A Quick Guide to Writing Satire

This bit of wisdom appeared on my Tumblr dash recently:

tumblr satire


And, since the topic of “how to write satire effectively” has come up for several of my students in the past few weeks, I thought I’d offer this

Quick Guide to Writing Satire

1.  Ask yourself, “is this a real argument I have heard/seen/read someone make – and mean it?”

If it’s an argument someone has made on your topic, in all seriousness, then when you parrot it, you are not writing satire.  Instead, you are agreeing with the serious-arguer.


a.  “Overpopulation could easily be solved by sterilizing poor people.”

This statement is not satire.  Why?  Because this argument has been made, in all seriousness, in the past.  A quick Google search on “sterilization of the poor” turns up some pretty unsettling examples.

Yes, sometimes this argument gets used by writers attempting satire.  But, as this retraction from The Daily Currant illustrates, using an argument that many people take seriously can backfire on you in a big way.

b.  “Overpopulation could easily be solved by serving poor children as veal.”

This statement is satire.  Outside of Jonathan Swift’s infamous “A Modest Proposal,” perhaps the most well-known satire ever written, nobody appears to be seriously advocating for the marketing of poor children as veal or any other meat product.  A quick Google search for “serving poor children as veal” turns up recipes for veal, petitions to stop the eating of veal (made of baby cows, not baby humans), and links to agencies tasked with “serving poor children” (meeting their needs, not preparing them as food).

2.  This argument I’ve thought up is so hilariously impossible no one could ever state it seriously!  Am I safe to put it in my satire?

Have you looked it up to be sure no one really has stated it seriously?  Do that first.

I know the dreaded “R” word (“research”) puts a damper on your “oh, the cleverness of me!” buzz – I’ve been there.  But it’s worth spending five minutes with Google to avoid showing your arse in public, perhaps for all eternity.  Lesson Two to be learned from the above-linked Daily Currant retraction: the Internet never forgets.

3.  Okay, so my satirical argument hasn’t been argued seriously by anyone, and it is hilariously hilarious.  NOW can I write my satire, please?

You can if you do one more thing: make it so outrageous that even the people arguing seriously for the most extreme measures would say “whoa, that’s too far.”

If that sounds unlike any writing teacher’s advice you’ve ever received, that’s because satire is unlike any genre you’ve ever learned to write.  Satire is the ultimate “go big or go home” genre: if it’s not so completely outrageous that even the people advocating the most extreme measures say “whoa, hold up,” it has failed as a satire.


a.  “Gay marriage should be illegal because America is a Christian nation, where non-Christians are stripped of their citizenship.”

Maybe no one on the anti-same-sex-marriage side of the argument has advocated seriously for stripping same-sex couples of their citizenship.  (Feel free to Google this.)  But a great many people on the anti- side have argued that American laws are so closely conflated with Christian values that permitting same-sex marriage would violate both.  From there, it’s not a big leap to “if Americans must follow Christian morals, then those who don’t follow Christian morals aren’t real Americans.”  Indeed, there are probably a few people in the world who actually believe this, whether or not they post to the Internet.

b.  “Gay marriage should be illegal because America is a Christian nation, where non-Christians are put in tiny boats and set afloat in the Arctic Ocean.”

This, however, is satire.  Not only does it make an argument no one is seriously advocating actually happens, but it makes an argument that even the most vehement anti-same-sex-marriage advocates would probably say should not happen.  Most people, no matter how passionately they are for or against same-sex marriage, are still going to say “whoa now, nobody said they had to freeze to death” – especially if the proposal is made in so many words.   Indeed, marooning people in the Arctic has a decidedly non-Christian ring to it.

To name another example: Remember that in “A Modest Proposal,” Jonathan Swift’s recommendation “for preventing the children of poor people in Ireland from being a burden to their parents or country, and for making them beneficial to the public” wasn’t to force them all into boarding schools, or train them all how to tune pianos.  People in Swift’s time were already advocating for such things, and “put them all in an institution” or “teach them all a trade that can’t possibly support that many practitioners” were both ideas advocated by people on various sides of the question.  Swift skipped all these genuinely “modest” proposals altogether and went right for the jugular: let’s just eat them.

Think of satire like a bouncy castle.  If you fill the bouncy castle up allll the way with air, fun times are had by all.  If you fill it up only halfway, however, it makes a sad puddle in the middle of the backyard and your birthday party is ruined.

4.  Help!  I still can’t tell satire from current-day American politics!

That makes two of us.  Perhaps you should write something about that?

Pros and Cons of Freelancing: The Three-Year Stretch

I’ve been freelancing full-time for a little better than three years now, and there are things about it I love much more than I loved the 8-to-5 – but there are also things I hate much more than I hated the 8-to-5.  Here’s a look at my top pros and cons of freelancing. Continue reading

Five Reasons I Hate Les Miserables (The Show, Not the Book)

No, the movie was no better.

A helpful local billboard has informed me that Les Miserables, the touring stage production, will be in town soon (or has already been in town – I forget).

My first thought: “Ugh, didn’t I just see that?”

I did.  And whatever hopes I had that the new movie version would salvage the stage production for me were curiously moot, because the things I hate most about Boublil and Natel’s adaptation of Les Miserables are endemic to their adaptation.  (Some, but not all, are mitigated in the novel, or at least in its English translation.)

The Top Five Things I Hate About the “Musical Phenomenon” Les Miserables: Continue reading

How to Write an Ad for a Freelance Writer (and Get Responses From Writers You Actually Want to Hire)

  I’m a freelance writer who hates and fears cold-calling with the fiery passion of a thousand suns (who isn’t)?  I do it, but I also spend a great deal of time answering ads for freelance writers on Craigslist and similar sites.

It’s easy to fire off my resume in an email, and I’ve landed some choice gigs this way.  I’ve also run across some major duds.

So, if you’re in the market for a freelance writer, here are some tips for writing an effective freelance writer ad – one that will pull in the sort of competent help you’re (presumably) looking for.

1.  Tell us what you want – specifically.

The more vague a freelance-writer ad is, the less likely any professional freelance writer is to answer it.  Without a clear overview of the work you want done, we writers can’t figure out whether we’re equipped to do it, making us less likely to go through the fuss and bother of answering your ad.

A good ad for a freelance writer should explain, at a minimum, the topic area, the specific project or projects, and what the project or projects will be used for.  For instance, here is a terrible ad:

I need a writer for my website.  Email me.

I wouldn’t answer this ad.  Most writers won’t.  This ad offers zero information on what the website’s focus is, what kind of web writing the author wants done, or what the writing needs to do (sell things?  provide directions?  outline the site owner’s detailed turtle-based conspiracy theories?).  There’s also no direction on what this person wants to see when hiring a writer.

Here’s the previous ad, improved:

I run a website that details my turtle-based conspiracy theories in a series of Elizabethan sonnets.  I need a writer to produce five more sonnets explaining my new theory that tortoises are incapable of plotting total world domination.  Please send your resume and one writing sample that is an Elizabethan sonnet (does not have to cover turtle-based conspiracy theories).

Now your potential star freelancer knows what you need, how long you’re likely to need freelance help, and what the writing is supposed to do – as well as what information you want to see.

Everyone knows the *real* turtle conspiracy is actually hedgehogs.


2.  Check your spelling and grammar.

I cannot tell you how many ads I’ve seen that read like this:

i nede ppr on eLizzabetan sonetes plz email

(Translation: “I need paper on Elizabethan sonnets.  Please email.”)

Counterintuitively, most freelance writers won’t answer this ad.  Why not?  Because, while it’s obvious this person needs a writer – and badly – the amount of work we’re going to have to do just to understand what this person wants is astronomical.  It’s not worth it, especially when there are hundreds of other potential clients out there who can communicate what it is they need.

Before you click “post” on your ad for a freelance writer, run spell check.  Have someone read it over and correct obvious spelling and grammar mistakes.  Writers won’t generally hold the finer points against you – if you were a writer, you probably wouldn’t need to hire one, after all – but we need you to communicate clearly what it is you need a writer to do.

And, if that’s not enough, consider this: an ad that hasn’t even been spell-checked screams “easy to exploit.”  Even if you’ve never hired a freelancer before, don’t advertise that fact – there’s always somebody who will gladly charge you two or three times the going rate because you don’t know better, and you don’t need to be ripped off.

3.  Research pay rates.

Despite my previous advice on not being taken for a ride, remember this: the pay rate for professional writers is probably higher than you think.

Remember my LOL Your Freelance Writing Ad post?  I took the writer of that ad to task for this very thing – failing to check the going rate for a writer with “a proven track record as a well-written blogger or published author, who loves the process of investigative journalism and research,” and instead offered a laughable $0.03 per word.  Then the ad suggested that $0.10 per word was a “premium” rate!

A few writers starting out in the business may take $0.10 per word, particularly in exchange for some much-needed experience.  But no professional writer with a “proven track record” will write for $0.10 per word, much less $0.03 per word.  Offering them will just cause laughter.

Not sure what amount of money would be a fair trade for the kind and quality of writing you’re looking for?  Ask writers to send you their rates.  They’ll typically run from $0.10 per word for beginners up to $1.50 per word for top-notch professionals (National Geographic is famous for paying $1.50 per word).  Decide where the quality of the writing you need should reasonably fall, and prepare to pay accordingly.  And remember – you get what you pay for.

4.  Relax.

Even when an ad explains what the client wants in plain language, it may get passed up by experienced freelancers because its writer comes across as controlling – or worse, defensive.

LOL Your Freelance Writer Ad guy provides a stellar example:

CURRENT PAY IS $30 per article, so we are obviously not a cheap content-farm paying $10-$15 but if you’re looking for a premium $100 an article gig, please DO NOT write to me to insult me.

Aside from the utter failure of math here (600-1000 words for $30 *is* “cheap content farm” rates, and $100 for 1000 words is “entry-level writer” rates, not “premium” rates), the author of this ad clearly has a chip on his or her shoulder.  Even if I was willing to write for the rates offered, would I want to do it with someone so defensive about the job they’re offering that it oozes into the ad itself?  Of course not.

You may not be able to pay well.  You may never have hired a professional writer before.  You may be the reincarnation of Ernest Hemingway, who is only looking for an outside writer because your partner threatened to pull his venture capital from your turtle-conspiracy-theory-distribution startup if you didn’t.  That’s fine; it happens.  But don’t let it show up in your ad.

Google Image Search didn’t know what to do with “turtle conspiracy theory distribution center” either, so here is Lady Liberty hanging out with Brazilian Jesus.

The best way to write an ad that works is to explain clearly what you need, ask for a resume or writing sample, and leave it at that.  Save the concerns for when you’re negotiating with actual individual writers.

6 Lies (and 6 Truths) About Writing

As I probably mention every time I forget I’ve already mentioned it before, I write for a living.  I write book reviews.  I ghostwrite blogs.  My web page content brings all the personal injury clients to the firm (and they’re like, “your firm’s better than theirs.”  Damn right, it’s better than theirs).  Etc.

I didn’t start out as a writer, per se.  I did get an undergraduate degree in English, but then I went to law school.  I got a J.D., and then I practiced law for a while.  And then I said “screw this, I want to be a writer,” and started my own freelance writing business.  And, in doing so, I learned that a lot of the things I was told as a kid about being a professional writer are total crap – and some of them are actually true.

So: here are Six Things That Are False About Writing for a Living (and Six Things That Are True).  

1.  You can’t make a living as a writer.

False, but with a catch, which is this: you probably can’t make a living writing nothing but novels, unless you are lucky enough to be Stephen King – and even Stephen King was not lucky enough to be Stephen King at first.  Same with J.K. Rowling – she was living in a garret with no heat and an infant when she wrote the first Harry Potter novel.   It’s not impossible to make novel-writing a significant part of your life, if that’s what you want; just don’t expect it to be your only day job. Continue reading

Good Books for Kids Who Read Way Above Grade Level

The 1911 edition of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden – IMO, the pinnacle of precocious-reader literature. (Image via Wikipedia/Project Gutenberg.)

In my recent post on what we talk about when we talk about “inappropriate” books for kids, I discussed how a book’s treatment of a particular topic is the key to whether or not it is “appropriate” for a certain reader – an approach that takes a lot more work than merely banning taboo categories across the board.

One commenter asked what I’m sure is a burning, and very common, question: What do you do when your child’s reading abilities exceed their emotional understanding for what they’ve read?

I was one of those kids, and I’m sure my parents tore their hair out trying to deal with it.  I still have nightmares from when I got into my father’s Stephen King collection at age eight and read Four Past Midnight.  The Langoliers were no biggie, but the Sun Dog will haunt my dreams forever.  (My father learned to store his books on a shelf I could not reach, after that – though I wouldn’t have read any more Stephen King at that point if you paid me.  I didn’t read King again for almost ten years.)

In no particular order, then, are several of my best-beloved precocious-reader picks from my own childhood.  For more recently-published titles (remember, I’m that age you can’t trust anyone over), see this handy list of books for precocious readers, compiled by gifted-child educator and A Different Place blogger Nancy Bosch.  Horn Book magazine also has a fabulous list from yesterday and today.

What were some of your favorite books?  What are your young readers enjoying?  Share in comments!

Continue reading

What We Talk About When We Talk About “Inappropriate” Books for Kids

The Book: Challenged in 2010 for giving an 11-year-old nightmares. The Movie: Comes out March 2012, when it will probably give some more 11-year-olds nightmares. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

I’ve been re-reading Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series in preparation for the first movie, which comes out at the end of March.  I’ve also been re-thinking about the challenge that put The Hunger Games on the ALA’s “Books Challenged and/or Banned in 2011” list: a complaint from a New Hampshire mother to the Goffstown School Board in 2010.

This particular mother’s problems with The Hunger Games were, according to the School Library Journal, that the book gave her eleven-year-old daughter nightmares and might numb other children to the effects of violence.  “There is no lesson in this book except if you are a teenager and kill twenty-three other teenagers, you win the game and your family wins.”  So says the school board’s minutes, anyway.

Whether or not one agrees that this is the only possible take-away point from The Hunger Games (spoiler: I don’t), there’s other interesting issues involved in challenging The Hunger Games in particular and books offered for school reading in general:

1.  When we say a certain book is “inappropriate” for children, what do we mean?  

2.  How does our definition of “inappropriate” affect our willingness to call for an outright ban of a book?

Continue reading