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.

32 thoughts on “Writing Satire Is Harder Than You Think

  1. This was a great accompanying piece, Jeff. I thought you did a great job for not being a satire writer. These were really great tips. I’ve only written one satire essay and I think it came out pretty well. It got pretty good feedback too. Even though it’s not my genre, it’s fun to stretch yourself every once in awhile.

    The biggest part of good satire is your last point. That’s why Jon is such a great writer because he manages hilarious satire without being a jerk. It’s easy to be mean and cynical but it takes much more talent to get your point across without deliberately hurting others.

    Again, great essay!

  2. my boyfriend is an expert at satire and I used to be so jealous of his mad skills. I always try, but never get my point across just right. I either end up being too cynical or too silly. I’m either too much of a jerk or too nice to make a point. haha. I think I should just avoid that genre and stick to my strengths!

  3. You did a great job in that post and thanks for being so honest about what it took to write it. I sometimes feel like such a loser bc I sometimes need so many rewrites and it still doesn’t come out right. I’m learning to see writing as a pretty fair trade, the people I admire that do it better just work harder and have been at it longer. Not giving up.

  4. Have always love reading satire, and have thus always desired to be a solid writer of satire myself. Love all these tips! Good stuff. And great job with that SCL post.

    I wanna take a Christian karate class.

  5. I know what you mean when you say “speaking to something transcendent.” Every good joke I’ve ever heard had something to do with a higher meaning.  It wasn’t just something on the surface (like a play on words, etc).  Almost any humorous thing I’ve ever read or listened to had some sort of restraint, while at the same time juggling that sense of “hyperbole” you spoke about… it’s definitely a fine art.

    Inspiring post!  I’m gonna try it now.

    1. Indeed. It’s a lot harder than it looks. You have to be subtle and over the top at the same time. Not easy. I think all good comedy is somehow true. That’s the transcendent part that resonates with people.

  6. 173 comments??  Nice.  I thought the piece was great, dude.  Though, you should have let the LotR geeks get the Gondor reference on their own.  And when I say “their,” I mean, of course, “our.”

  7. I love humor.I love reading satire.  I rarely have a day go by that someone doesn’t say to me, “you’re funny”. I’m always hoping they’re not talking about my looks. Anyway, I think it’s easier to be funny than to write funny. 

    Writing for the different “senses” of humor is tricky. 

    Great post! Now I’m off to read about baptizing heathen words.

  8. I tried to write a satirical piece about VBS when my church was beginning VBS this year. I ended up offending the VBS director and, basically, the entire church. I lost my Sunday school teaching position and have now left that church. I probably won’t try satire again anytime soon.

    1. as a humor writer, i’d love to read it.  i know it ended in a fiery crash, but it may not have been your fault.  when one overly sensitive person in a church becomes offended, it is far too easy for that single person to inspire a lynch mob.

  9. Writing satire is definitely more difficult than it sounds. Being funny when you don’t mean to is easy, but being funny when you’re trying to be funny is another matter entirely. 

    I checked out your Baptizing Heathen Words post and was snickering the entire time. I think you did a really fantastic job balancing the humor with the potentially offensive comments (I wasn’t at all offended, by the way, and judging by the 100+ comments, I’m guessing not too many others were, either). 

    Looks like you learned a lot from the experience and came out of it with two fantastic posts. Great job! 

  10. you did a fine job at SCL, Jeff.

    i’ve got the opposite situation coming up.  i’m a humor writer who’s guest posting on a more serious blog on Wednesday.  we’ll see how that goes.  it’s a bit frightening since my readers have a certain expectation when they read my stuff.

    the truth?  i could never do what you do here.  mainly because if the internet were a school, i’d be riding the short bus.

  11. You did a marvelous job at SCL, Jeff — I really enjoyed your post.  And thank you for sharing how you did it!  I liked this line in  particular:  “Satire is about making a thoughtful observation about changing something and using humor to make the idea accessible.”  It takes the temptation to be a jerk out of the equation.  Good stuff!

  12. Quite an article. I write satire, or at least I thought I did till I read your article. Now I realize that I have yet to write satire which is truly satirical.
    Thank you.

    1. hey, I’m required to do an assignment in which i have to write a parody of an article, its due soon and i can’t find a good one to critisize, what would you recommend?
      Thank you.

  13. K. I’m going to hunt down the satire post. The link goes to Dave Ramsey dot com for me, but I will not give up! Good points on satire, thanks!

  14. Any feedback on DelhiPress.com – I believe they are trying their best to stay on the side of satire, far from fake news.

  15. Shouldn’t that be “author of four best-selling books”? What did you sell? The street news paper and oh, I wrote four books as well?

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