How to Write Humor
by Jim Foreman




This book has finally come full circle. It is ending as it began, by telling you that it isn't the ultimate reader who you have to please, but it's some faceless, and perhaps nameless, editor. If you can't find an editor who has enough faith in your story to invest some of the publisher's space and money in it, then your humor will never become ink on paper. No matter how well written, or how outrageously funny it might be, all of your work and ideas will be down the drain unless you can find that particular editor who will print it. So, just how does one go about finding the most productive place to send his work?

In the first place, a query letter from an unknown author is a waste of time because the editor has no idea of what or how you write. No matter how good your idea might sound, he probably won't even bother to respond. Query letters only work for you after you have sold a certain editor one or two previous articles and he knows what he can expect to see from you. Even if he already knows you and your work, he had much rather see the finished manuscript. Naturally, you should enclose a cover letter with any submission, whether it is your first to that editor or the tenth. More on writing cover letters later in this chapter.

Considering that you are yet to become a highly published author, then you would probably be wasting both time and postage by sending your material to magazines such as Readers Digest, Redbook and Esquire. Your work could be just as good as much of what they presently use, but unfortunately, you lack the name recognition which they are buying as much as the content of the articles. The big-name publishers receive thousands of unsolicited submissions each month and most of them are dumped into what is known as the "slush pile" where if they are read at all, it is by someone far below the editorial levels.

An editor from Readers Digest, who was attending a recent writers conference, stated that they automatically return without reading, all unsolicited submission which are not in the accepted form. He said that they did this because they had found that if the author didn't know the basic form for submission, then they usually lacked the basic ability to write to their desired standards. I'm sure that Readers Digest is not alone in this policy.

For those magazines which do read most of what is sent to them, it is usually done by college English and journalism students or by various office staff members who scan through articles between their regular tasks. In either case, it is very difficult for an unknown author to get a reading of his work by someone who is in a position to make a final decision on it.

An editor for one of the larger book publishing houses said that they have a slush pile reading party every Friday night. They order in pizzas and beer for the twenty or thirty people who will be reading that night. When they divide up the boxes of manuscripts which have come in that week, it is not unusual for each reader to have up to half a dozen to look at. Since it would be impossible for any one person to eat his pizza, drink his beer and read that many manuscripts in a couple hours, the best that they can do is give each one a quick scan. This usually consists of reading the synopsis, the list of chapters and possibly the first one or two chapters. He also said that unfortunately, the readers seldom look for the best manuscript but instead, it often turns into a contest to see who can find the worst one. Once in a while, the cream will rise to the top of the slush pile and your work be seen by a real editor, but not often.

So how does an aspiring humor writer get his work seen by an editor and hopefully, published? Rather than beating your head against the wall trying to break into that elite dozen or so big publications, try fishing in the smaller ponds. Remember that three little fish will make as good a meal as one big one. At last count, there was something like 50,000 regional magazines, trade publications, in-house magazines and weekly newspaper inserts such as Parade, Review and Lifestyle. Look over the magazines which come into your own mailbox for ideas. If you receive and read a certain magazine on a regular basis, then you should be aware of what they like to publish and would know whether your article would fit or not. If a magazine uses short filler pieces, try a few of those first as a method of introducing yourself to the editor.

Without a doubt, the best place for an author to meet editors, agents and fellow writers is at writing seminars. Many colleges offer professional writing seminars during the summer months and the better ones are able to attract editors from some of the top publishing houses to be guest speakers. After the general sessions, these editors usually hold small forums in which they meet with authors on a personal basis. This is where you can give them a quick sketch of what you have written and learn whether they would be interested in seeing it or not. If they show an interest in your idea, then you can hand it directly to them or else mail it to their attention.

Quite often, what you have written might not be what this particular editor is seeking, but he will possibly give you the name of another editor with his firm who might like to see it. The benefit of having the name of a particular person to address your submission to is that it will usually go directly to that person's desk without being opened in the mail room. This greatly improves your chances that the right person will look at what you sent.

Another group of people who attend seminars as guest speakers are literary agents who are seeking a few new writers to represent. Some of the agents who appear will be relatively new people in the business who are wanting to establish a file of clients. The more established agents may be there to replace lost clients or else to expand their list. Either way, if they are willing to take the time to appear at these seminars, they are going to be receptive to all new writers who would care to visit with them.

If you attend one of these writing seminars, take whatever you have ready to show with you and if it has any merit, there is a good chance that either an editor or agent will take it with him. Even if he returns it to you after it has been at his office for a while, he will usually write a short note to you outlining why he could not use or sell it for you. This can be most valuable information for you to use in order to avoid the same mistakes on the next article. You can rest assured that if an agent is willing to take the time to read your material, then he feels that you have something worthwhile. After all, the only way that they make any money is by selling your work and they aren't about to waste time on something which they feel to be unselable.

All legitimate agents work on a commission basis and they don't get paid unless they sell something. Any agent who asks you to pay him for reading your material or asks for any sort of advance fee should be avoided like the plague.

While attending a serious seminars may seem to be rather expensive, consider the vast amount of information, help and personal contacts that you can derive from having been there. Costs of these seminars vary considerably, as does what they offer in return. However, almost without exception, any professional writing seminar offered by the writing department of a college or university will return vast dividends for money spent. If you get nothing else from attending, the enthusiasm that it will generate in you will be worth the cost.

The next place to look for a market is in Writers Market. While this directory is published annually, it is often out of date by the time that it hits the bookstores and libraries. Editors change, policies change and publications go in or out of business. However, it is still the best locally available source of information available to the writer. Each listing will give the name and address of the publication, as well as what field they generally cover. It may also give the names of various editors and, hopefully, the humor editor. As I said before, having the name of an editor to whom you can address your submission is a big step in the right direction. The listing often gives areas in which they are seeking material as well as what they are not interested in seeing. Many of the magazines will send you sample copies, writing guides and payment schedules if you request them.

Once that you have written your humor piece and picked the most likely target, let's talk about the accepted form for submitting it. If you go down to the grocery store to buy a gallon of milk, you expect it to be in a plastic jug with a lid. What would you do if you got there and all their milk was in paper bags--you'd walk away. The same is true when it comes to packaging your work for presentation to an editor. He expects it to be in the form which he is accustomed to seeing.

If you do your writing on a word processor or computer, then it is very easy to tell it just what to do. If you write on a typewriter, then you have to put the proper heading on each page individually. All submissions, with the exception of those going to newspapers, should be typed double space on plain white paper. For some reason, newspaper editors like to see triple spaced submissions. The margins should be set for 60 characters per line and 25 lines per page. This gives an average of 250 words per page which makes it easy for the editor to judge the space that it will require. The title, author's name and chapter number should appear at the top of each page and those pages be numbered sequentially from front to back. Even if your word processor is willing to do so, you should not justify the right margin of your work. Even though that makes it look nice and neat, it makes it more difficult to read.

At this point, I want to stress that I know of no editor who will even consider handwritten submissions. By the same token, one should never use a typewriter with script or other fancy type for manuscripts. Use nothing but black type, 10 characters per inch and standard size, white paper. Do everything that you can to make it easier for the editor to read your manuscript as it will greatly increase the possibility that he will read all of it.

This is a sample of the accepted form for the first page of a manuscript about THE COW THAT ATE TEXAS. On the first line is the title of the article. At the right margin on that same line is the author's full name, followed by his address, phone number with area code and Social Security Number. They can't send you a check without your Social Security Number so they can file the proper forms with the IRS. This is the first page and the Number 1 should either be centered or placed at the right margin at the bottom of the page. If you write on a word processor using continuous paper, the pages should be separated and the perforated edges removed.

2108 East Hills Dr.
Moore, OK 73160
Phone 405/799-1688
SSN 123-45-6789

(Drop down to the middle of the page and write the title)


By: Jim Foreman

She was a big old yellow cow with one horn which pointed toward the sky and the other toward hell, the place from which she had most certainly spawned. She had the appetite of three bears, two elephants and a threshing crew.......


This is a sample of the headings for the second and following pages if there is more than one chapter.

COW THAT ATE TEXAS/Foreman Chapter 1

While most of her bovine sisters were content to munch on the lush green grass which grew belly high as far as the eye could see, this old yellow devil much preferred the contents of picnic baskets, ice chests and........


If it is a short article with only one chapter, this is the proper form for the heading.


She knew just how far the average person could hurl a rock and would stand about three feet past his maximum range.....

If there are fewer then eight to ten pages to be sent, including the cover letter, it is permissible for it to be folded once and mailed in a 6 X 9 envelope. When there are more than ten pages, it should be shipped flat in a 9 X 12 envelope with a cardboard stiffener. Manuscripts with more than about 50 pages should be sent in a cardboard box.

Now we come to the cover letter which should be sent along with every manuscript. This is a business letter and should be treated as such in every way, from the heading to the final signature. In this letter is where you introduce yourself to the editor and is certainly no place for you to show him just how funny you can write. Leave that up to the article. The first paragraph should be short and to the point, telling the editor what you are sending and why. Here is a sample first paragraph which you may use as is or alter to suit your needs. Naturally, the heading would include your name, address, telephone number and date of the letter.

Mr. Sam Brown, Editor
1000 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010

Dear Mr. Brown;

Enclosed is the manuscript for THE COW THAT ATE TEXAS. I am offering it for your consideration on a one-time use basis at your usual editorial rates. It has not been offered or published elsewhere.

If you have had this article, or a similar one, published elsewhere, be sure to tell him. If it has been published in another magazine, he probably won't care unless it is one which is in direct competition to his or else goes to basically the same list of people. While most editors do not demand absolute virginity in the articles that they buy, they really become upset if they feel that they have been betrayed by an author. If this happens, you might as well save the postage needed to mail anything else to them, because that will be the end to your association with that publication.

If you haven't made a sale to a particular editor, the second paragraph of the cover letter is used to tell him something about yourself which would be of interest or benefit to him. This isn't a resume and you aren't applying for a job, so include only the facts which are needed.

Since this is my first submission to you, please let me tell you a bit about my background. I am a freelance writer with articles published in such magazines as: Mechanics Illustrated, Accent West, Southwestern Art and Lifestyle. The content of these articles include technical, western history and humor.

No matter how many magazines have used your articles in the past, list no more than four in this paragraph. If you have a large number of clients, list those which you feel will impress him the most and those which publish articles with similar content to his. Remember, this is a simply a sketch about yourself to let him know a bit about your background. Even if you have never sold a word before, you can still use this paragraph to your benefit.

Since this is my first submission to you, please let me tell you a bit about myself. I am a sales manager for the Widget Company and write my own humor for use in my sales meetings. It goes over very well in spoken form, so I decided to see if it has similar appeal to a wider audience.

If your story is on a computer disk and you don't care to pay postage to get this printout back, use this as a last paragraph in your cover letter. Include a standard post card with your name and return address on it.

If you cannot use this material, please dispose of this copy and return the enclosed post card with any comments which you care to make.


Jim Foreman

As a rule, I never ask for the return of anything shorter than about 50 pages in length. First, because it will usually come back in such a sad state that I would not care to send it out to another editor and the cost of postage would exceed the cost of running a new printout. A self-addressed post card invites the editor to make some comment which might be very useful in future dealings. For one thing, it puts him on a more personal basis with you and he might possibly give you a hint of why he rejected your story.

The final part of this chapter deals with keeping some sort of record where things are and where they have been. Some magazines will hold articles for several months and during that time, you can forget where it is. Also, knowing where it is and how long it has been there gives you a chance to follow up with a short note to the editor to be sure that he received it. I would say that two or three months is a reasonable length of time for something to lay on an editor's desk before you needle him. The best way to do this is by sending a very short, handwritten note saying that you were simply checking on your story to see if he had received it. Enclose a self-addressed post card with the name of the article in the upper left corner. This leaves him plenty room to respond. This is something which he can handle in a matter of seconds and does not need to involve his secretary. Most editors who want to hold an article for possible future use will send a postcard saying so. Some will even give you an approximate date on which they will make a decision.

The worst problem with the long turnaround time is that anything which is the least bit topical can be totally useless by the time that you could submit it to someone else. Yesterday's news is usually like yesterday's salad, too limp and wilted to be interesting. That is why I tend to stay away from topical issues, no matter how inviting they might seem at the time.

Some magazines budget their space for primary articles as much as two years in advance and it isn't unusual for eighteen months to pass between submission and the time that you actually see it in print. Most general interest magazines try to maintain a certain mix of articles in order to suit the greatest number of readers. That is that they try to have one article for each of their major departments, like health, fitness, travel, food, and yes, even humor in each issue. Then there are the various seasons and holidays that they have to take into consideration. Suppose you write an article which involves cooking a turkey, the only two months that would fit are November and December. Since most magazines pay on publication, a person can get quite a bit of material tied up in the pipeline before the checks start coming in.

I wrote a "turkey" story and it was held for almost two years before the magazine finally published it. I was aware that it would be usable only in November or December issues and was prepared for a long "hold" before it would see print. Here is the story and you can see that, no matter what the subject, the basic forms for writing humor apply. You will also note that it is also written from the woman's viewpoint. No matter which gender you might happen to be, you will have better results if you write from the viewpoint of the general readership of the magazine to which you submit the story.


By: Jim Foreman

No one ever seems to know how the ultimate selection is made; if it's resolved in a committee meeting of some sort or simply by the laws of chance, but there comes the time in the life of almost every person when they are faced with the task or duty of hosting the holiday dinner for the whole family.

While the individual players might vary from one family to the next, this is a thumbnail sketch of the assemblage of kit and kin you can expect to descend on your house. At the peak of the family tree will be Grandma and Grandpa. Grandma, the self- ordained matriarch of the family, parks her walker where it will disrupt the greatest movement of traffic and launches into a litany of people who have died from various ailments. Interspersed between the medical histories of people that you've never heard of, she alternates between shouting instructions to the kitchen and yelling at the kids for making too much noise. Her cooking instructions usually center around, "Don't forget to put plenty salt the green beans while they are cooking, put lots of salt and butter in the mashed potatoes and don't use any of that artificial sweetener stuff because it causes cancer." If she could get her walker started, she would be in the kitchen, attacking every pot with the salt shaker. Around the family, she is known as "Old Salty".

Grandpa, who is both hard of hearing and flatulent, parks himself off in a corner where he cups his hand to his ear and shouts, "Sez What!" every time that he passes gas because he thinks the noise is someone talking to him. He can remember the smallest detail of something which happened in 1946 but can't remember what he had for breakfast.

Along with your parents come a whole bunch of aunts and uncles, trailing a variety of in-laws and outlaws. You probably won't be exactly sure where the in-laws stop and the outlaws begin, but you can be sure that at some point, your mother-in-law will mention that "nice girl" that her son almost married. There will be one aunt who always brings along her dog that she claims than can sing, but its screeching sounds more like fingernails on a blackboard. There will be another one who, even though she can't make Jell-O without scorching it, insists on helping cook. Her theory on cooking is, "If it's smoking, it's cooking. If it's black, it's done."

In spite of the fact that you have the menu planned to the last detail, another one of the aunts will charge into the kitchen and start whipping up her special holiday dish; a turnip, anchovy and jalapeno casserole which she calls her "Mexican Surprise". Everyone who has ever tried it calls it "Montezuma's Revenge".

Along with all the aunts will be at least two "funny" uncles.

One of them likes to sneak up behind you and grab a quick feel just when you have both hands full and can't slap him, however he is smart enough to keep out of your way when you have a knife in your hand. The other one knows the dirty lyrics to at least a hundred songs which all the kids will be singing before the day is over. His favorite trick is "Pull My Finger". It's enough to make you wonder why your parents seem to be the only normal people in the family.

Swinging from the limbs of the family tree at your own level are your siblings with their respective spouses, along with cousins by the dozens. The curious thing about cousins is that the older that they get, the more that they look and act like their parents. You'd need a scorecard in order to keep up with all the marriages, affairs, fights, divorces and other marital or domestic calamities which go on among them. Unless you happen to be an only child, there will be at least one brother-in-law who brags incessantly about how much he is worth while another one will try to borrow money from you before the day is over.

Finally, there is an endless variety of creepers, crawlers, screamers, rug rats and yard apes. Don't forget the moody teenagers who walk around with Walkman headphones permanently attached to their skulls. The moment that the greatest pressure to get everything off the stove at the same time arrives, a swarm of little ankle-biters will surge into the kitchen, drag all the pots and pans out of the cabinets and leave them scattered around the floor like aluminum death traps. You no more than get everything stuffed back into the cabinets and the dish washer loaded with dirty pots, you discover that there is no hot water because one of the teenagers has taken a fifty-five minute shower with the water at full force.

In spite of all the unwanted help that you had in the kitchen, you finally get the meal on the table. In order to reduce the number of dishes to wash and give the water heater time to recover, you drag out paper plates and plastic forks. The instant that Grandma assumes her position at the head of the table, she says, "Food don't taste good on these things. Take them away and bring me a real plate and fork." Following her cue, twenty-six kids also refuse to eat off paper plates.

Finally, the adults and most of the big kids are seated around the big table, middle size kids are relegated to card tables or else sitting on the stairs and three or four babies are pounding their spoons on the trays of borrowed high chairs. One of the teenagers looks around at all the food on the table and says, "Like, ain't you got nothing good to eat?"

Ever since the days when you sat in a highchair and was first to get served, Grandpa has always been the one who asked the blessing and carved the bird. The only problem is that the years have taken their toll on his ability to both pray and carve. As he begins the blessing which everyone knows will cover every family member both living and dead, three boys seated at the coffee table in the living room come to the realization that since the bird has only two legs, one of them is going to stuck with a wing. A fight erupts to determine who the unlucky one will be. While the three boys are thrashing around on the living room floor, the singing dog bites one of them on an ear, which causes a considerable increase in the level of noise. Grandma yells for all the kids to keep quiet so Grandpa can finish the blessing.

In all the confusion, Grandpa gets sidetracked from the blessing and starts telling about when he tried to join the Navy the day after the Japs attacked Pearl Harbor but they turned him down because of flat feet. Grandma finally saves the day when she kicks Grandpa on the shins and yells, "Say Amen and shut up you old fool."

In his younger days, Grandpa could handle a carving knife like a brain surgeon wielding a scalpel. With long, deft strokes of a razor sharp knife, he could quickly convert a whole turkey into a neat stack of breast meat slices on one side of a mound of stuffing and a pile of drumsticks, thighs and wings on the other. However when the doctors put him on a new medication a couple years ago, they advised to keep all sharp objects away if he wanted to keep all his fingers and thumbs. The solution was to go high-tech, so someone bought him an electric carving knife just for these special occasions.

With his electric knife in one hand and a leg in the other, he began a hand-to-drumstick wrestling match with the turkey. Instead of simply holding the knife and letting the electric motor do all the work, he began to hack and saw away at the bird with it. Just when everyone thought that Grandpa was winning, the bird tried to escape by sliding off the platter and onto the antique lace tablecloth, knocking over three glasses of iced tea and sending a blizzard of little pink packets of artificial sweetener sailing in the air. Everyone at the table leaped to their feet to stem the tidal wave of tea and rescue the Sweet and Low. While they were mopping up the flood, the straining motor on the electric knife gave up the ghost in a shower of sparks and a cloud of acrid smoke. Grandpa tossed the dead knife into a corner and announced that he was going to the car to get his pistol and then he'd show that bird who was boss. No one bothered to stop him because they knew that he hadn't owned a gun in forty years.

One of the funny uncles, who worked at an auto wrecking yard, decided that since the turkey and an automatic transmission were about the same size and shape, their disassembly should be similar, so he took over the carving. With his basic knowledge of hand tools limited to hammers and blow torches, when he finished with the turkey it looked like something which had been through the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. While all this was going on, one aunt poured more tea while another one retrieved Grandpa who was standing in the middle of the driveway, trying to remember what he was doing out there.

Plates were filled, conversation ceased and the room was filled with the happy sounds of chomping, chewing and slurping. Even the singing dog, which had been given the end piece of a wing to chew on, was quietly smearing grease on the carpet in the corner. Everyone's total attention was on the meal except for you. You are busy counting the number of brothers, sisters, cousins and other assorted relatives whose turn it will be to cook the bird before it comes around to you again.

See, there is almost no end to the subjects which can lend themselves to humor. This story works because just about everyone can identify with at least half of the people in this story.

A number of years ago, when I had just begun to write magazine articles, I sent a particular story out to a rather obscure magazine which I found listed in Writers Market. It was called Coal People and was published in the heart of West Virginia coal mining. From the information given about them in their write-up, they were looking for humor. I can't remember what the article was about but concluded that they would be an ideal market for that particular story. As it turned out, the editor returned it with a form rejection slip.

This story, along with several others, came and went from time to time. One day when I was searching for possible markets for some of my rejected articles, I noticed a certain magazine which seemed to be an ideal place to send that particular story, so I shipped it off with the highest of hopes. A week or so later, the story came back but this time it had a hand-written note from the editor clipped to the first page. It read, "I didn't like this story the first time that I read it and liked it even less the second time. I don't appreciate you trying to sneak a rejected story back across my desk."

I really felt silly for having sent an editor the same story twice and decided that if I was going to call myself a writer, I had to do something to keep up with what was going on. I established a card file system for my stories with indications of when and to whom each had been sent and when it was bought or returned. I would also knew how many times a particular story had been rejected, which would give me a good idea about when it was time to stop wasting time and postage and give it a descent burial in the trash. Later, when I converted to a computer for writing, a simple data base program made the my record keeping much easier.

I couldn't simply lick the wounds caused by the slashing pen of an irate editor and decided that I would try to make the best out of a bad situation. I wrote him a very nice note as follows:

"Thanks for returning the story which I mistakenly sent to you the second time, and for the comment that I was trying to sneak it past you. I had much rather be known as sneaky than stupid any day. Since it is painfully obvious that you don't like that story, perhaps you could tell me what you would like to see and I'll do my best to comply."

A week or so later, I received a very nice letter from the editor. In it, he said that his magazine dealt with the people involved in the coal mining industry and he would be open to any human interest article concerning present or past coal miners. The last part of his letter was the real surprise. "Since you live near Denver, would you care to represent this magazine and cover the Western Mining Exposition which is being held there in two weeks? Please call me collect if you can handle this assignment."

Our association which began on such rocky ground, lasted for about six years until I moved away from Colorado. During that time, I became their Western Correspondent with an assigned article or story of some sort in almost every issue.

I suppose that this proves the old maxim that if one is handed a lemon, the best thing to do with it is open a lemonade stand.

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