ne of the first funny pieces I wrote concerned a home improvement fiasco.
After watching a few episodes of that program, Trading Spaces, I thought I knew enough about decorating to take on my own project. I bought paint, roller brushes, solvents, and other assorted stuff I didn't know how to pronounce, much less use. I managed to strip my bathroom wallpaper-and took out half my wall in the process. Maybe I should have started small and worked my way up.
Anyway, when a friend asked if I had written anything funny that she could use for her fledgling magazine, I said, "Sure." I was a green writer with very few clips (okay, okay, none), but I just happened to have this hilarious home improvement essay. And even when she said she couldn't afford payment yet, I still said, "Sure!" I'd learned my lesson from my decorating disaster; starting small and working my way up seemed like a darn good idea.
"Newbie writers can start with a freebie market or two, hone their skills, and soon land their well-crafted writing into higher-paying markets."
I know most veteran freelancers will say that writing for free is never a good idea. "Don't give away your words," they'll shout. And that's a dandy point. You've worked hard and should value your talent. On the other hand, can you expect editors in the industry to pay for writing that's not quite up to professional par? Newbie writers can start with a freebie market or two, hone their skills, and soon land their well-crafted writing into higher-paying markets. So, I eagerly signed on to write a humor column for my friend's magazine. And here's what I learned for free:
1. DISNEYFIED DISCIPLINE:
Oh, there's nothing like a deadline to teach a little writer discipline. Especially when it comes to writing funny.
There's no waiting around for the mirthful muse to show up when you need 350 scathingly witty words by high noon…and it's 10:35 A.M. You could kick yourself for procrastinating, but there's no time for that now. You can do that later. Somehow, that column must sprout from your brain and hurry along to your editor. Who, by the way, doesn't care if your distraught daughter is calling every fifteen minutes to discuss the break-up of the century.
You are a writer, and writers write, no matter what. This is the time when I kick into my "Peter Pan" mode. "Think funny thoughts," I say to myself. "Think funny thoughts." If only I could get my hands on that fairy dust. What I grab hold of instead is a lifetime of crazy adventures I can mine for goofy gold. When I travel back to past memories, the present chaos melts away just long enough for me to write funny, at least until my daughter calls again.
"...comic writing tends to be on the leaner side."
2. WICKED WORD COUNT:
When I wrote about my insane dog and her training screw-ups, the finished column was over 400 words. The editor cut the piece to fit, assuming I knew the word count limit. Lesson learned as soon as I read my column that month.
It's not that easy to write funny in 300 to 350 words. Invariably, my first draft would be closer to 500. I'd cut this and that, (and I really hate to cut this and that) until I had my column at an acceptable count. After a few columns, I realized that my writing was tighter, more cohesive, and a whole lot funnier. Learning how to edit out the extraneous was an important skill I mastered along the way.
Maybe you won't have that strict of a word count, but comic writing tends to be on the leaner side. Markets looking for humor essays rarely go beyond 800 words. So, get in the habit of keeping it short and sweet.
3. TRICKY TIMING:
Writing has a rhythm to it. Humor writing has a special kind of rhythm, a gradual build-up to your comic punchline. Without that build-up, the catch can fall flat. Reading aloud can help you develop a good ear for flow. If you come to a spot where your tongue stumbles, then your mouth is trying to tell you something. Sometimes, I'll read a piece aloud over and over and over and…well, you get the picture.
"The only way to find your voice is to write, write, and write some more."
4. VA-VA-VOOM VOICE:
When I started writing, I heard a lot about "finding your voice." I understood the grammatical difference between active and passive voice. (Okay, okay, I looked it up. Just to double-check.) And I certainly have never had a problem making my rather loud voice heard. So what was all this talk about voice?
I forged ahead and wrote my humorous thoughts, still not quite sure what the voice hubbub was all about…and the more I wrote, the more developed my voice became. My earlier columns are a bit more formal, dotting every "i" and crossing every "t". But in time, my style changed ever so subtly, so that my voice sounded more like, well, me. The only way to find your voice is to write, write, and write some more. And Eureka! One day you'll be sitting in the tub and understand completely. Your voice, that is. Everything else will still be a mystery.
I didn't earn any money from my humor column that first year. But I did get paid in craftsmanship. Those skills transferred to my fiction and nonfiction writing, and I started selling stories and winning contests.
And something else happened, too. When the magazine recently changed hands, I knew that I couldn't write for free any longer. I was grateful for my big break, but it was high time I got paid. Happily, the new editor agreed. It helped tremendously that I'd developed a loyal following over those 12 months of freebies.
So, see, I really did improve. And P.S. My bathroom looks great, too. (I hired someone to fix the walls)
Cathy C. Hall is a freelance writer living in the metro Atlanta area. She pens a regular funny column for OUR TOWN Magazine and is a guest columnist for the Atlanta Journal Constitution. This month, she'll add a new market for her column in Senior Living Magazine. Her humorous essays have appeared in A Cup of Comfort for Dog Lovers, as well as Chicken Soup for the Tea Lover's Soul. When she's not writing about her real life in the suburbs, she writes about make-believe things and people. At least, that's what she tells her friends and family. Read about her writing ups and downs at Cathy C.'s Hall of Fame at www.cathychall.blogspot.com.