Avoid tame, colorless, hesitating, noncommittal language. Use the word not as a means of denial or in antithesis, never as a means of evasion.”
Again, stand-up comedy relies so much on a stream of thought that any words or phrases that make people stop to think are the enemy. This is why it’s a good idea to strive to put statements in the positive. For example:
Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon was not good.
Takes a little more effort than
Michael Jackson’s plastic surgeon was bad.
I find Tina Fey not unattractive,
Is a lot of thinking hoops to jump through as opposed to
I find Tina Fey to be a babe.
“Consciously or unconsciously, the reader is dissatisfied with being told only what is not; the reader wishes to be told what is… if your every sentence admits a doubt, your writing will lack authority.”
As a footnote, I’ll mention that putting words with a negative connotation like not might even affect the vibe of your act. Look at it this way, do you want to be the Eeyore who says “That double rainbow is not terrible?” or Winnie the Pooh who says “That is a beautiful double rainbow?” I’ll take Pooh, thanks. And that’s the last time I’ll ever write “I’ll take Pooh.”
SNAP, I did it again.
We’ll continue with the last 3 tomorrow, see you then!