Statistical Significance: Making Sense of Numbers

Like a lot of writers and artists, I had an aversion to math when I was younger. Then, I took a statistics class in high school, and it changed the way I viewed the study of mathematics, its real-world application, and, perhaps most profoundly, my own ability to understand analytical concepts.

It sounds incredibly geeky, but once I learned the difference between mean, median and mode, and how frequently they’re confused, I never looked at statistics in a news report, election result, textbook chapter, or research paper in the same light.

Lately, I’ve read more than a handful of articles and press releases that misuse or leave out statistics gathered via surveys or studies.

As professional writers, we occasionally need to delve into the world of math and statistics. Whether you’re preparing a press release, writing an article for the company website, or reporting the news, your facts may rely on figures.

What you don’t want is to be associated with that old saying about lying with statistics. Your credibility rests on your transparency with numbers, especially when the goal is something like press coverage, promotion or a fact-driven news story.

Here are some basics for writing with numbers:

Include the number of subjects who participated in a survey or study
This figure is an absolute requirement (and I’ve seen it missing from more than three recent press releases or website posts in as many months). It is, after all, the starting point for any survey or study and it provides the reader with an ability to judge how relevant the data might be.

Note that in any study or survey there’s a percentage of answers or results that must be discarded: a participant chose not to answer one or more of the questions or results from a lab test were unclear. From a pool of 400 participants, a plus or minus error rate of 1 – 2 percent might be acceptable, but if only 10 people took the time to fill out a survey, even one incomplete or botched entry makes a huge difference to the quality of results.

Frankly, if the participating group is as small as 10, the survey or study probably doesn’t hold a lot of weight scientifically. This hasn’t stopped reporting of such results, but frequently what the reader isn’t told, because it would cast doubt on the validity of both the results and the assertions made about them, is how many people were in the study group.

In scientific and medical research, groups that small are often part of preliminary studies, which is why there is so much regulation around reporting findings that may not have any bearing on larger populations of patients.

Provide a breakdown of participant groups
The more details you provide, the more credible your story becomes. It doesn’t necessarily make the survey or study more credible, but you give your reader the ability to assess the information based on their own understanding of the subject and related facts.

Participant details (as long as you are sharing non-identifying, unconfidential information) can include things like gender, age group, political affiliation, economic strata, professional experience, blood type, etc.

Share types of questions asked, specific information or samples gathered from subjects
Certainly, there’ll be articles where this counts as too much detail, but in a scientific study it might be essential to understand that blood samples were taken within a certain time period following the administration of medication.

For surveys, sharing a greater level of detail comes in handy when highlighting a particularly notable response. Knowing the question helps the reader analyze the answers.

You get bonus points for including the scale used to score a survey (and for using more complex scales – five response options rather than two or three – when conducting a survey in the first place).

Be clear about the scope of findings
Avoid at all costs “universalizing” results. This is a mistake I see frequently. Unintentionally or not, extrapolating findings from the original study group to a large population (for example, using one exit poll to predict an election) misrepresents the scope of the results. It’s striving for a significance that isn’t there.

A survey or study has a specific number of participants; the findings refer to the original population, especially with only one study and no further research to verify the original results.

Results must be qualified with statements like “among people who took the survey,” “according to survey respondents,” “in the study,” and, for large studies, the data may need to be further broken down to percentages within the various subgroups (such as, “x% of the women/seniors, etc., in the study population experienced reactions”).

Avoid calling survey or study methodology “scientific”
Like extrapolating data, appending the word “scientific” to any old survey or study is striving for a kind of credibility the research may not have earned.

The scientific method has since the 17th century provided objective, measurable, repeatable standards and techniques for investigating subjects and gleaning new information. Wikipedia offers a more comprehensive explanation here, but suffice to say, if a study wasn’t conducted by an agency with no investment in the outcome (objective), didn’t start with a hypotheses against which results could be compared and contrasted, proved or disproved (measurable), and wasn’t repeated to ensure reliability of reporting, calling it “scientific” is a misuse of language. Speaking of which…

Understand key terms like “statistical significance”
The word “significant,” when attached to study data, does not translate as “key,” “momentous” or “important.”

“Statistically significant” is a phrase statisticians use when a result is “unlikely to have occurred by chance.” Which also doesn’t mean that it’s important simply because it’s unlikely. The unlikely result would need to be repeatable and measured through additional objective means (at the very least) in order to determine its real-world significance.

Do you have a mathematical pet peeve? What examples of exaggeration have you noticed when it comes to writing with numbers? Feel free to enumerate in the Comments.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“Figures often beguile me, particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’”
~ Mark Twain, “Chapters from My Autobiography”

Forget Flat Abs in Seven Days, Can You Write a Novel in a Month?

NaNoWriMo commences bright and early on Nov. 1, giving us ink-stained wretches about two weeks to clear our schedules and say goodbye to loved ones.

For the uninitiated, November is National Novel Writing Month – a theme month whose acronym can make you feel like Mork from Ork when trying to explain to skeptical friends what’s caused you to shun sunshine, shopping and TV while holed up in your apartment for 30 days and nights.

There’s plenty of debate about what it’s possible to create in a month – and what of that might be salvageable for a later draft – but, the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to write the first draft of a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, to keep your hand moving across the keyboard or page with nary a backward glance for editing or second guessing. “To write,” as the NaNoWriMo website puts it, “without having to obsess over quality.”

The endeavor encourages participants to start from scratch (rather than waste time agonizing over a partially developed outline or manuscript) and accept that almost every writer on the planet produces, to paraphrase Anne Lamott, crummy first drafts.

The NaNoWriMo website offers plenty of support, resources, advice and meet-ups in your area. It’s completely honest about expectations and the fact that you shouldn’t set yourself up to unleash the next Pride and Prejudice on the world come Nov. 30.

They understand how difficult it is for writers to shed the burdens of the workaday world and dedicate their schedules to creating – even if it is only a month. They’re realistic that at the end of 30 days, your spouse, partner, parents, children and/or boss are going to expect you to reappear and spend more time in their lives. But, they also believe that, if you’re a writer, one month isn’t too much to ask for.

The discipline it takes to write every day forms good habits and strengthens muscles we sometimes don’t even realize we have.

NaNoWriMo is kind of like the room of one’s own that writers need in order to imagine and create.

I’ve had good intentions in past years about doing NaNoWriMo, going so far as to make pacts with writer friends who planned to do it, too. One thing I’ve discovered about those previous (all unsuccessful) attempts was that the moment we let Day One slip by without churning out our 1,667 words (50,000 words divided by 30 days), we’d lost the game before it ever really got started.

I’ve also thought long and hard about whether it would be more helpful to bang out a novel in 30 days or to nail down one, fully realized short story. Perhaps NaShoStoWriMo is more my style. Because once you get in the habit of writing your own stuff, just for you, it’s a lot easier to keep going. And, after all, you can always designate any month of the year your personal NaNoWriMo, NaShoStoWriMo, NaPoWriMo (for poets), NaScreWriMo (screenwriters), NaBloWriMo (bloggers), etc., if November, with that pesky Tryptophan-laden, out-of-town-relative-packed holiday at the end of the month, doesn’t work for you.

So, NaShoStoWriMo is what I’ll be doing with my November evenings and weekends, when I’m not focused on clients.

How about you? Have you tried NaNoWriMo before? Are you tempted to join in this year? Have you ever given yourself a month (or six, or 12) to achieve something that really mattered to you? Share your thoughts in the Comments.

Join the Short Story Tweetathon and Tell a Tale with Fewer than 700 (Twitter) Characters

For the past four Wednesdays, the Society of Authors has sponsored a short story tweetathon, giving willing writers about an hour to continue a tale begun by a published author, such as Sarah Waters, Simon Brett and Joanne Harris. This week, the opening line comes from author and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman.

Once the guest curator has selected the winning contribution, it’s posted, and scribes have an hour to come up with the next line. And so on. The final story is available on the SoA website.

The final tweetathon starts tomorrow at 11 a.m. – that’s Greenwich Mean Time for folks based outside the U.K.

Contributors have less than the usual 140 Twitter characters, since the tweet must be submitted with the #soatale hashtag. Here, for example, is crime writer Ian Rankin’s Week 1 opener:

“I woke up on the floor of a strange bedroom, clutching a single bullet in my right hand. I couldn’t see any sign of a gun.” #soatale

SoA organized the tweetathon after the BBC made cuts to the amount of short stories aired during regular programming. As with cutbacks in magazines, like the Atlantic, this reduces the options for short story writers and restricts the exposure that readers might have to this important storytelling form, practiced by writers as varied as Tobias WolffHelen SimpsonErnest HemingwayLorrie Moore, and Ian McEwan, to name a very small handful.

For specifics on the tweetathon and SoA’s protest, visit the Society of Authors website.

Awkward Beginnings, Lamentable Ledes: How to Avoid First Lines that Lose Readers

"Like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses."

How does the first line of a story create itself in your mind? Do you start with a feeling you want to get across, a concept, or do certain words emerge and begin to form a sentence?

Though there are many kinds of writers – fiction, memoir, corporate, literary nonfiction, journalism – the one thing we’ve all had ingrained in us is that opening lines can make or break a story. Readers will decide to buy or reject a novel based solely on the first sentence. Reporters need to answer Who, What, When, Where, Why and How in their ledes. PR pros have one sentence to convince editors there’s a unique story angle in a press release.

Feature writers have a little more leeway (though not by much). They don’t have to cram in every story concept plus the “five Ws” at the starting line. Still, they must craft an opener that entrances readers enough to keep them turning, scrolling down or clicking through the pages.

It’s easy to find examples of first lines that are enticing, just as simple to spy the clunky ones. But, what makes the great lines sing while the bad ones hit sour notes? Below I’ve described four of the most obvious feature-story mis-ledes and how to avoid them.

The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamlined Lede
The language swoops and careens, U-turns and dive bombs, attempting to leave the reader dazzled, but more often rendering them dizzy and disoriented. Perhaps the writer has been spending a little too much time with Tom Wolfe?

If you’ve been writing as long as I have, you’ve probably penned an opener like this yourself. I certainly have and more than once. Two of those ledes I’m fine with, one makes me cringe to this day. The ones that worked did so because they were finely detailed descriptions of a sequence of events, giving the reader a visceral sense of being there – in the moment – with the subject of the article. The cringeworthy piece is a classic case of a young writer hepped up on too many doses of New Journalism, trying to bluff her way around a subject she didn’t quite understand, resorting to hyperbole.

I’m not here to knock Tom Wolfe or Hunter Thompson – they were masters of literary journalism, fanatic observers, astute cultural reporters. They remain required reading for any writer.

For feature writers (especially in the corporate world), this type of writing can be tricky, and not only because your reviewers (and even your profilees) may not appreciate or approve a bold approach. If you’re going to attempt this style of writing, you’ve got to be able to maintain it all the way through – and, like reading long stretches of dialogue written in vernacular, that may be more than your readers or the story can bear. More to the point, you’ll need to have accomplished some seriously in-depth reporting to maintain writing like this at feature length. Most of us don’t have the months (in some cases, years) to dedicate to that kind of immersion journalism, and most subjects won’t give you the access necessary to achieve it.

To see what I mean, here are Wolfe’s opening lines from “The First Tycoon of Teen”:

All these raindrops are high or something. They don’t roll down the window, they come straight back, toward the tail, wobbling, like all those Mr. Cool snowheads walking on mattresses. The plane is taxiing out toward the runway to take off, and this stupid infarcted water wobbles, sideways, across the window. Phil Spector, 23 years old, the rock and roll magnate, producer of Philles Records, America’s first teen-age tycoon, watches . . . this watery pathology . . . it is sick, fatal. He tightens his seat belt over his bowels . . . A hum rises inside the plane, a shot of air comes shooting through the vent over somebody’s seat, some ass turns on a cone of light, there is a sign stuck out by the runway, a mad, cryptic, insane instruction to the pilot—Runway 4, Are Cylinder Laps Main-side DOWN?—and beyond, disoriented crop rows of sulphur blue lights, like the lights on top of a New Jersey toothpaste factory, only spreading on and on in sulphur blue rows over Los Angeles County. It is . . . disoriented. Schizoid raindrops. The plane breaks in two on takeoff and everybody in the front half comes rushing toward Phil Spector in a gush of bodies in a thick orange—napalm! No, it happens aloft; there is a long rip in the side of the plane, it just rips, he can see the top ripping, folding back in sick curds, like a sick Dali egg, and Phil Spector goes sailing through the rip, dark, freezing. And the engine, it is reedy

Gripping stuff, right? Draws you in, sits you down in Spector’s airplane seat and makes you see, feel, gulp right along with the ‘60s hitmaker.

Now, think about how much reporting – how much detail – Wolfe includes in one short paragraph in order to place you into the mind of his subject.

“Sometimes I used point-of-view in the [Henry] Jamesian sense in which fiction writers understand it, entering directly into the mind of a character, experiencing the world through his central nervous system throughout a given scene,” Wolfe writes of his New Journalism pieces.

For the Spector profile, Wolfe continues, “I began the article not only inside his mind but with a virtual stream of consciousness. One of the news magazines apparently regarded my Spector story as an improbable feat, because they interviewed him and asked him if he didn’t think this passage was merely a fiction that appropriated his name. Spector said that, in fact, he found it quite accurate. This should have come as no surprise, since every detail in the passage was taken from a long interview with Spector about exactly how he had felt at the time.” (Italics mine.)

If you’ve been given full access to a subject and won his or her trust, I encourage you to go for it: note the details that seem especially meaningful to the person and relevant to your topic, go beyond basic questions to ask what they were thinking and feeling, ask what surprised them, what was unexpected, what embarrassed or unnerved them. This is how you will gather the specific images that make a fully realized picture, how compelling writing can be sustained over the length of a feature.

The Spotlight-on-You Start
Making the writer the subject is questionable in almost all circumstances. The clearest (and possibly only) case for using this approach is asking someone renowned to interview a colleague with the goal of generating spirited dialogue that enhances readers’ understanding of a complex subject.

The “all about me” lede is a hallmark of celebrity reporters, callow journalists and misguided flacks:

  • “Emma Stone is telling me why she’s so over ingénue roles.”
  • “It takes me eight hours, riding shotgun in a Jeep straight out of WWII military surplus with zero shocks and dubious tires, to cross the blazing desert to Zacaro’s hideout. He’s eluded the ruling junta for 14 desperate years, but I am the journalist he’s chosen to tell his story to.”
  • “This writer spent a fascinating morning watching candidate Joe Smith return to his roots as a history teacher when he held a sophomore class at an inner-city high school enthralled with descriptions of Revolutionary War skirmishes.”

Writers who embed themselves in the story typically don’t have enough material to create a strong feature. They’re padding. If you feel the urge to spotlight yourself because you didn’t get enough time with your subject or because there’s honestly not a lot to say about something, use your creativity in a different way. Use photographs, illustrations or charts to underscore the subject matter and let your text supply the captions. Or simply keep the story short – every subject doesn’t automatically deserve feature-length prose, and your readers will appreciate a two-graf article that clearly and concisely tells them what they need to know without any gratuitous filler.

Quoth the Maven
You’ll find many feature stories leading with a quote from the profilee and, though there’s nothing inherently wrong about this choice, there are two things to avoid if you use a quotation-lede:

Skip lengthy, ghost-written, off-topic and pedestrian quotes. A sparkling observation by your subject will grab readers’ attention, but quotes that cram in too many concepts (often crafted by well-meaning communications folks trying to encapsulate every message they want to get across) tend to make your audience’s eyes glaze over. And, while you may have a few great lines from your source, a witty remark that’s just there to entice the audience to read the article may backfire if the rest of the article doesn’t offer a similar payoff. Dull quotes are just that and don’t deserve prime real estate in your feature.

Starting with a quote inevitably leads to this kind of locution:

“The economy is so anemic, even large transfusions of cash won’t restore it to iron-blooded vigor.” That’s the assertion of economist Dan Smith…

It’s not like that “That’s” is a sin against the grammar gods, but this usage is so frequently employed that it will mark your feature as a dashed-off piece of journeyman journalism rather than a selection that deserves the reader’s attention.

Commencing with a Question
Similar to the quotation-lede, the Q&A format can feel like a fallback position to the reader, particularly when the Qs are generic (“Where did you get your start in business?”) and the As sound canned. Worse still is the Q&A that strives too hard for authenticity by transcribing every verbal tic or pause: um, uh, well, like, sort of, you know (you get the picture).

If you attempt a Q&A and the answers read like well-prepared messages – or worse, like your interviewee can only speak in half-sentences, never clearly explaining something – when you read it through while editing, this is a signal to leap to the reader’s aid. Rewrite the piece, using your prose to guide the audience through the subject, zeroing in on only the sharpest quotes.

Let’s face it, we all can’t be Mike Wallace squaring off with corrupt politicians for perspiration-inducing interrogations – and frankly it’s not our role to be Mike Wallace if we’re corporate communicators. But, if you want to give your audience edge-of-their-seat Q&As and would like some helpful reading about how it’s done, you could do worse than search old issues of Playboy. I am actually serious about that. The reality behind the old joke “I only read Playboy for the articles” is a long tradition of incisive interviews with world leaders, innovators, artists and authors – all Q&As. (You can probably stop looking after the mid-1980s, though…) Also, watch or revisit the movie “Frost/Nixon” to remind yourself of the kind of questions that inspire insightful answers, raising both interviewer and subject to more stimulating levels of discourse.

What are your favorite examples of bad beginnings? Which opening lines do you love because they serve the subject matter so perfectly? Share them in the Comments.

Boom for Real

There’s a reason I’ve been focusing on practice writing all week.

No matter what kind of professional writing we do – corporate, marketing, journalism, PR – when we’re working on an assignment and it’s time to get our fingers on the keyboard, typically two things are going on at once while we’re trying to craft great sentences:

  1. We’re on deadline, and
  2. We’re trying to find unique, meaningful ways to put words together to connect with our readers

Even if we’re used to turning out solid work on deadline, the combination of these two things can be deadly for interesting writing that resonates with our audience. It’s why practice writing is so important, because it helps take the pressure off the deadline (we’ve done this before and learned to do it well) and allows us to concentrate deeply on writing that connects.

I saw a beautiful documentary recently, called “Radiant Child,” about the late painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. Whenever I watch documentaries about artists – of the written word or the visual art variety – I’m always fascinated with the “How.” How they developed their style, how they get down to work every day, how they translate ideas into the solid three-dimensional world.

A number of people who knew Basquiat spoke about the confidence with which he wielded a brush, the speed, steadiness and directness of the brushstroke. Basquiat, who died at the very young age of  27, leaving behind more than 1,000 paintings and even more drawings, apparently had an expression for what was happening when he was creating.

“Boom for Real!” he called it.

What “Boom for Real” meant to Basquiat only he knew. But, the phrase resonates for me because those of us who write for a living are so frequently called upon to produce with speed, accuracy and brilliance each and every time content is needed.

It’s not so much about the rote repetition, the “Practice Makes Perfect” approach. It’s more about the confidence that all those practice sessions instills. It takes confidence to pound a keyboard under deadline pressure and make meaning of a story or messages in such a way that an audience feels the writing is real and relevant.

It’s why we practice so hard, so when the time comes, we’re ready to Boom for Real!

Craft Clever Headlines, Lure Huge Audiences, Earn Millions of Dollars & Love of Nation

The subject, as you’ve surely guessed, is practice writing for headlines. The crafting of great press release- and news article-toppers was a long, lost art until Twitter showed up and everyone started thinking like a headline-writer.

Since headlines are supposed to be short, sweet and to-the-point, I won’t belabor the discussion here, especially when this wonderful article by Jessica Levco, “5 tips for writing the sexiest, most stimulating headlines EVER!,” is available here.

The only thing I’ll add to Ms. Levco’s piece is that the best headlines aren’t necessarily the funniest or most clever – what’s key is capturing the essence of the content (news story, press release, tweet) that follows. In an oversaturated world of information, this is the best service you’ll provide your potential audiences. Help them, and refrain from annoying them by wasting their time, and even your headlines can define you as a valuable resource.

Around my office, we’re in awe of The Economist’s headers and captions. Smart, observant, funny, brief-but-encapsulating, they rarely put a foot wrong. Between pages 58 and 83 of one issue, I found a half-dozen great headlines and captions, including “Guttbye Guttenberg” over a story on the resignation of Germany’s defense minister because of allegations of plagiarism – the photo caption read “Copy, alt, delete.”

In the meantime, those of us who suffer from headline-writer’s-block (yes, that’s me), can practice on our Twitter accounts.

What Velveeta – and Ann Wylie – Can Teach You about Practice Writing

An interesting article by Ann Wylie illustrates the practice writing I’ve been talking about this week. She shows how you can take great sentences or grafs – something that really stood out for you when you read it – and use them as templates for what you’re trying to say.

It works for brand marketing, PR, journalism, fiction or blog post!

You can check out the article “Want to write better? Break down – and rebuild – your favorite prose in 3 steps” here.

Gate-crashing: Writing PR that Reads Like Reporting

Yesterday’s post about practice writing was weighted toward creative writing (not that professional communications can’t be creative, but, in this case, I was talking about fictional creative writing). Today, let’s look at it in the context of PR and corporate writers.

On the first day of work as a young PR professional, I was handed a clipboard with a three-inch stack of press releases penned by my predecessor. They were a helpful starting place: a guide to the way the institution positioned itself, branding language, boilerplate, the annual cycle of announcements, events and new hires.

BTW, in those days, that clipboard was the official storage file for press releases, so I wound up retyping things that I found useful, like boilerplate, into a computer for safe keeping – practice writing of the organization’s best practices.

Today, you’ll find company press releases on almost every corporate website, which makes it easy to see – and practice – your competitors’ best practices, especially those examples of releases that you know earned those other guys valuable media coverage.

But, if you’re going to be a great PR writer, learning the ins and outs of press release-writing doesn’t come solely from practice writing of press releases. The best practice is to study and copy the kind of writing done by the media outlets where you’re hoping to secure coverage. So, if that’s the industry trades, you’re going to be writing in a completely different, and more highly technical, style than a press release going to network and cable broadcast news organizations. Just like pitch letters, you may want to think about writing more than one press release per subject, each with its own targeted type of writing.

Study – and copy – your target media outlets’ writing for:

  • Style – is it newsy, technical, folksy, humorous, stodgy? Do columnists or bloggers have writing styles that vary from the rest of the publication or website?
  • Language – the nuances, catch phrases, technical terminology of the industry.
  • Substance – what facts or new information are revealed in stories, how are trends and thought pieces backed up by data? What is the publication’s commitment to reporting, digging for details?
  • Length – how long is the typical story about the subject of your press release? If their coverage of new business leaders runs to two grafs, how much of your two-page release will they be using?
  • Color – do they typically use quotes, statistics, sidebars? If you can provide similar items that match theirs, you may pick up additional coverage.

Keep on reading and copying your target media. It’s where you’ll pick up story ideas, learn who covers what subjects, discover which reporters have pet peeves and interests, and develop a style that reads less like PR and more like the story about your company or organization that you want to see online, on TV and in print.

Practice Writing

There are plenty of inspiring books that discuss the importance of writing practice – if you have a favorite writer, she or he has probably written one – so this post won’t go into detail about that. I assume, if you’re a writer, that you already have a regular practice.

No, this is about practicing someone else’s writing. Also known as “copying.” But, without plagiarizing. Perhaps you do this all the time, jotting down sentences from beloved books. Writers are obsessed with words and usage, and your journals, like mine, are probably dotted with examples that made your heart leap, stirred your mind and caught your fancy.

Do you practice writing these phrases? With intention?

I remember an instructor at Berkeley telling us that he spent a summer typing the screenplay for a movie he loved. The film had hit the theaters, and the instructor, then a young writer, had managed to get his hands on a copy of the screenplay. He spent a whole summer copying the thing (on a manual typewriter, in those days) just to understand how the writer had done it – how the story built, characters developed, dialogue formed and, the very essence of screenwriting, how the screenplay format worked.

A few days ago, reading filmmaker Edgar Wright’s blog, I saw that he’d done it too, locking himself into an edit suite at college with a stack of VHS tapes of other people’s movies, cutting together other directors’ footage of things like car chases and gun battles. He wanted to understand the visual lexicon.

“I basically made these for myself and to figure out how to edit,” he writes. (You can read his discussion of the “mash-up” process here and find links to both montages. Note that the blog post has one bit of language unsuitable for younger readers, and the “Gun Fetish” mash-up contains extremely violent images.)

The first writer who ever made me want to retrace his steps was probably Tom Wolfe. The first novelist was John Updike. I’ve sat in libraries, under trees, at kitchen tables, waiting for quiet to descend, slowly moving my pen across the page, trying to put myself in their minds, to see how the words came to these writers in that specific order. It’s a way of learning that can be as valuable as your own writing practice.

Writing that inspired me this week:

“The cave of his skull furs with nonsense.”
~ John Updike, “Commercial”


To undertake a post on humor is to tempt Fate. Or, as Tina Fey might have it, it’s waving baked goods under Fate’s nose when she’s trying to write.

Everyone gets tickled in a slightly different place on their funnybone.

Does humor have a place in professional writing – be it internal memos, magazine articles, executive speeches, or press releases? It definitely can, but a few guidelines can help.

  1. Know Your Audience: Isn’t this the case for all good writing and communications? You bet. Never more so than when using humor because humor is dependent on individual taste, background, and cultural, ethnic and religious norms.
  2. Have Something to Say: Humor is no substitute for delivering information that your readers or listeners can use. No matter how hard they laugh, if your audience is left with a lingering sense that they didn’t get something useful from your communication, they’ll ultimately feel they’re wasting their time.

Most pros advise going for puns rather than belly laughs. One key reason for this is that editors and avid readers are consumers of words and have a natural appreciation for word play. Do it with flair, and you may get column inches out of your press release.

Remember word play that relies on a visual interpretation of text will be far more difficult for an audience listening to a speech, however, verbal punning is perfect in these instances.

Likewise, while I have laughed till I developed a stitch in my side over the antics of Autocorrect and the LOL cats, if you’re trying to explain in writing what one of the “kittehs” at I Can Has Cheezeburger is doing, the joke will probably go down like a hairball.

Then, there’s being too clever: One company found this out the hard way when it used what it thought was a humorous soundbite to start off a video explaining why the company was downsizing. “I came to this meeting because I heard they were serving food,” chortled an exec on the video. Loss of job, loss of life, loss of lunch – these are not moments for levity unless you inhabit Quentin Tarantino’s world.

Your audience – employees, gentle readers, shareholders, the editor of a network news show – is made up of human beings. They respond to humor like we do, but it’s important to be respectful. And substantive. Humor won’t hide a lack of real news or information in your content. You don’t want to insult your audience or their intelligence.

What tickles your funnybone? Do have examples of written humor that works or fails?

Writing that inspired me this week:

“I think no innocent species of wit or pleasantry should be suppressed; and that a good pun may be admitted among the smaller excellencies of lively conversation.”
James Boswell