I recently resurrected a basket to use for a small paper recycling bin, since I am an earth-lover (those who recycle) as opposed to an earth-hater (those who throw glass, paper and plastic in with their other waste products). It was a magazine rack kind of thing and had some items in it which I needed to clean out and/or discard, a couple of old magazines, a half-finished knitting project from a few years back, and at the bottom was a book which had been given to me years ago (nearly twenty) called Idiot Letters by Paul Rosa, which I had not read.
Mr. Rosa got the idea for the book when he received a letter from Pizza Hut which said it had been a long time since he had ordered from them. This “concerned” them, because Mr. Rosa was the “kind of customer they’d like to see more often”. Mr. Rosa wondered just what kind of customer wouldn’t they like to see more often? He decided to ask that question.
That started the whole project, the idea of chronicling the letters he wrote to companies regarding products he used regularly and the responses he got back. I found myself LOLing (which we all know means Laugh Out Loud and NOT Lots of Love, as some would have us believe). And it brought to mind a question. What was it about Mr. Rosa’s writing that made it funny? I noticed a few tricks he used which seemed very effective.
I have listed the 5 punctuation tips below, which brings me to one slight diversion before I progress. I recently attended a Webinar (do you “attend” a Webinar?) and incorporated knowledge received from it regarding writing eye-catching titles for blogs, which might cause people to click more often than if it were titled in some other (lame) way. The Webinar (The Copyblogger Headline Clinic) was very informative and said that one good template for a blog title which appears to work is a numbered list. Examples: 10 Reasons Why Your Mother-in-law Hates You, or 16 Ways to Retrieve a Cork that has Fallen Into a Bottle of Wine, or 21 Tips and Tricks For Removing a Squirrel from the Top of Your Dryer (this actually happened to me).
The following is what I noticed about Mr. Rosa’s book of letters:
- Exclamation points! These little darlings of punctuation are frowned upon when writing serious literature, and should be used very sparingly, but for humorous writing they work really well to indicate a certain dorky enthusiasm. Take this example, from Idiot Letters, where Mr. Rosa writes to the Oil-Dri Corporation of America congratulating them on the effectiveness of Cat’s Pride Kitty Litter:
For the first ten years of my cat’s life, it was a living hell trying to get her to use her litter box!
- Quotation marks. Quotation marks have been said (by serious editors) to be like Christmas tree lights, that they are mere decorations. I “respectfully disagree” when writing humor. Using quotes sets a phrase apart, draws attention to it, as if the writer is standing next to the reader, giving him a nudge and a knowing look. Just between you and me… Mr. Rosa says the following after telling the letter reader that he began using Cat’s Pride on the advice of a friend:
Well, we were delighted, nay ecstatic, when Jesse — without hesitation — stepped in the litter box and “unloaded”.
- Italics. This method of altering a font shows emphasis and stressing certain words is funny, because it portrays an ebullience that may be uncalled for. In the same letter, for instance, the idea that anyone can be so charged up about kitty litter is in itself, funny, but the italics make it more so. Mr. Rosa says the following after telling the letter reader that he wonders at the wisdom of the name “Cat’s Pride” for kitty litter:
When Jesse is heaving and straining in her box, I don’t think pride is one of her sentiments.
- Ellipsis. Mr. Rosa used the ellipsis (…) in order to disguise an activity, in a way that the reader knows it was disguised and further, knows exactly what that activity is:
We were often woken from a sound slumber, or interrupted during … Matlock.
- Parentheses. Whenever a thought is an aside, and could be separated from the text with commas, it is appropriate to surround that text with parens. This should probably not be done in serious literature in most cases, but is most effective when writing humor. He also names the cat, the friend, the wife and even his mother by putting the name of the person in parentheses. Here are examples:
Whenever she would get the call from nature (night or day), she would howl until someone would let her out.
We were actually tempted to give her away, but simply love her too much — she was a gift from my mother (Irene).
The excerpts from the letter, the random sentences probably don’t do the letter justice when taken out of context, so I am including it here in its entirety:
Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a review of Idiot Letters. I liked some of the the letter exchanges quite well, but some were a bit over the top for me. I will be using some of these tips in my next novel (which is supposed to be humorous in parts) because I think they work.