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William Strunk Jr. Vs. Comedy Part 2

October 11, 2010

Hello again! Let’s get right into part 2 of this theory post where we apply the writing wisdom of Willy Strunk to stand-up comedy. You can find part 1 here.

3) Omit needless words

Strunk Sez:

“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts.”

I was chatting with my friend and talented improviser Brian Reynolds the other day, and he shared a really interesting analogy for comedy writing. He read a quote that said to look at it as a similar process to building an airplane. You aren’t finished when you’ve put on the last piece, you’re finished when you can’t take away anything else.

As a practical suggestion, I find that the more times I edit something, the more things I find to cut. If I edit a post like this one 10 times, I guarantee you, by the tenth time there’s still stuff to be trimmed.  To save my sanity, the golden rule I employ is to make a minimum of three editing passes. Coincidentally, I use this strategy when cleaning my room. On the first and second passes I ALWAYS miss something that isn’t apparent until more of the clutter is removed for me to see the more nitpicky stuff.

Remember though, that this rule isn’t suggesting all sentences be two words long, but rather that “every word tell.”

4) Keep related words together

Strunk Sez:

“Bring together the words and groups of words that are related in thought and keep apart those that are not so related.”

Check out these sentences:

Tiger Woods’ car, which he crashed into a tree, was destroyed.

versus

Tiger Woods’ car was destroyed when he crashed into a tree.

Sorry Tiger, but no one is safe from the BURN.

One just reads better than the other. In the case of the first sentence, there is an interruption between the subject and the predicate. Again, as stated before, this creates more mental hurdles for an audience to navigate, which is time they should spend focussing on your joke. They’ve got enough work to do already, following a bunch of rapid tangential thoughts, there’s no need to make it harder.

5) Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end.

Strunk sez:

“The proper place in the sentence for the word or group of words that the writer desires to make most prominent is usually the end.”

This one took me awhile to build into my writing and editing process, but it’s very important for the stand-up comic. If possible, the word or words that make your joke funny should be the very last thing heard.

There are a couple of reasons for this – first, from a technical stand-point, if the laugh out loud funny part of your joke happens halfway through, continuing to talk will just step on the laughs and train the audience to laugh less next time, so they don’t miss the extra information.

Second, from a philosophical stand point, if people are already laughing, why continue to talk? Mission accomplished. Unless you’re adding a tag (which can wait until the laughter dies down), there’s no reason to keep going.

Rule number 3 comes into effect here, so omit those needless-ass words.

Respect

Thanks Uncle Strunk for your prescient observations about the craft of writing. Again, I urge you to pick up a copy of Elements of Style for yourself. While a bit of a chore to slog through, it’s absolutely jammed with good writing tips, and Strunk tries to follow his own advice, keeping them as brief as possible.

This has been a long post, so let’s get back to laughing, with something hilarious:

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