Dr. Dawn Field Two Drops of Ink marilyn l davis

Spot on humor: A genius example all writers can learn from

Writing is easy. All you do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.
-~Gene Fowler~

By Dawn Field


Are you good at humor? Do you like writing it – or reading it? It can be injected into a tense story to lighten the mood, usually just so the emotional temperature can rise again, or it can be the primary axis of a great book.

Humor can do the soul good, but sometimes it’s also the best way to get a point across.

What better way to highlight how NOT to write than to fill a book with exquisitely bad writing on purpose? The skill and experience of Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman is a pinnacle of ‘didactic parody’.

How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them–A Misstep-by-Misstep Guide” is a brilliant example of form serving function. Each of the 200 classic mistakes is caricatured by prose that has presumably passed across these editors’ desks. So much of it is such a high standard of “bad”, it’s hard to believe they didn’t have an expert hand in fiddling the dials. Take this for example:

What do you think of my fiction book writing?” the aspiring novelist extorted.

“Darn,” the editor hectored, in turn. “I can not publish your novel! It is full of what we in the business call ‘really awful writing.'”

“But how shall I absolve this dilemma? I have already read every tome available on how to write well and get published!” The writer tossed his head about, wildly.

“It might help,” opined the blonde editor, helpfully, “to ponder how NOT to write a novel, so you might avoid the very thing!”

How many “mistakes” do you see? The 101 piece of advice these days is to stick with “said” in dialogue tags.

“So who lives in Unpublished Novelville?” the authors ask? “Men of inaction” are defined as “A very common characteristic of unpublished manuscripts is a wildly disproportionate ratio of inner contemplation to action.”

Despite all the humor, it’s dead serious and excellent advice when it comes to getting your manuscript the serious look it deserves – by cutting out all the awful writing so the great writing shines.

The book is designed to help you see which tropes to use and which to avoid at all costs. The title is its own trope, of course, at the TV Tropes database:

The book, naturally, is about how not to write a novel. It is probably the only self-help book that you’ll want to read over and over because it’s actually amusing to read.

More “mis-examples” are easy to pick because they are literally on every page. Humor is not only decorative but indispensable.

On Style:

Of all known ways of killing an editor’s interest in your book, style is the swiftest and deadliest: the literary equivalent of a fast-acting poison. While a tiresome plot and wooden characters may take paragraphs or even pages to kill an editor’s interest, a droning or inarticulate voice can put a stop to all reading in a single sentence.

On Plot:

A great many plot problems that show up in unpublished manuscripts can be resolved with a single strategy. Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Furthermore, it should be something of broad interest. One of the first stumbling blocks a novelist must overcome is the misapprehension that what is of interest to him will necessarily be of interest to anybody else.

The win with this book is that the more writing craft you know, the funnier it will be. The earlier you are in the learning curve, the more tips you’ll pick up. For everyone ready to submit to readers, agents, or editors, this read will focus the mind on what it feels like to sit on the “receiving end” of a manuscript.

When you submit, draw from this treasure trove of knowledge to make sure you include only fitting humor: Not the kind that makes editors sigh and snicker and put your hard work into the slush pile, but humor that propels your story artfully, creatively, and effectively.

Even if you are so seasoned a pro you’re beyond the lessons in this book, it’s still worth the read for sheer entertainment –especially if you edit. If you read for the writing craft tips, you’ll be rewarded with smiles while you learn. In the end, it’s an outstanding example of how “bad” writing can be some of the best writing in the right context. That’s an awesome use of humor.

Dawn Field

Spot on humor: A genius example all writers can learn from two drops of ink dawn field


Dawn Field is a scientist now writing her second book for Oxford University Press. She has published over 50 articles on writing because she is fascinated by what makes great writing, the writing process, learning how writers create, and how fiction impacts society. She loves reading book drafts at any stage of completion, brainstorming writing projects, and hearing about the diversity of writing experiences. Connect with her to collaborate, or converse, at UnityinWriting.com.


  1. I think the premise of the book you describe is a wonderful way to show what bad writing looks like in a funny way. I often find in teaching writing, my students recognize mistakes better if they are woven into a piece. They can hear it and then recognize it, which is much more effective than simply telling them. I am going to check this book out. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you Dawn for this valuable insight.

    Humor is a wonderful thing. I need it daily.
    I remember the first submission I sent Scott Biddulph here at Two Drops. He sent it back with more red marks on it then a bad test paper back in High School. I laughed about it, but I didn’t give up. My only thought was to practice more. I think writing is always work in progress. We never stop learning. Thank you, hope to see more from you here, Dawn.

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