Using Humor in Nonfiction Writing

Why “serious” topics benefit from levity

Anne Janzer
From the Library
Published in
3 min readMar 13, 2022

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Smiling red pencil in a bunch of grey pencils
Image: Depositphoto

Humor. We love reading it, but many of us shy away from writing it.

Done well, humor looks effortless. That’s usually an illusion. But, just like telling a story, getting someone to smile is a skill that we can practice and improve.

Many of the nonfiction authors I admire approach their topics with gentle humor, whether they’re writing about regrets (Daniel Pink’s The Power of Regret), climate change (Thor Hansen’s Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid), or deadly wildlife encounters (Mary Roach’s Fuzz).

Humor is a powerful nonfiction writing technique, even if you don’t identify as a funny person. Here are a few reasons to build your humor skills.

Memorable explanations

When you’re writing about an abstract topic, a funny story or metaphor can serve two purposes:

Humor is all about making sense of the unexpected. The punchline of a joke surprises us-we “get” the joke when we puzzle out the sense. So, humor is itself a sense-making endeavor. We can use humor to reveal an unexpected truth about the subject.

It can be as simple as an unexpected metaphor, like the one Neil deGrasse Tyson uses to describe the strange relationship…

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Anne Janzer
From the Library

Author, Writing Coach, Unapologetic Nonfiction Geek. Writing about Writing Itself (very meta). AnneJanzer.com