How to Write Satire
Learning how to write satire is surprisingly tough, but it can be very satisfying. I’m going to dissect some key principles behind the short, humorous satire piece—the kind you might read in The Onion or McSweeney’s. These types of satire and humor pieces are typically around 300-900 words. The author gets in quick, makes a point and makes you laugh, and then we’re done. These pieces are a lot of fun to read and write.
About my experience here: I’ve been publishing these kinds of pieces in McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and Medium for a few years. I’m also an editor of the humor and satire site Slackjaw, meaning I help review submissions and decide what gets published.
Longer satirical works (short stories, books, etc.) are great too, but I’m focusing here on short pieces. Let’s dive in.
1. Choose a Crystal Clear Premise
The number one thing you’ll typically find in a good, short piece of satire or humor is a very clear satirical or comedic premise. Here are some good ways to define “the premise” of a satire or humor piece:
- The main joke or idea of the piece.
- The main thing that is funny or unusual about the piece.
- The main idea being heightened in the piece.
Think of the premise as the vehicle: it’s the concept the author is using to drive the comedy or the satire. Also, the premise is not the same as the satirical point that the author is making. (More on that in a minute!)
Also worth pointing out: not every satire piece is hilarious or even intentionally humorous—this is where satire and pure humor writing diverge. But typically, satire is funny. The satirist uses humor to make a point. I’ll use the phrase “satire and humor,” and lump them together, but keep in mind that this is a simplification, and while humor and satire overlap a lot, they aren’t coextensive.
Let’s look at a classic satire premise from The Onion:
This premise is very clear: The hipster music review site Pitchfork has rated all music as being rather mediocre and collectively earning a 6.8 / 10 rating. That’s a very funny premise. If you’ve ever read an online music review on pitchfork.com, you know exactly what this piece is about and why it’s funny. It’s a fantastically good, original premise.
But this premise is not the same as the satirical point-of-view—also sometimes called “the subtext” or just “the point being made.” I would say the satirical point-of-view in this article is something like this: hipster music reviews like Pitchfork are a bit pretentious and overwrought and kind of suck the joy out of music. The writer here is using this premise (Pitchfork says music as a whole is mediocre) to make a satirical point (about hipster music reviews being silly.) Of course, the writer never explicitly says, “Pitchfork is pretentious,” rather they make this point via the subtext of the article.
Here are some other short pieces with a fun, clear satire premise that I enjoy:
- Arguments Against Gay Marriage – McSweeney’s
Can you identify the premise and the subtext in each?
Here’s the key: each of these pieces has one clear premise, not two or three or seven. A common mistake in writing short humor and satire is to cram multiple ideas into one piece. Don’t do that. When you write satire, a single, clear premise is essential.
2. Take a Strong Point-of-View
A common formula in satire and humor writing is this: pick a point-of-view for your narrator that is the opposite of what you (the author) really believe, then exaggerate this point-of-view. Here’s another classic from The Onion:
The subtext of this is clear: it’s wild to think that an omniscient, all-loving God is out there answering our prayers.
The author is effectively using the “opposites” rule here. The author doesn’t actually believe that God hears the prayers of innocent little kids and just callously says ‘no.’ That’s absurd. Rather, the author is using this exaggerated point to satirize the concept of prayer.
The satirical point-of-view answers this question: What is this piece really saying? What’s the subtext?
While it’s true that not every reader has to 100% get the subtext, good satire doesn’t tiptoe around the point. It uses exaggeration, contrast, and vivid details to make a strong point in a dramatic fashion. When you write satire, go bold and big, and don’t hold back. (And for more on subtext and The Onion, check out my interview with Onion founder and long-time Editor-in-Chief Scott Dikkers.)
3. Find Unusual, Extreme Specifics
Comedic writing thrives on surprise. Nothing kills your satire or humor piece quicker than cliches, familiar jokes, or just a premise that feels too, “already been done before.”
Here’s an example. I published a satire of open-plan offices in McSweeney’s, “Our Open-Plan Office Failed, So We’re Moving to a Towering Panopticon.” It was one of my first humor pieces that was widely-shared.
One of the reasons this piece did well, I think, is because, first, a lot of people hate open offices. People hate having their privacy invaded, they hate constant noise and disruptions, and they hate not having any choice over whether to exist in a completely public space all day long.
But “people feel strongly about this” is not enough. It would have been easy to rant against the open office and say “these crazy tech companies sure love doing experiments on people in the name of asinine productivity engineering!” These things have been said already. They are not revolutionary, or satirical, or comedically interesting.
Instead, I started by comparing open-offices to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, a hypothetical dystopian prison where inmates are watched at all times. Okay, that’s a bit more original. Then I imagined a particular, insane company that forces their employees to get rid of their clothes and names, wear “colored bubble suits,” eat chicken wings out of pneumatic tubes, and live in their office prison full time.
That’s so hyperbolic, weird, and specific, that it was unlikely that anyone had written that specific piece before. So, the formula we have, so far, for how to write satire and humor is this:
Crystal clear premise + Strong POV + Unusual and interesting specifics
When you write satire, be crystal clear first of all, but also don’t be afraid to get very weird and hyperbolic and specific. You want to surprise and delight the reader with details that pop off the page and etch a hilarious impression in her mind.
4. Make Sure Your Satire is Landing by Getting Feedback
Writing satire or humor is tricky. Not easy, and not impossible, but tricky.
Great humor and satire often feel effortless to the reader, like the writer had a super-funny idea or a good point and she just sat down at her laptop and took that point and smashed it right through your screen with a hammer. But, of course, this is false. Humor and satire writing is usually kind of hard. It takes effort and practice and requires care and revision.
Here’s the part that trips up newer writers: If your humorous or satirical premise is even a little bit unclear, your reader probably won’t get what you’re trying to say. When readers don’t get what you’re saying they will not stick around like Sherlock Holmes to figure it out. They will be confused and they will stop reading. Then they will go somewhere else and forget about you and your writing. Too bad!
The more our world becomes internet and smart-phone dominated, the truer this becomes. Attention is a commodity, and it’s in short supply. People don’t have time to be confused.
To make sure your satire and humor writing is clear and engaging, you must get feedback on it. This is doubly true if you’re a newer humor or satire writer—i.e. you’ve written for fewer than a few years, or you’ve written fewer than 100 pieces. Here’s who can give you feedback:
- A friend who has a good sense of humor and enjoys satire. They don’t have to be a writer.
- Your writing group. If you don’t have one, join one, or start one.
- Your peers in a writing class. If you’ve never taken one, do it. If you want recommendations for good online humor or satire writing classes, check out my Short Humor Cheat Sheet.
- A writing coach or mentor.
You don’t need twenty people to read your stuff, but getting a couple of friends, or a writing group of a few people, to read and comment on your work is a key step for learning how to write satire.
Here are some questions to ask your test readers:
- Was the main idea of my piece clear? Did you understand what I was up to here?
- Was anything in the piece unclear?
- Did you enjoy it? Do you think the piece works overall?
- Were there any parts you particularly enjoyed, or things you liked that you thought I could do more of?
When you get feedback, it’s most helpful to get specific notes, rather than a vague, “yeah, I liked it!” Be sure to find test readers who will give you a pointed but helpful critique. If your test reader isn’t being that helpful, thank them sincerely, then get a different test reader.
5. How to Write Satire Hack: Read a Lot!
To write good humor and satire, feed your eyeballs a diet of good humor and satire. Read quality humor sites like McSweeney’s, The New Yorker’s Daily Shouts / Shouts & Murmurs, The Onion and Clickhole, The Hard Times, Slackjaw, and Points in Case.
Taste is subjective, and you won’t love everything you read, and that’s fine. Hone in on the pieces you do love, read them closely, and analyze them. Pick a few favorite pieces, print them out on physical paper, and take a pen to them—just like an old-fashioned psychopath!
Here are some close reading questions to answer when you read:
- What is the premise of this piece? What is the main interesting or funny thing here?
- How is the premise being heightened? i.e. How is the author exploring the premise in new, interesting ways throughout?
- What’s the subtext? What point is the author making if any?
- Are there any patterns—words or ideas or little funny things—that get repeated?
- What specific tactics is the author using to make her point or heighten the premise? How does the author change tactics as the piece goes on?
- Which parts surprised you the most? Why?
- How does the piece open and close? What do you as a reader know within the first few sentences, and what do you learn by the end of the piece?
If you closely read and analyze satire and humor pieces repeatedly, something magical happens: you will start to understand their patterns and inner-workings. This is crucial in learning how to write satire.
6. How to Write Satire Hack: Write a Lot!
Follow Stephen King’s dictum: Read a lot, and write a lot. When you start writing satire and humor, you need to get your reps in. That means writing a piece, getting feedback, then writing another. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Keep writing. Repetition over time, paired with feedback to make sure you’re improving, is what will get you writing killer, super-funny satire and humor.
I’ve interviewed many hilarious satire and humor writers and have chatted with dozens more. All of the experienced satire and humor writers I know have written hundreds of pieces, and all of them have faced rejection many times. But they repped it out. They kept improving.
Finally, it’s great to take your writing seriously, to be strategic, do research, take classes, and so on. But remember to have fun! Humor and satire writing can be immensely fun when you find a great comedic idea and you’re able to execute it well and heighten it and give your reader something funny and interesting and delightful.
My advice is to write about topics the delight or infuriate or captive you. You don’t need to worry about mimicking what other people are writing about, or try to chase down whatever topics “seem hot right now.” Instead, find the joy or the fury in your own writing obsessions and keep after it.
7. Rejection and Persistence in Writing
Before we part, one more word on rejection and persistence. Because it’s so important and needs to be said.
Every good humor writer I know has had many of their humor and satire pieces rejected by various publications. I have had dozens of pieces rejected by editors. Personally, I had to write over 100 short pieces just to get anywhere approaching what I would call “competent.” Even your favorite, brilliant writers who have published dozens of unicorn-like comedy pieces in the best places have been rejected and still get their writing rejected from time to time.
So, keep this all in mind. Satire and humor writers who succeed in the long run have some traits in common: they accept rejection, they learn from it, and most importantly, they are not dissuaded by it.
Finally, if you want some further tips and recommendations—including the best writing books to read and online classes to take—in a concise cheat sheet, grab my Ultimate Humor Writing Cheat Sheet.
Have fun, and good luck!