Writing Funny in Your Personal Essays
Written by
Kaye Curren
November 2018
Written by
Kaye Curren
November 2018

You can add life to a personal essay in two ways. Either you can create a laugh-out-loud scenario by taking an experience and making it silly, ridiculous, or just plain outrageous. Or you can sprinkle humor throughout an otherwise serious essay. Either way, your readers will appreciate your efforts to lighten up their stressful days with some laughs, smiles, or chuckles.

Of course, as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is humor in the individual funny bone. In writing humor, you don’t want to worry too much about pleasing everyone – that’s probably not going to happen. But you can come close by making your personal essay about experiences that your readers can relate to.

I have found one of the best ways to learn to write humor in my essays is to read other people’s and study how they do it. I think I started young with the comics in the newspaper. Today, I have a list of favorite authors I return to again and again - Erma Bombeck, Dave Barry, Nora Ephron, and Bill Bryson to name a few. I think I’ve learned much by reading of their hilarious life adventures.

I have found if I ponder awhile on everyday happenings, I can’t help seeing the funny side. Events like my child getting ready for school and finding bumps in her socks. Or us retrieving a hamster from under the bathroom sink. Erma Bombeck was the queen of making everyday family occurrences laugh-out-loud funny. She taught me to see the humor in everyday happenings.

Life can hand you a smorgasbord of funny incidents that you can relate to your readers with creative story-telling. For example, I had a crazy theatre experience when the leading lady missed her cue, and I was thrust onto the stage to fill the gap, dry mouth, panic and all. Another: my daughter’s wedding in Spain which handed me ready-made scenarios such as my future son-in-law flashing past me naked in a communal dressing room – a room my daughter had arranged. As Dave Barry tells us, you can’t make these things up.

How to write a funny essay? I think you first need a story. Stringing jokes together isn’t going to work for the personal essay. I usually start by constructing a story without thought of what’s humorous - unless of course, the humor is completely built in. I try to find my beginning, middle, and end, my rising action to climax and denouement to develop the story. I work on it until I like the flow of the basic story.

Next, I funny it up. I find ways to add laugh-inducing dialogue, and I look for funnier words than those I started with. (Did you know the “K” words are the funniest?) I look for twists of the usual. I try to introduce surprise, if possible. Then I look for the very best punchline for my ending, bringing my story to a satisfying, and hopefully humorous, conclusion.

To sum up, here are some tips from established humor writers on how they make their personal essays funny.*

•    Find the eccentricities and foibles in human experience.

•    Pay attention to the mundane.

•    Twist a cliché.

•    Use nutty metaphors and similes.

•    Don’t tell the reader something is funny – show him.

•    Be specific-give details.

•    Exaggerate.

•    Find a way to incorporate surprise.

*Many thanks to Susan Shapiro, Paul Angone, and Richard Nordquist for these humor writing tips.


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