18

I have had to read so many papers, and papers on writing papers, that I noticed how engaging and more pleasant to read a publication is when the author inserts the occasional funny remark.

I'm also writing so many project papers lately (mathematics bachelor) that I am actually developing an enjoyment for writing and attempting to come up with my own style. It's something I'd like to improve and I'd love to write more in the future and as I further my studies.

And so I wondered. How appropriate is it for a student to sometimes be funny in his or her reports? I have stumbled on so many half-assedly written assignments that it makes me think that many students simply don't care about nice writing at all, so I don't have any example to base an opinion on. Thoughts?

3
24

Whatever you decide, humor in academic writing is always better understated rather than overstated. See here:

Footnote on a name: "Better known for other work"

6
  • 7
    Irrelevant and understated footnotes have a long history in learned publications. I heartily endorse their use. :) – Calchas Mar 11 '15 at 14:14
  • 6
    Understated, but surprisingly dark. – Random832 Mar 11 '15 at 19:59
  • Yes, I agree. A little goes a long way :) – Snowflake Mar 11 '15 at 20:06
  • I don't understand this answer. Was the footnote intended to be funny? I'm pretty sure I've seen completely serious yet similar remarks in other papers before... – user541686 Aug 19 '15 at 9:07
  • 1
    @Mehrdad See: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ted_Kaczynski – jakebeal Aug 19 '15 at 12:39
11

The goal of a publication is to communicate a scientific idea, not to be funny. That said, there's nothing wrong with using a little bit of humor if it doesn't detract from the presentation. The problem is that most humor does exactly that, either being a joke "aside" that disrupts the flow of text or (worse) effectively attempting to substitute humor for a solid argument (which is how humor is often used in normal conversation).

For the most part, then, plan not to use humor in scientific writing, but as you develop your writing voice you may find there are ways that humor will eventually find ways to acceptably creep in (see the scenarios in many security papers, for example).

8
  • Yeah I was talking about the really occasional phrase. Maybe one in 10 pages, or so. Which seem to be very present in many publications (books/theses/papers). Thanks for your input! – Snowflake Mar 11 '15 at 12:11
  • 4
    Great answer. This is my favourite. Another good example of using humour appropriately is the Python documentation, which uses things like spam, eggs, lumberjack, and ni as arbitrary variables. – Moriarty Mar 11 '15 at 12:20
  • 1
    @Snowflake Even one joke in 10 pages can sink your paper if its the wrong joke; conversely, you might have subtle humor in many places if it is the right type. The problem is knowing the difference, which is why I recommend acting conservatively. – jakebeal Mar 11 '15 at 12:31
  • 2
    My usual rule is that it should be explainable as not a joke. You want the people who get it to be laughing their heads off while 90% of people will not even notice the comment. – Calchas Mar 11 '15 at 13:55
  • 1
    My favorite funny paper: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1311997/?page=1 – Compass Mar 11 '15 at 14:24
7

I think the most important thing is comedy is know your audience. Either that, or be funny. I don't know, I don't really know comedy.

The point is, you need to know your audience for your report to know how much humor, and of what kind, is acceptable. If it is a paper/report to be submitted to a serious venue, or just something to submit to a crochety old professor, then the answer is you should be quite reserved. If you're submitting this report to a professor who jokes around a lot and puts in a lot of humor in his notes, or just putting it on your webpage for fun, you can be more free.

Caveat: many academic jokes undergrads think are funny are less so to experts. (It goes without saying that all professors' jokes are funny to everyone.) Once again, know your audience.

5

I think the general rule is that humor should not distract from the message of the paper, and that turns out to be a surprisingly high bar.

That said, there is a place in every paper where you can find humor on a quite regular basis: The acknowledgments. I've thanked jetlag for unexpected nocturnal clarity there, and a friend has thanked his favorite brand of beer. There are probably many other occurrences. If you find it difficult to find appropriate places for humor in your papers, this is it!

3

There is something to be said for appropriateness both of time and place but also reputation.

I can't speak for your field but as an instructor for computer programming, I always appreciate when students inject humor into their code assignments.

Recently I have spent a lot of time reading academic works in the field of psychology. Authors from Wertheimer to Baddeley to Paivio have all injected small bits of wry humor into their writing. I appreciate this as a reader but am not sure I would try to pull this off as an author.

2

Well if its not a conference or journal paper but rather a report or even a thesis then go for it. Your teachers (despite what students think!) are people too, so if you can at a fun tone then why not. I've done it when I considered it appropriate and confident it would be acknowledged.

1

I must disagree with many of the answers here. I think well put humor deserves a place anywhere. Communication, whether via speech, writing or any other medium requires the active engagement of at least two parties. Humor, when used properly, is a method to increase audience engagement. Look at Wilde or Orwell - their writing is packed with quips and humorous devices. How about Franklin or even a figure such as Ulysses Grant in his memoir? Humor is a very effective tool to increase audience engagement and thus making your point all the more resonant and enjoyable.

Response to comment (since I can't add comment due to closed status): That is a good point - however have you read Orwell's essay on the English language and his resistance to much of it's trending slang? That would be considered academic, yet is still completely Orwellian

1
  • 1
    Note that Wilde, Orwell, Franklin and Grant are not particularly noted as successful academic writers. – Nate Eldredge Mar 12 '15 at 5:46

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.