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Laughing your Way to an A: Using Humor in Academic Writing  

February 10, 2021

A student walks into a bookstore…

With everything going on right now, we could all use a little humor. Nowhere is humor more needed than in a dry, complicated academic paper. Let’s be real: academic writing is (99% of the time) ridiculously boring. Like, fall-asleep-writing-your-own-paper boring. However, it doesn’t have to be. It might just need a little humor.

Humor, contrary to its taboo in academia, is actually an extremely effective device for rhetoric and attention. In fact, it has been used for centuries! Ranging from Aristotle to Stephan Hawking, humor is a fantastic way to convey your ideas while making them both palatable and fun.

That said, however, there is definitely a fine line between laughing your way to an A and laughing at your final grade. So, the next time you consider using some humor in your essay, here are some tips:

  • Choose a funny title. An easy way to grab attention and avoid distraction is to come up with a funny title. Keep it simple, clever, and easy to understand.
    • Example:
“An-arrgh-chy: The Laws and Economics of Pirate Organization” 
Peter T. Leeson, George Mason University

 

  • Pick a funny quote. A safe way to include humor is to find a funny moment in the text. Not only does it add humor, but it can also be a great way to escape writer’s block and get the ball(point pen) rolling. Just make sure your quote is meaningful and applicable to your argument. 
    • Example: 
“Atticus told me to delete the adjectives and I’d have the facts.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird

                            

  • Appeal to your reader. More often than not, the only person reading your academic essay is your professor. If your professor has a point or joke they like to emphasize in class, you can incorporate that humor to help break up the monotony of the paper. 
    • Example:
For those taking “Intro to International Relations” with Dr. Roberg, throw in the phrase* “Overarching Centralized Authority” in your paper. He likes that. 

 

*Note: This phrase is funny because it is something the professor likes the class to repeat several times (to the point of it being a mantra). This makes the phrase both an academic term and an appropriate inside joke. This type of humor is both highly relevant and encouraged, so long as it does not distract from your main point. 

  • Break up your sentences. Most of the time, sentences in academia are chalked full of information. Breaking them up into shorter sentences (or rhetorical fragments, depending on the professor) can do wonders to re-emphasize your point. And add humor. Just make sure your professor won’t dock points for rhetorical fragments.
    • Example: 
“See, a marriage needs love. And God. And a little money. That’s all. The rest you can deal with.”
James McBride, The Color of Water

 

All in all, humor is a fantastic tool for rhetoric and attention. As long as you are comfortable in your ability to use it, absolutely go for it. 

Besides, with everything going on right now, we’ve all gotta laugh at something. And, with these tips in mind, you’ll be able to laugh at something that’s in your paper, not the grade that’s on your paper. 

Happy Writing! Now, back to the joke…

A student walks into a bookstore.

They ask the bookstore owner where the self-help section is. 

She replies if she told them, it would defeat the purpose. 

Writer

Abby Vidruk ’23