Developing wit


As I’ve written, the advantage that human writers have over AI is wit. Ergo, if you want to continue to make a career of writing, you must develop your wit.

Is that even possible? Yes. I’ll explain.

What is wit?

Wit is the ability, not just to inform, but to delight readers with your writing.

Wit includes humor, of course. But it’s much more.

Wit includes the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs — a rhythm that’s delightful but not predictable.

Wit includes word choices that are not obvious, but not obscure either.

Sarcasm can be witty. But sarcasm works best as wit when it is revealing, rather than cutting.

It includes oddly appropriate metaphors that make people smile, and think, just a little.

It encompasses clever ways to structure content that are logical, but original.

If you read a piece and get exactly what you expect, there is no wit. Why bother reading it if you’re going to learn nothing new? (Those are exactly the pieces that AI will excel at writing.)

If you read a piece and think “This is odd, it is confusing, I just don’t follow it,” the writer may have tried to be too clever. Wit is subtle and doesn’t interfere with readability.

If you read something and smile here and there, it’s probably witty. That’s what you’re going for. Little sources of delight, happiness, originality, and insight all the way through.

Developing wit

Every writer I have ever worked with — every single one — had the beginnings of wit. Every human is an original thinker. I can always detect the inklings of that in what they write. (Young adults are full of wit, until high school writing teachers stamp it out of them with the five-paragraph essay.)

So unless you are a total dullard (and few of them would read an essay on wit), you have the spark of wit within you. The question is, how to develop it?

The first step is to read. A lot. And not just social media. Read books. Fiction. Memoir. News articles. Essays. Blog posts.

Don’t just read. Think as you read. If something makes you happy, ask why. You are like the tinkerer taking apart a mechanical device to see how it works. What made this piece better? Structure? Word choice? The interplay of logic and humor?

Start a wit file: clip out little pieces of prose and make note of what made them witty. Which of these techniques could you steal, er, emulate to make your own writing better? Since your wit is not the same as anyone else’s, you’ll have to select which tricks to build on and which just don’t match your style.

The other thing you need to develop wit is an editor. Find or hire someone willing to nurture your writing.

Crucially, that editor must not be the kind of person who attempts to standardize everything according to a set of carefully rigid principles. You don’t need to be stuffed into someone else’s box. You need to know where your steps out of that box are working, and where they are not.

The right kind of editor provides priceless feedback. Which things that you write are boring? Which are too over-the-top? What little changes might take something flat or strange and make it great?

The other thing an editor will do is to tell you what’s working. When an editor highlights a passage and says “This is awesome,” it’s reinforcement about which parts of your style are developing.

And I recommend one more thing to develop your wit. Listening.

Listen to public speakers. What do they do that generates a reaction? Could you do that in print?

Watch videos of standup comics. How do they twist perspectives to make you see things in a new way? How would you apply that to your writing?

Writing with wit challenges people to see the world differently. It uses humor, lyricism, cleverness, and intellect to make points that change people’s thinking.

If you train your wit, you could do that. An AI never will be able to. So work on it, please, because the world needs more wit.

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