Laugh at Your Own Jokes

Neil Gaiman advises writers “Laugh at your own jokes”. If you understand the gravity of this advice, you have had some experience struggling with writing.

I just got back into writing recently at the age of 52 and was shocked at the abundance of writing tips for novelists on the internet. With the arrival of the (apparent) ease of digital publishing, everybody now seems to be aspiring to be a novelist. (I might write about that in another blog post.) I found Gaiman’s advice among a compilation of writing tips Gotham Writers Workshop.

A typical list of writing tips are sure to include items such as read a lot, write a lot, delete a lot, re-write a lot and trudge on. As obvious as they are, they are essential and profound advice. But “laugh at your own jokes” is, in the same sense, obvious and essential.

If you write, delete and re-write ad nauseum, you lose sight of your humor and start wondering if your jokes are funny. Does the humor add to the story or subtract from it? Is it in the right place? Is it appropriate? Does it offend, confuse or obfuscate more than amuse? Will the reader get it?

You can delete a word and if you think the story was better with it, you can put it back in. But you can never put back in the same joke. If you change your mind about a joke and you decide to delete it, it is not as funny when you put it back in.

That is why you must laugh out loud every time you write a joke, especially when you are putting it back in. Laughing out loud is every bit as essential as reading out loud.

Good advice is hard to get, because good advice is hard to give. “Read a lot” is good advice, but how many of us can come up with a new one to the list that is just as essential? “Don’t use semicolons” do not fit in the same league.

Advice is always limited by the talent or intellect of the person who is giving it. Which brings us to another one of Neil Gaiman’s tips: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

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