Updated: Dec 3, 2021
Whether you’re using a laptop, note-book, the back of fag packets or doing it mostly in your head, an effective writing process will take you back-and-forth between unconscious creativity and conscious crafting. Ideas emerge from the subconscious so you can't really force them. All you can do is create the conditions, be alert to them popping up, and then develop them when they do.
Always have a note-book (real or electronic - written/typed or voice recording) with you because ideas often arise when you’re doing something else entirely. You can also capture thoughts and observations that aren’t yet funny, but are material for the subconscious to work on. Many won’t go anywhere, but some might lead to things you can use.
Then your 'sitting down' and writing time (the conscious bit) is usually best given over to working up the ideas that were captured at these other times. Go back to the ideas in the note-book. Some might not even make sense any more, and some will be dreadful, but there will be some you can work with. Perhaps work through your ideas in a café or a bar as being in public can be more stimulating. Even better, talk through them with other comics or, ahem, with a coach and director.
The next step is then to alternate between times when you are working on material and times when you drop it and do something else, letting the subconscious once again do its work. Leave it overnight, or come back to it a week later. Either an idea will pop into your mind when you're doing something else, or when you turn your thoughts to the material again you will have fresh insights. The more you do this, the more the pathways are set up in your brain. As George Carlin observes:
“The brain does networking on its own where those connections get made, and pretty soon there’s an automatic process going on all the time.”
And remember, Write much more than you actually need, and then cherry-pick the small proportion that’s going somewhere. Only a small percentage of what you write will ultimately be good enough. To put it another way, most of what you write will be crap! This is true of acts at all levels—Jerry Seinfeld is said to throw out 60% of what he writes. So, no matter how good you get, the decent stuff will still be the minority of what you write. As Jimmy Carr says:
“In order to get 250 jokes that work, I've got to write about a thousand.”
If Jimmy Car is operating at a level of 75% of his output not ultimately being good enough, then newer writers might reasonably expect the success ratio to be even lower. This can actually be a liberating thought and let's call it the 25% rule. 25% of what you write will be good enough (if you’re lucky); set your expectations there.
Yes, it means you need to write more, but you can write under a lot less pressure if you're thinking only a quarter of what you turn out will be any good. There are no 'rules', of course, and maybe you'll get a higher percentage of ‘keepers’, but this drastic 'chuck 75% out' is a good spur to write in bulk and then to select and edit. From there, which material to keep will be revealed to you by your audiences.
And it is rare for an idea to arrive fully formed and perfect. So the most important stage in stand-up comedy writing is the rewriting stage. Do a few drafts before you perform it. Work on it for a bit, leave it and come back. When it's ready to go, try it in front of an audience (or before this, on friends) and see the reaction. Then rework it. A good way to try out material can be to weave it into conversation – I’m directing a stand-up who tries out her material on Uber drivers! (She fears her below average rating on Uber as a sign the material is not going down that well...)
Stand-up rewriting is a process of tinkering, editing, trying different words, rhythms or even starting afresh on an idea. There are many ways of expressing the same basic idea. If it's not working, it may be that the idea itself isn't funny. But it might be that you haven't found the best way of getting it across. Rework it and try again.
Keep in mind throughout these blogs that the writing is intimately tied in with the charm and idiosyncrasies of the individual performer. The writing is not intended to be read but to be said; and what’s more who is saying it and how are the crucial ingredients. As Oliver Double notes, sometimes, “Pretty much the whole of a joke’s funniness can be contained in the merest gleam of an eye or the quirky way a particular word is pronounced.”
Once you have an idea you can work on (and if you don’t, jump to lesson 13, work through these three distinct stages:
Stage 1 Write loads. Much more than you will need. Ideally write a long first draft. Not thinking about quality or even laughs especially, just hammer a load of stuff out. The important thing is to start even if it doesn't seem promising. You will warm up. Even if you don't and it feels like you have got nowhere, you will still have set your unconscious in motion with some creative problems.
As you do this, you may also find a second idea sprouting out of the first that is actually more promising. If so, park the original idea and focus on this new one. You are aiming to end up with something long, messy and probably mostly unfunny. And this is as it should be. As Logan Murray puts it in his excellent Teach Yourself Stand-up Comedy book:
“Allow yourself the freedom of not being funny. Allow yourself to explore ideas without insisting that there is a punchline at the end of every sentence. This period of time is for you to play.”
Stage 2 Leave it. Do something else and come back to it later, at best the next day because this allows time for the subconscious to work. You can even leave it for a week or a month or even more!
Stage 3 When you return to the material you will usually have fresh ideas and insights. If you made a recording of it listen back to it, write in new ideas and develop what's there and also cut out what isn't working... Then try it on stage and see what happens.