A Manual of Style for Satire I

I have always enjoyed reading satire. Ever since I picked up Monty Python’s Big Red Book, read my first Onion article, read my first mainstream news article as an adult.

This is my favourite Onion article. It combines political satire with intelligent art humour. The execution is also quite good, (mostly) transporting the reader into an alternate reality where the events described are normal.


That being said, there are a few places where I feel it could be better.

If I had to summarize this into a few statements, it would be the following:

1. You are writing as if the subject of your story is your (alternate) reality

This means that you should be writing in proper objective style, and making no judgements:

2. Make no judgements

You are a simple objective watcher. The humour comes from the juxtaposition between the seriousness of the writing style with the absurd situation.

3. Describe what the reader would see, instead of telling them what is going on

This will help with the above. You want to be like a good Game Master, describing what the reader sees, instead of telling them what is going on. You want to encourage them to make the connection themselves. They’ll enjoy it more, the comedic timing will work better*, and they will be more satisfied.

At the same time, when the people you are writing about are doing things that they could be describing themselves,

4. Use quotations instead of description when you can

This is even better.

Example from the Onion article above:

“Calling for the elimination of federal funding for the National Endowment for the Arts; the banning of offensive art from museums and schools; and the destruction of the “hoax of reason” in our increasingly random, irrational and meaningless age, the Republicans and Dadaists were unified in their condemnation of the role of the artist in society today.”

Note that the ‘Journalist’ is (possibly inadvertently) making a judgement here, when they could instead be quoting one of the Dadaists saying “the destruction of the hoax of reason in our increasingly random, irrational and meaningless age”.

An even stronger example is the below:

“Added nonsense-poet Hugo Ball, founder of Zurich’s famed Cabaret Voltaire: “…’dada’ (‘Dada’). Adad Dada Dada Dada.” Donning an elaborate, primitivist painted paper mask, he then engaged reporters in a tragico-absurd dance, contorting wildly while bellowing inanities.”

The description ‘nonsense-poet’ is reasonable. Even if the audience doesn’t know enough art history to understand exactly what a ‘nonsense-poet’ is, they can probably figure it out. It also sounds enough like a title that a person in our alternate reality would understand. Similarly, ‘founder of Zurich’s famed Cabaret Voltaire’ is a reasonable description. It is factual, and objective (you can reasonably check how famous a cabaret is, and who the founder was). The paragraph then continues with a quote (fine), but then becomes problematic. The descriptor ‘primitivist’ seems almost unnecessary, and presumes a knowledge of art history probably only shared by Onion writers. ‘he then engaged reporters’ is simple description, fine, but then ‘tragico-absurd dance’ is again too art history-jargony. ‘contorting wildly’ is again a judgement. Perhaps a quote from someone describing what he was doing, or ‘contorting his body’ for a more objective description. ‘bellowing inanities’ is telling the audience what is happening. A quote would be far better here, such as “yelling loudly ‘Shpma Protback Beep!'”.

The fixed paragraph:

“Added nonsense-poet Hugo Ball, founder of Zurich’s famed Cabaret Voltaire: “…’dada’ (‘Dada’). Adad Dada Dada Dada.” Donning an elaborate, painted paper mask, he then engaged reporters in a tragic dance, contorting his body while yelling loudly ‘Shpma Protback Beep!’.”

So that feels better to me, but could probably use more editing. (Perhaps the Onion chose scansion over humour smoothness scanning?)

The rest of the article was generally smooth, including such gems of description as:

“Dadaist leaders were even more strident than Helms, stressing the need for the elimination of not only art, but also of dada itself. “To be a Dadaist means to be against dada,” Arp said. “Dada equals anti-dada.” Urging full-scale rioting, the assembled Dadaists called for their own destruction, each of them alternately running into the audience to pelt those still on stage with tomatoes.”

Which I think strikes just the right level of description and quotations. It also shows an important point, that the ‘journalist’ can describe what the ‘person’ is saying, as long as it’s immediately followed or preceded by a quote.

The following almost works:

“Centered in Berlin, Paris and Zurich, the Dadaist movement was launched as a reaction of revulsion to the senseless butchery of World War I. “While the guns rumbled in the distance,” Arp said, “we had a dim premonition that power-mad gangsters would one day use art itself as a means of deadening men’s minds.” ”

I would put ‘senseless butchery’ in quotes. Perhaps the ‘journalist’ only wanted to put quotes around actual quotes said by dadaists?

“When told of Arp’s comments, Helms said he was “fairly certain” that he concurred.”

Let me know in the comments below other humorous articles you wish me to dissect!


*See a later post that I will write about the theory of puns, and other forms of verbal warfare.

Some things I read and found useful while writing this article:

Writing Satire Is Harder Than You Think

This article wrote around the edges of what I was speaking to above:

Some things I found not so useful (too general, more of a 101 instead of actually helping you write well):

I tried to find online manuals of style, but they all cost money or only talked about technical details about whether you said ‘one’ or ‘1’.

Chicago Manual of Style basics


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