Humor in Academic​ Writing

A priest, a rabbi, and a blue whale walk into a bar.

But more on that later.

For now, let’s all just express a truth so deep it need not be spoken–academic writing can be more boring than watching paint dry on a field of growing grass. The phenomenon of eyes glazing over page 394 of Dry-As-Bones Journal X is common. What can be even harder is reading your own academic work and realizing the same effect is taking hold. Perhaps worst of all, being profoundly bored with your writing midway through. One reliable option in such a case is to deploy humor.

For those too entrenched in academia to remember something like humor, humor is the combined effect of the unexpected, the unique, and the unexplored creating happiness or laughter. At least for convenience’s sake, that’s the definition we’re going with. Humor as a rhetorical strategy is often overlooked or considered demeaning to a paper or an audience. Little could be farther from the truth as humor is a fantastic link between ideas, between author and audience, and a great source of inspiration when the idea well dries up. The question becomes how and when to use it. Here are a few short tips for several points along the writing process.

  • Select quotes that make you laugh as examples

There is a reason for using the awkward phrasing of “quotes that make you laugh” rather than just “funny quotes.” Being basically that it is astounding that symbols arranged on a page caused a physical reaction. Then your job is to find out how. If stuck in pre-writing without an idea, finding sections that make you laugh either on reflection or while reading can be an excellent jumping-off point. Evidence of this being a success or not will play out in real time

  • Amplify your transitions

Let’s say you’re writing a paper about “The Bluest Eye.” You want to discuss the evolution of Frieda’s coming of age specifically the awakening of her sexuality. The end of your first paragraph intones the complexity of the work. Your next paragraph then begins, “Speaking of complicated, let’s hit on Frieda’s curious phase.” Obviously, your paper is better than this but you (hopefully) get my point. Humor during transitions helps both reinforce the point of the previous paragraph and cleanses the palate for what’s to come.

  • Vary your sentence structure (aka know when to break the rules)

Academic sentences tend to be rich, dense, and layered, which is the diplomatic way of saying dang long and perhaps pretentious. Using a sentence fragment than to emphasize a point or to provide commentary can give both a nice respite from thick vocabulary and structure and a sudden giggle to whoever is reading.

These are three small ways both to make a project more entertaining for the writer and the reader. Humor in academia really isn’t all that different from humor in day to day conversations, there is a time and a place for it and, when done effectively, it can brighten the day of all who see it. So, okay, now a silly joke from Reddit user “kdfsjljklgjfg”:

“’A priest, a rabbi, and a blue whale walk into a bar.

The priest says “I believe Christ is our lord and savior, and I pray to him every night.”

The rabbi says “I don’t believe Christ is our savior, but he was a very good man.”




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