Writing Satire Is Harder Than You Think

I have a guest post on Jon Acuff’s blog “Stuff Christians Like” — it’s a fun little blog about the quirky things the followers of Jesus do. (If you’re visiting from that site, check out my About page to find out more.)

Let’s just clarify three things real quick:

  1. I am a Christian. (You don’t have to be one to read this blog, but I am.)
  2. I think Christians can be silly. (Just being honest here.)
  3. This was one of the hardest blog posts I’ve ever written. (Honest.)

I’m a serious guy, but I do have a sense of humor and a soul, so why was this so difficult? I can crank out blog posts and magazine articles sometimes in an hour or less. But this grueling article took me eight hours to write.

Photo credit: Flickr (Creative Commons)

Why is writing satire so hard? And how do you get better?

Satire 101

Satire is a unique literary genre. Authors like Jonathan Swift used it to make poignant arguments about society and culture.

But it’s not easy to do. Here’s how to get better:

Say less when you want to say more

The first draft explained too much. It was too descriptive. I desperately wanted everyone to get all the jokes. So I broke each one down with little asides and parenthetical statements.

When I got around to my fourth draft (yes fourth), I had deleted half of my explanations. Yes, there were some subtleties. Some people wouldn’t get all the jokes.

But those who did would feel special.

When you write (not just satire), you need to tell secrets and make people feel special for “getting” them.

Be irreverent

This is hard when your audience is faith-based. Even writing on a Christian satire blog, I was concerned that I might say something wrong or offend someone.

But then I realize something: If you’re going to connect with a reader, you have to risk failure. You can’t write for a middle-of-the-road audience. You have to (potentially) offend some people so that you can connect with those with whom the message with resonate.

Writing satire requires a little irreverence. Embrace it.

Don’t tell the truth

Satire is not journalism. It’s exaggeration. You’re taking an extreme stance on a certain issue to make a point.

In order to do that, you kind of have to lie. Not in a misleading way, but in a way that leaves an impression with the reader.

Call it hyperbole, if you want. The bottom line is you can’t just tell the truth when you’re writing satire.

The factual truth is boring. You need to tell what memoir authors call the “essential truth.” In other words, you’re speaking to something transcendent.

You want to leave the reader asking tough questions and struggling with important issues long after she reads it.

Don’t be mean

The last lesson I learned (and why this article took me so long) was because there’s more to satire than just being mean. Making fun of something or someone is what adolescents do. (Hopefully, you want to do more).

Being funny or clever is not enough. Satire is about making a thoughtful observation about changing something and using humor to make the idea accessible.

It’s an art, not a slam fest. Don’t use it as a license to be a jerk.

If you’re interested in reading the post that taught me these lessons, check out: Baptizing Heathen Words

Have you ever written satire? Other lessons you’ve learned? Share in the comments.