Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I Am Not A Natural Writer

It is my pleasure to introduce to you, award winning humorist, John Philipp. John writes for several California newspapers and aside from those columns, he also has a thought provoking series called Thought~Bytes.

I asked him if he’d be willing to share some humor writing tips with us Over Coffee. Humor is something used in many genres and takes quite a bit of skill to pull off effectively.

John has graciously agreed to share a series of articles on writing humor. So for the next month, starting Friday, June 19th I will be featuring his articles here on Over Coffee.

John shares some thoughts on writing humor:

I am not a natural writer. I am a natural talker or so I thought until I transcribed a conversation I'd had with someone.

OK, I'm not a natural talker or a natural writer. (I am a natural eater and, while important to waist management, which has little relevance here.) I do consider myself a natural humorist. Taking that as strength, my choices were: do standup or write a humor column. I chose to learn how to write.

I wrote a few columns on topics I thought were funny and discovered I had some faults and was missing some skills. For example, I was not grounded in grammar. I felt one should write a sentence the way it sounds best. Turns out this is not true for a large percentage of readers, especially those in the newspaper business. If I wanted to write my own way I should have opted to do standup, but then there's the queasy stomach thing.

There are two relatively easy fixes to poor grammar — and neither of them is to study a grammar book. Sitting down, reading, and practicing the proper timing and placement of commas in sentences is, I am convinced, one of the top ten punishments in the Lower Kingdom.

I got better at grammar by lurking and reading writing critique websites where people edit and correct each other's writing. That experience also made me a more observant reader, grammarwise.

The second solution to better grammar is a semi-magical person called a copywriter. It is their job to correct your grammar, double check facts, correct proper name spelling and steward the use of capitals. Everything published needs a copy editor, if only because every publisher has a set of standards they follow (such as the AP Stylebook) and I guarantee you that you could spend your whole life studying and still never know when you should use a numeric character versus write out the word.

Spelling was another fault, one that surprised me. Either I've been leading a myopic life or spelling of some common words has changed since I was in grammar school (irony noted). Perhaps changing the spelling of words occurs at the same time when the government takes or gives us hours on the clock. Fortunately, there's an easy, electronic fix for bad spelling.

I found plenty of other faults that with practice and a damn good checklist I have pruned down to an acceptable level of occurrence.

The topic of missing skills was harder to overcome...

June 19th: How to Write a Humor Column.
June 26th:
Writing Humor—Random Association Part I
July 3rd:
Writing Humor—The Art of Exaggeration Part II
July 10th:
Writing Humor—Part III
July 17th: How To sprinkle Your Articles (Writing) With Humor


John Philipp is a weekly humor columnist for four Marin County, California newspapers and has won numerous humor and memoir writing awards. His humor columns are posted at
His wisdom (with Phil Frank's cartoons) is posted at Thought~Bytes


~Sia McKye~ said...

John, I'm so glad to have you visiting with us Over Coffee.

Fresh coffee is set up and various muffins, scones, and bagels.

John, I know many authors try to use humor in their writing--it's a natural extention of our personalities. I have found funny doesn't always translate well from TELLING a joke--which many people associate with being humorous--and writing humor. Timing and set-up is different with writing humor. Nothing is worse than hearing 'crickets' or having to EXPLAIN your humor.

You seem to do it so effortlessly...

Kat Sheridan said...

I just love John to pieces (in a totally platonic way) and am so glad to see him here! I have always considered myself seriously humor impaired (is that an ironic sentence?) but John is generous and kind beyond value in his offers of time and advice to a person who never realized she could write humor! I just love his articles and can hardly wait to read more! What folks don't know about John is that he also does
"poignant" with such grace and beauty. Good writing and beautiful skills show, no matter the genre.

Vivian A said...

John groupie latching on, pass a blueberry muffin if you would Sia. Why yes, it is the middle of the night, but I still want the muffin.

Most excellent catch Sia. I echo Kat's comments about his delightful wit and grace. I look forward to the Friday articles. Delicious coffee!

Judi Fennell said...

Ah, John, I had the opposite problem (?). I'm not naturally funny - at least I thought so until I inadvertently wrote a humorous book. Funny what comes out, isn't it?

Adina said...

I luv, luv your articles and your wry sense of humor.
I am naturally a pretty funny person (unless people laugh at me and not with me every time) but when it comes to putting on paper I am like a deer caught in the headlights ....Thus more respect and admiration for your craft.
Humor, in my opinion is essential ...without it our lives would be empty and somewhat pathetic...You've got to laugh sometimes just so you don't cry ...
Hi Sia, I love your set up here , with coffee and everything :)

John Philipp said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
John Philipp said...

Sia, thanks for the invitation.

Adding humor to writing is something all writers should do to some extent. It's not as risky as telling a joke because if the reader doesn't get it they don't get it. No deadly silence that can occur after a verbal joke.

If the whole piece it meant to be humorous it takes work and then has to appear that it didn't.

I'm good at the second part.

Kat, thank you for the nice words.
Is "poignant" a metrosexual thing? I hope so, I'm trying to beef up my personal resumé.

Judi, you did a bad job of hiding your humor skills in your new book, In Over Her Head.

"when it comes to putting on paper I am like a deer caught in the headlights "
Adina, that just means you're trying too hard.

~Sia McKye~ said...

I've noticed your off hand comments in your writing, John. They seem so casually placed yet crack you up. So yah, I think you have that part down well, lol!

Trying too hard...I do that too. I think it takes practice to know when to stop and let it flow...

Jill Lynn said...


That you make humor-writing look so easy is a true testament to your outstanding skill.

Malcolm R. Campbell said...

I like the idea of the copy editor being a magical person. Now, if only they came in a bottle can could poof out an offer me clean copy and a drink on demand. This is going to be an enjoyable series of posts, Sia.


~Sia McKye~ said...

*snort* A bottle of copy editor, lol!

It is an interesting series, Malcolm. Come back Friday and you'll be able to read How to Write a Humor column. Since we write blogs, I think there's good info in there for all. :-)

Sheila Deeth said...

Hi John and Sia. Nice to meet you here. Hmm. I'll take a bottle of that copy editor too please.

John Philipp said...

"Now, if only they came in a bottle can could poof out an offer me clean copy and a drink on demand."
Malcolm. I'm halfway there. My copyeditor will poof out a clean copy on demand but I have to buy him the drink.

Thanks, Jill.

Sia, "copy editor" in a bottle is the follow-on product from the good folks who brought you "White-Out."

~Sia McKye~ said...

I see, LMAO! But darn, John, I looked and looked and can't find it anywhere. I just don't understand the blank stare I get from clerks when I ask for it...

Anonymous said...

Nalita Whittle at 12:49pm June 17

Those of us who are already aware of John Philippe's talent thank you, Sia. Indeed, John is a witty, creative, and thoughtful talent, whose writings have certainly rescued early morning "pains", and inserted a wonderful, new light to the start of the day.

Vivian A said...

Funny is completely unintentional for me, which makes me more the butt of the humor than not. C'est la vie!

John, you do make us feel better by telling us that you have to work at it.

John Philipp said...

Hi Sheila.

Nalita, you are a sweetheart.

Vivian, just because I tell you I have to work at it doesn't make it true.

"I just don't understand the blank stare I get from clerks when I ask for it..."
Sia, it's a union thing ...

Other Lisa said...

Dang, I need me some copy editor in a bottle...

Here's how funny this guy is in real life: need I remind the Wombats of an evening involving Chardonney and limes?

John Philipp said...

My lawyer has recommended "no comment" regarding anything concerning either Chardonnay or limes.

~Sia McKye~ said...

*snort* Or songs sung in German? lolol!

Oh, I love it!

Pat Bertram said...

John, I'm sitting here trying to think of something clever and witty to say, but nothing comes to mind, so I'll just say that I'm looking forward to reading your articles.

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Pat. I always enjoy reading yours.

Sia, my grandfather was German so I am allowed to talk about that.

Here's the story: He arrived in the United States at 21 to work with his uncle who had corned much of the Nickelodeon market in an area of New York. ("Nickelodeons" were an early 20th century form of small, neighborhood movie theaters. Silent pictures with the piano player.)

My "brilliant" grandfather decided there was no future in motion pictures so he returned to Germany.

Years later he returned to America as the export manager of a small crane manufacturer in rural Pennsylvania.

If someone — anyone — had given my grandfather a whack on the side of his head, I would currently be living in Hollywood in a mansion with a pool populated by starlets.

Don't get me started ...

~Sia McKye~ said...

Awww, John, how sad. No starlets, no Mansion in Hollywood, sigh... Just living in Marin near one of the most beautiful bodies of water in California, minutes away from mountains, The City, the ocean, life is just so unfair sometimes, is it?

John Philipp said...

OK, it's nice but it is a starlet-free environment.

Pity accepted.

Unknown said...

Appreciate if you could furnish me some of your recommended copy writers. Thanks and look forward to hearing from you,

aries18 said...

John, I knew you were funny, I just didn't know you worked at it at all, you make it look quite easy. Nice to see you on Sia's blog.

Sia, thanks for another terrific guest!

John Philipp said...

Thanks, Aries. The other option is that I work at making people think I work at it. :)

readwriteandedit said...

John is a gentleman, a humorist, a writer, and a man of many fine qualities. I'm afraid his great lessons on humor writing, however, have not taken in me. Maybe I just don't want to work at humor, thinking that it should be, well, fun?

Okay, I want me one of those edit genies. I even promise to let him/her/it out of the bottle quite often. How else could I get it to do all my work for me?

~Sia McKye~ said...

John says no go on the bottled edit genies, something about the Union, Beth. Hmmm. I'm thinking he might not want to share...

I like humor to flow, but even when it does, like with any writing, it needs tweaking.

John Philipp said...

Beth, you are an edit genie.

If you had a newspaper copy editor, one thing you'd learn is they don't do humor, they do AP Stylebook.

My only discussions/arguments with him are over humor e.g. he doesn't understand that sometimes capitalizing the beginning of certain words/expressions is funny.

He also gets a rash when I make up words.