14 Writing Tips from the Mind Behind Dilbert (Bonus: 6 humor hacks)

How does the man famous for Dilbert write so expertly? Bet you didn’t know he was a writer. His latest book is a great read for anyone in any profession: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big.

Here are his tips from a video he recently published.

Focus on the right topic – one that somebody cares about. If you can make yourself or someone laugh, groan or get excited about a particular topic, you’re onto something. A physical change in the body will show that it’s worth writing and will help others. You also want to pick a familiar topic to write about, while avoiding strange topics. Audiences can’t change their outlook or orientation much during the short time they’re reading your work. Keep it familiar to them. Don’t write for yourself. Write for the audience. Adams also recommends using the “invisible friend” practice. Bounce your ideas and topics off of that imaginary friend. It could be a real person you know.

Evoke curiosity in the first sentence – This is your chance to make a first impression. Be provocative. Make them think, “Where is he going to go with this?”

Pace and lead the reader – Hypnosis instructs us to match the audience and be like them in important ways. Speak the way they speak. Talk about the things they care about. Show a type of emotion that connects with them. Act, dress, think like them. . . in words. Once they’ve identified with you, you can then lead. When you offer up a different or controversial idea, for example, they’re much more likely to follow. Tell them, “I know you’re thinking this now. .“ and show them the answer.

Write in direct sentences – Here’s the format: Subject does something. Example: “The boy hit the ball.” As opposed to, “The ball was hit by the boy.” It’s the same meaning, but your brain processes the first sentence faster, more economically. You don’t put a burden on the reader – especially over a long piece of copy. The same goes for passive voice.

Eliminate jargon, buzz words, adjectives, adverbs and cliches – This is especially important for nonfiction and business writing. Try this: Imagine that someone offers you $100 for any word you can take out of your writing, and the meaning stays the same. Example: “Tomorrow is going to be very hot.” “Tomorrow is going to be hot.” The reader can’t tell the difference when you eliminate the word very. They’ll remember the information at a later time. Simplicity.

Brevity = Brilliance – We’re wired in a way that we think brevity is equated with intelligence. Stanford University did a famous study on this. I wrote a post about it featuring the style of Earnest Hemingway. “When you simplify, you not only communicate better, you make your readers think you’re *smarter*.” Some people make the mistake of throwing in big words and jargon to show how smart they are. They will not register as being entirely smart. They may look knowledgeable, but they will look dumb in the way they presented information in a complicated way.

Make sentences musical – Make America Great Again vs. Stronger Together. Not the same musicality. The second one falls kind of flat and has a double “er.”

Avoid ugly words – like moist and talc. Choose the good word over the ugly word. There are lots of words in our vocabulary, and you can choose alternatives. Here are a few more ugly words: chafe, decrepit, disgust, leech, maladroit, unctuous. They are kinda fun, however, in their imagery/feeling.

Don’t make wrong associations – Here’s Adams’ example: “Two thingsI really like are babies and automatic weapons.” Even though they’re unrelated in the list, the reader gets an association that is difficult to stomach.

Use visual language – Google the McGurk effect. You’ll find a YouTube videw where a guy says, “bah, bah, bah.” They change the video to change his lips making a fah, fah, fah sound. Then they put the bah, bah sound over it. When you see the lips form that sound, you hear the fah sound. It’s freaky. That’s how visual persuasion works. Using visuals is also important to the imagery you use in writing. Donald Trump says – I’m going to build a wall vs. I’m going to increase security on our borders. That’s visual. Isis is chopping off heads, they’re drowning people, etc. They’re not just described as some academic threat. Gerry Spence’s book about convincing juries by putting them in the scene is the recommended read on this topic. You want your readers to perceive sights, smells, tastes and touch. But just go visual if you’re in a hurry.

Violate a norm – Make the reader a little uncomfortable in your writing. Presenting some element of danger works. You don’t want to endanger the reader, but by communicating a danger, you involve them in the story. Topics that elicit responses like, “This group is going to be mad at this author” make people engage with the content more. And they help you form a stronger bond with your audiences that agree with the violation.

End on a clever or provocative thought – A call back is one way to do this. You can refer back to it in your closing statement. Or be provocative about something that’s coming because of your earlier argument.

Write every day – It’s difficult to restart writing after you’ve abandoned it for days or weeks. You need to stay in writing shape by writing every day. Writing a blog is one way to practice. Blog for readers, but blog for yourself as practice.

Humor formula – Use at least two of the following 6 dimensions of humor (Trademark Scott Adams). Three or more are better. You need to use at least two to make a joke. There is a formula for humor – it works every time. Some people think it’s just surprise or a left turn. But no, use these:

  • Clever – Combine things that people didn’t think you’d combine. France was expecting to elect a Trump-like candidate (Le Pen), but instead they elected a rich white guy with business experience and not much government experience. Nice combo.
  • Naughty – Fit in naughty with a clever component. It’s very powerful.
  • Bizarre – Two things out of place are funny. Gary Larsen did this with talking animals in The Far Side. That’s bizarre. It’s automatically powerful in terms of humor. But you have to add another dimension of humor to make it work.
  • Cruel – Saying something unkind.
  • Cute – Kids and animals. Calvin and Hobbes is the prime cartoon example. Cute kid, cute animal. Watterson mixed in bizarre, and he had cute and bizarre covered (talking animal). Once he had the formula, it worked.
  • Recognizable – Something about the joke or experience has to be familiar. Dilbert’s success came when it stayed in the workplace. Readers connected with his workplace woes. Make it recognizable –  funny to me because it’s about me, my spouse, my friends, etc.

P.S. Adams’ fictional novel, God’s Debris, is also highly instructive (philosophically).