Whenever I do interviews or seminars concerning my book, The New Comedy Writing Step by Step, interviewers and writers invariably ask "What's the first thing a person should do if he or she wants to become a comedy writer?" My response is a two-parter and although it's aimed primarily at comedy writing, it applies equally as well to all writing.
It might seem that the first part of the response is so obvious that it shouldn't even have to be said. It is: If you want to become a comedy writer, start writing comedy. Yet, it does have to be said. A faculty member at one comedy writing seminar offered the attendees a worthwhile exercise they could work on once they got home. It was a series of suggestions that would entice them to write a few gags each week. The following year, a repeat attendee told the faculty member that it was the best writing assignment he had ever heard. "I've attended many writing conferences," he said, "and nothing even came close to those exercises you offered." The faculty member asked, "Did you turn out some good gags?" The student said, "Oh, I haven't actually gotten around to doing it yet." So it is necessary to say it: If you want to become a comedy writer, start writing comedy.
"But shouldn't I take some classes first or get some sort of training before I start writing?" No. If you want to go bowling, you don't go to bowling school or sign up for lessons. You simply go bowling. You'll learn quickly enough how good you are and how much you have to learn.
Part two of my response is less obvious, but more important to your writing development. It is: Once you start writing, set a quota and stick to it.
What is a Writing Quota?
A comedy writing quota is a set number of jokes that you commit to writing each day. You might extend that to every other day, if that's more convenient. If your schedule is really tight, you could even plan on a set number of gags each week. That would be the outer limit, though. If you go beyond one week, it ceases to be a quota.
How Many Jokes Should My Quota Be?
That's up to you. The amount should be reasonably challenging. Push yourself slightly. Your quota might be five jokes a day. Perhaps it could be ten. Whatever amount you set should be somewhat demanding. As the body builders say, "No pain; no gain."
Conversely, though, it should not be cruel. A number that is too demanding defeats the purposes of writing to a quota. The stress on you may be overwhelming. The quality of your writing will suffer. Finally, you might abandon the practice entirely.
Why Write to a Quota?
You may ask why you have to force yourself to write. Isn't it better to write when the muse inspires you or when your own mood dictates? Certainly, if inspiration strikes, get to a keyboard. And, of course, anytime you feel like writing, write. However, professional writers don't have the luxury of waiting for the ideal mood and moment. If a client calls with a demand or if a publisher issues a firm deadline, the writer must turn out product on schedule. It's good to establish the habit of writing on demand now.
What are the Benefits of Writing to a Quota?
First, it gets you to write. Remember part one of my response to the original query: If you want to become a comedy writer, start writing. The only way to meet your quota of a set number of jokes each day is to write them.
Second, repetition is a learning process. Certainly writing every day is repetition. Often what you learn is subliminal. You acquire techniques and skills without even being aware of it. Recently I purchased a new car. In my previous car, the emergency brake was engaged by pushing down on a foot pedal on the floor. The new vehicle has an emergency brake that's engaged by pulling up a lever that's located on the center console. So what do I do? I stop the car, turn off the ignition, pull up the hand brake - and then slam my foot down on the floor where the foot pedal used to be. It's a habit I learned through repetition. It's hard to break. Writing to a quota will help you develop sound writing habits.
Third, writing to a quota builds writing momentum. There's a certain inertial involved in the writing process. It takes a while to get the mind going, the ideas flying, and the fingers tapping on the keyboard. Some well-established writers say that they begin their writing day by retyping the last paragraph or the last page that they wrote the day before. Why? Because it overcomes that inertia. It slides them into the writing mode. One comedy writer I know began each day by composing a humorous limerick. He felt when his imagination was stimulated enough to get a limerick on paper, he was then ready to begin to turn out creative comedy.
Stopping and restarting is inefficient. Producing quality work on a daily basis reduces that inefficiency. Your continued momentum makes it easier to write more and better material. To illustrate, you've probably seen golfers on TV take a few practice swings before hitting the ball. They're trying to establish the correct tempo and the feel for the shot they're about to attempt. When the practice swing feels just right, the golfer steps up and tries to hit the ball using that same stroke. Consider how silly it would be to make the correct practice swing and then come back the next day and hit the ball. All they learned from the practice swings would be lost by then. By writing consistently to a quota, you don't allow yourself to lose that valuable momentum you've already gained.
Fourth, a writing quota pushes your creativity a bit. One problem I've noticed with most writers is that we are inclined to quit too soon. Comedy writers quit too soon on both the premise they're working on and the individual gags. The successful cartoonist, Charles Schulz, once said that he couldn't understand why his colleagues settled for the first gag they came up with. He wanted them to think it through a little bit more and come up with more inventive humor.
A quota pushes us to be more productive and creative. If your quota is to write five jokes a day, you can't quit after writing just four. You must create that fifth joke. As Charles Schulz implies in his statement, pushing yourself a bit further produces more creative material.
Fifth, sticking to a writing quota will produce better quality material. How? Simply as a result of the quantity of material you produce. Assuming that your quota is reasonably demanding, it should force you to write more than you would otherwise. As a result, you'll have more jokes to select from.
Consider two high schools. One has an enrollment of 3000 students; the other has only 500 students. Which school would you expect to have the better football team? The one with the larger enrollment would have a much bigger pool of talent to choose from. Consequently, they should expect to field a better lineup. By writing more jokes than you normally would, you'll have more gags to select from. Your finished product - the team you eventually field - should be top quality.
Sixth, strictly adhering to your quota promotes writing discipline. Discipline is a major attribute for any writer. For almost 30 years I wrote comedy material for Bob Hope. Hope would call with requests at any time of the day or night. When he called, I had to go to work - but not without some complaining. If I was particularly busy when the request for comedy material came, I would say, "Why does he have to put me to work now when I have so much other work to do?" If I wasn't engaged when the request came, I would say, "Why does he give me work now when I finally have a chance to relax?" So, if I didn't have the time, I didn't want to write. If I did have the time, I didn't want to write. Nevertheless, I had to write when the call came.
That's what professional discipline is. That's the training that a writing quota offers you. Sometimes you'll be too busy to meet your quota. Other times, you'll enjoy your relaxation so much that you won't want to bother meeting your quota. In both instances, you should meet that quota.
Seventh, writing to a quota will enable you to build your repertoire. In developing or furthering your writing career, you'll want to maintain some showcase material, some audition pieces. Clients, producers, editors, or publishers will want to see representative samples of your writing. By writing to a quota, you'll continually update your showcase material. You'll constantly build up fresh, current material of high quality.
Consider this quote from comedian Drew Carey about a regular writing routine: "You have to treat comedy - writing and performing - like a job. One of the ways I did that was to set minimums for myself - like writing ten jokes a day. I told other comics about this and they did it and it helped them. I got really good feedback from the ten-jokes-a-day method.
"If you write ten jokes a day and you get one good joke - that's all you want out of the whole day - and you do that five days a week, that's five good jokes a week. If you do that all year, 50 weeks a year with two weeks off, that's an hour's worth of material. If you're a stand-up comic and you can come up with an hour a year, that's amazing. It really, really is. You'll be the most prolific comic on the road.
"I'm telling you, set a minimum for each day and stick to it and you really can't go wrong."
Why Not Try it Yourself?
Pick a topic that you want to write a routine about. It can be a current event, a generic premise, or even a roast of a friend. Determine that you'll write - let's say five jokes a day on that topic. Do that for five days a week, you can take the weekends off. That should produce 25 jokes a week.
Stick with that quota for one month. At the end of this assignment, you'll have 100 gags on your topic. From that, after you edit and select your best, you should produce a solid monologue of 20 to 25 gags.
Even if you fall short of that output, you should wind up with a solid chunk of comedy material that is at least eight to ten gags long. That's pretty good productivity for any comedy writer.
Try it and have fun with it.