Caustic? Gas? Oblique? Was this illustration made for an article about humor?

Yesterday, I was critiquing a scene1 in which the protagonist was third-wheeled at a fancy restaurant while her husband and a fellow attorney talked shop. With their conversation droning in the background, she took in her surroundings and noticed a set of initials scratched into the wood above the booth bench.

What kind of person would carve their initials into the wall of a posh restaurant? Probably a lawyer’s wife. B.B. — maybe it stands for Bored Barbara.

I struck out the last sentence.

What kind of person would carve their initials into the wall of a posh restaurant? Probably a lawyer’s wife.

Way better, right? In the original form, it was a joke with two punchlines, and very few setups can sustain that. The first punchline — Probably a lawyer’s wife — is great. It’s subtle and clever and crisp. The second one — BB — maybe it stands for Bored Barbara — is not as great.

On its own, it might be okay, but the problem is that it draws attention away from the first punchline. And the humor isn’t just split up 50/50; adding the second punchline makes the whole joke fall flat.

And that’s when it hit me.

Humor should be concentrated.

This goes not just for humor, but for anything that you want to emphasize. A clever metaphor, a powerful ending — if you want something to really sink in, you need to give it time to land. In public speaking, you add pauses; in writing, you add periods. You’ve come up with something brilliant — give the audience time to recognize it as such.

To make room for all of that impact, you need free up space. Less is more, because ‘more’ dilutes the message.

Distill every bit of meaning into as few words as possible, so that each one has incredible density. The PSI of any single sentence should be closer to that of a stiletto than an elephant’s foot2.

That doesn’t mean that concentrating emphasis is easy. In fact, even after articulating the problem and writing an article about it, I still do it. My original attempt at a subtitle was

You don’t need a one-two punch if the first one is a knockout, and you should always be striving for the KO.

See how much clunkier that is? You don’t even get a chance to marvel at the first part, because you’re already trying to unravel the second part.

But I caught it and fixed it, and then, in a meta-realization, decided it should be the title instead of the subtitle. Maximum impact.

Concentrated emphasis, room to land…this newfound awareness will make my writing better from here on out. All because someone carved their initials into a wall.

Thanks, B.B.


1 Details changed to protect the innocent
2 WHICH IS AN AMAZING METAPHOR AND COMPLETELY INTUITIVE AND just don’t worry about it, okay?


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Image credit: British Library via Flickr