Publishing Humorous Essays
“How do I begin getting humorous essays published? One freelancer said that one sells the idea before doing the piece. Can you recommend a starting point? Much appreciated, Mickey.”
My thanks to Mickey for this question.
First, I want to meditate on the word “humorous” for a moment. Jackman Wilson, editorial page editor for The Register Guard, visited my Reporting class this morning, and noted that humorous social commentary is particularly difficult to write. I agree. Sometimes, other people regard what I think it hysterically funny (Steve Ibsen’s video “Kitty Cat Dance,” for example) as banal. Other times, it’s tricky to navigate a serious social issue with a lighthearted touch that enhances, rather than diminishes the subject’s significance.
Let’s say, however, that you’re really witty and you feel confident that you can maintain a humorous tone throughout an essay. Do you pitch the idea to editors, or do you send the entire essay?
Almost always, emerging writers with few publications to their name need to write the entire essay first. An editor wants to be able to gauge how your lead works with your conclusion, and needs to be able to consider your overall guiding thesis.
If you’re interested in publishing humorous essays, these are the steps I regularly take; hopefully, they’ll work for you!
1. Get inspired and drop everything–dinner preparations, homework, reruns of Arrested Development–and scribble an entire rough draft in one setting. This draft can be really, really putrid.
2. Let the rough draft sit for a week or two. Don’t look at it, but do think about it while you’re washing dishes, running six miles in the rain, or bathing the dog.
3. Revisit the rough draft. Type it out again, and read it out loud to yourself as if you’re auditioning for radio. Make changes. Be open to the possibility of changing the piece completely.
4. Ask two trusted critics to review your essay with an honest eye. Suggest that they boldly let you know where the humor works and where it doesn’t. Ask them what they learn by the end of the essay–they should feel like they’ve been on a journey from question to answer along with the narrator. Buy them a double-shot mocha for being so cool.
5. Revise once more and read the piece aloud to fine tune and catch typos. Then, identify a magazine or newspaper that seems well-suited to your work. Go to the publication’s website and look at the Submission Guidelines, then identify the appropriate editor and send the essay with a brief cover letter that reads something like this:
Dear Ms. Harrison, I’d like to submit my essay titled “Why Steve’s ‘Kitty Cat Dance’ Rocks” to Cat Luv. My work has appeared on line at Kittenz Magazine. Thanks so much for your time and consideration. Sincerely, (your name).
Last week, High Country News published my humorous essay “The Vitality of Language”–this piece went through the rigorous writing and editing process described above, and I believe it also involved quite a lot of Euphoria chocolate. Around the same time, the editor put out a call to her regular contributors for humorous environmental essays, and I was able to pitch her an idea without completing the essay.
Once your work starts appearing regularly in a publication, the editor will sometimes contact you to say something like “We need a humorous essay pegged for Mother’s Day. Send me three ideas.” This is when you’re free to pitch ideas without writing a complete essay.