What I Learned From Running A Comedy Magazine: Editing Submissions

Original image from 200Degrees on Pixabay (text added)

Dear readers,

From 2017–2019 I edited a small university satire magazine whilst finishing my PhD. To tell you the truth, I kind of miss it. I miss the absolute sense of power that comes with deciding the fate of a 20-year-old and their hot take on why some burger place sucks that week. But I also think we got quite good at it. So, in an attempt to recapture some past glory, and also to boost my employability, I want to share some genuine facts about how I learned to run a comedy magazine and how you can do it too. If that’s what you want…

How I Edited Comedy Articles

In this first article, I want to focus on something that doesn’t get much attention, which is editing. We comedians don’t like to edit. Making something funny is hard in the first place, so there is a tendency to treat the initial draft like a delicate masterpiece; don’t touch it in case the laughs fall out and you can’t fit them all back in. But it’s an illusion. When you practice editing, you start to see that, far from being a delicate instrument like an antique watch or one of those ancient books you’d have to wear a hazmat suit to read, jokes are the most ramshackle, replaceable pieces of work. If you break one, it’s somewhat easy to fix, make better, or get a new one.

Here, then, are my tips for how you can start processing your incoming submissions. They are also steps you can follow to prepare your own first article before submitting it — believe me, you will be doing someone a huge favour.

The Title Is The Joke

Hey, put a joke in the title, would you?

In fact, if you only put a joke in the title, that would be 100% fine with me. Better, even. About a year into my time as editor, we found that a short, funny headline with a relevant image would do many times better in terms of engagement (reach, likes, and shares) than an article post which linked away to an onsite article. But that’s something for another post…

One of the biggest factors for deciding whether to engage with a piece of comedy is the time you have to put into it. The headline and image (and maybe a short one sentence summary) will be all a visitor has to decide if an article is worth reading, and a lot of people won’t click through to the full thing. If the headline is good, it might get a laugh or a like on social media for that alone. So make it count. Find the single unique premise that describes the content — one witty observation that, if you couldn’t share anything else, would convey the idea and get a laugh. That’s your headline.

Oh, and while we’re on it, make that title short, so it displays in full on your social pages (none of this ‘…’ junk). Prepare to agonise over getting the thing as short as possible so that it shows up on Facebook and then, when you finally manage that, to have to drop another 5 words to fit it into a tweet.

Put The Jokes At The End

Great job writing your title! If you’re writing a whole article, hopefully you have some more jokes too (otherwise you just wrote news). So, where do you put these jokes? Well, comedy writing is not a science; I know this because when you talk about it as if it’s a science, it just sounds stupid…

I try to think of an article as many little ‘units’; you should try to put the funny words (which I will refer to here as ‘the joke’) as close to the end of a unit as possible. This means put the joke at the end of the sentence, and have a funny sentence (with a joke in it) at the end of a paragraph.

See, I told you it sounds stupid. But that’s pretty much it. Jokes tend to live at the end of things. This is in contrast to fact-based forms of journalism, where you might want to hook the reader by frontloading sentences:

A TERRIBLE THING HAS HAPPENED AT ok nothing actually happened, but you get the idea, right?

I can show you what I mean by taking a purely hypothetical (and not funny) example from my random subject generator, which is just me not trying very hard (note: in the comedy business, generating a lot of bad, low-effort ideas like this is called ‘spitballing’; be sure to spend 90% of important writers meetings doing it).

Let’s say we’re writing an article for our student comedy magazine about lecturers trying to get students to go to classes by hosting them in a pub, or something. Let’s not waste any more time ‘spitballing’, let’s just edit it.

Lecturers are hosting classes in a pub this week in an effort to get students to come to classes.

That’s fine. A lot of first-try submissions we received would have things in this sort of order. Technically, all the information is there, so it’s tempting to walk away as if your job is done once you’ve checked spelling and grammar.

Hold on a second though! Imagine you’re a stand-up comedian and you’re saying this as a joke on stage. You hit the ‘punchline’ (where you’d be expecting the audience to laugh) at the phrase “hosting classes in a pub this week”. That’s right at the start of the sentence. Instead of being able to laugh, the audience will be waiting for you to stop talking. They don’t want to relax because they don’t want to miss what is next, which it turns out isn’t important in this example. When you finally do several words later, it might not be so funny anymore.

What do we do? Well, we could just lop off the end:

Lecturers are hosting classes in a pub this week.

That gets to the funny part faster, sure. But it hurts the article because you took away the context. Why are they hosting classes there? What’s the context (or setup)? You need to retain some of that information so we have enough context (in this case, a normal problem) to subvert it with a punchline (a terrible solution to it).

All we have to do in this case, as the word ‘setup’ implies, is reorder the sentence to move the context to the start:

In an effort to get students to come to classes, lecturers are hosting classes in a pub this week.

There you go. Setup, punchline. All is right with the satire world.

Makes sense when you think about every single piece of comedy you’ve ever ingested in your life, right? But hey, it’s easily forgotten when it comes to writing. There’s usually a bigger gulf between understanding and doing than you expect. All that matters is that we fixed it, and now it looks right.

Question Every Word

Actually, that still doesn’t look right to me. It’s better but it’s kind of clunky. We got to the joke fairly fast, yes, but it was a bumpy ride. The next thing you have to do with editing is to think about every word. Is it the best word? Would a shorter one mean the same, and get us there faster?

In the above sentence, for example, we have ‘classes’ twice. In this sentence it’s not the worst thing. Over a whole article, however, it’s going to grate on people. I try to never use the same word if I can avoid it. Here, we could change it to ‘lectures’ (although I’d say that’s too similar to lecturers for this sentence), ‘tutorials’, ‘seminars’ etc. Or just ‘them’ could work:

In an effort to get student to come to classes, lecturers are hosting them in a pub this week.

Cool. Except no, I still hate it. Looking again, this whole “get students to come to tutorials” is not right. We could do better by thinking of a shorter phrase which means the same, like “boost attendance”.

In an effort to boost attendance, lecturers are hosting classes in a pub this week.

Cool. Except no, I still hate it. We’re still hitting that funny part (“pub”) and then walking a little bit past it (“this week”). That last part is context, and is not funny. In a micro example of what we talked about above, let’s kick that further up the sentence:

In an effort to boost attendance this week, lecturers are hosting classes in a pub.

Perfect. I mean, it’s not funny. But it’s correct (more so at least). Maybe we could even name a place instead of just saying “a pub”. Specific details make things funny (89.7% of the time). You could even name an actual pub in your town, which will appeal to the local audience and boost your chance of engagement. Use your own judgement.

Here’s the thing. A lot of the submissions you’ll have to work with aren’t going to be hilarious. A lot of my ideas weren’t that funny either. But, as an editor, you have to keep content flowing, which sometimes means you can’t afford to throw everything out and start again if nothing meets your standards. You have to have material to work with, and mediocre (when mediocre is all you have) is fine. What matters most is that it looks funny; that it’s told like a joke. That’s your job. If you treat all ideas as worth the effort, it’s just one less thing to think about. You still get to exercise the vital comedy editing muscle, and all of the resulting content will have a consistent tone that tells the readers someone actually cares about them.

Also, don’t be afraid to add in a couple of ideas of your own if you think it will genuinely help the work. It’s a great way to make this disparate content from multiple writers seem a little more like it comes from a single place. Maybe throw in a recurring character, or make up some quotes. Get ‘spitballing’:

In an effort to boost attendance this week, lecturers are hosting classes in a pub. Dr. Smith, reader in philosophy and absolute sound lad, is just one of the lecturers who will be dishing out the pints in The Duke’s Ugly Shins this afternoon.

Looks I left some of the joke in the middle there, too. I’m sorry, I know it’s against the rules, but I thought it was better that way.

Which reminds me…

Do Whatever You Want

These rules are what I found worked best in editing. But what do I know? Rules are just clichés to be subverted for comedy, anyway. Even knowing the rules so you can break them is a cliché. So you should probably stick to the rules. Or not. What do I know?

The more editing you do, the more you will find exceptions that actually are funnier just the way you are. For example, a lot of comedy writers swear by The Rule of Three (that’s three examples of a funny concept, each funnier than the last). It’s a good rule of thumb, but as you write more you find situations where, actually, just two things feels funnier. In list type articles (e.g. Top N Things That Are Part of One Big Funny Concept) I found that six was my favourite number (five seemed too serious, seven was overkill). Six felt like ‘I tried to write five but I got a bit too carried away and silly’, which to me is ideal.

The point here is to practice enough so you can recognise a funny exception; you don’t want to meddle with every funny line just to fit a formula, and you also shouldn’t take something the way it is because you think ‘it’s fine’ or you don’t want to think about it. Leave the things that ‘just seem to work like that’ alone, sure, but boost the quality of everything around it as needed; otherwise you risk the article reading as ‘funny by accident’.

Wrap It Up

This article is too long. I should know better. Don’t overstay your welcome. Wrap it up once you’ve said all the jokes you can think of, and try not to be repetitive. Don’t worry if it feels short. Shorter is better (like I said, it’s all about the time investment). If I could have made this all a headline, I would have…

I hope you found these suggestions for comedy editing useful; in the next article, I’ll talk about how we generated and scheduled content, so maybe that will appeal to you too. If not, then hopefully I made you laugh, at least. Or just smile. Or maybe I made you think about smiling, but you’re on a bus or a train so you can’t afford to smile right now. That’s fine. As long as you don’t regret reading, I will consider this a win.

I mostly make videos and tell jokes, now.