Mindy Kaling’s Rules For Writing in a “Voice Checklist.”

Every Wednesday is Tip Day or List Day or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Mindy Kaling’s Rules for Writing.

I’m a huge fan of Mindy Kaling. She is one of the geniuses behind one of my very favorite TV shows, The Office–and also played the great character, Kelly Kapoor. I love her book Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). And I’m looking forward to binge-watching her newish TV show, The Mindy Project. (Added bonus: I love anything that’s an “___ Project.”)

Mindy Kaling also gave one of my favorite happiness interviews here. One great passage: “When I was 18 years old, I took a semester off from college and was an intern at Late Night With Conan O’Brien. It was the most glamorous job I ever had, and I idolized the writers there. I remember lying in bed every night telling myself that if I ever got a job as a comedy writer, I would be so happy and all my dreams would have come true. Six years later I got that job, working on The Office. I felt incredibly happy and grateful for a about a week, and then a whole new set of complaints set in. This would’ve shocked and disgusted my 18-year-old self. It’s helpful to remember the younger version of me because it reminds me to feel grateful when I want to be snotty.”

Mindy Kaling was on the cover of Entertainment Weekly this week, and the accompanying article included “Mindy’s Rules for Writing,” which is the “voice checklist” that hangs in her writers’ room. “The truth is,” she explained, “it’s much easier to write a bunch of mean zingers.”

Characters are helpful and kind.

No one is a moron.

Characters are polite.

Conflict should never come from a desire to be cruel or mean.

Do not fear nuance. Comedy from avoiding conflict, not instigating it.

Characters don’t have to be maxed out to be funny.

To me, this list also suggests how TV writers can avoid cliche. We’re also so familiar with the tired stock characters, the broad insults, the unrealistically extreme behavior that falls into the same patterns. These kinds of rules make it fresh.

What do you think of these rules?

If you’re reading this post through the daily email, click here to join the conversation. And if you’d like to get the daily blog post by email, sign up here.

  • Suebooooob

    The Mindy Project is my favorite recent comedy. The characters keep getting better and better.

  • Karen

    I love Mindy Kaling (and you’ll love The Mindy Project). Her list is great – wish all TV writers were using it. It would make TV watching much more enjoyable. :-)

  • Kim

    I wish Disney would adopt these rules for their TV shows. A steady stream of snark and dumb-adult gags shouldn’t be the only formula for pre-teen shows.

    • Kelley

      I couldn’t agree more!! My pre-teen nieces are visiting for the summer and watch these shows ( as a result my younger sons see them occasionally) and I worry that it is influencing how they define “funny”. Mindy’s rule about not being afraid of nuance is right on. It reminds me of an interview I read years ago with the writers on the show CHEERS who were initially told by network brass to avoid subtlely and nuance – the audience wouldn’t “get” it. So much for that theory.

    • Mom

      I totally agree! I have banned my pre-teen daughter from watching the Disney Channel for this VERY reason.

  • Vera Hough

    I love these rules.

  • peninith1

    If only more writers shared these rules, I might be induced to watch TV shows again.

  • Thel

    These rules are great. The encourage ideas and characters and I love that comedy and good writing can grow out of a positive approach

  • Barbara

    From reading many of the preceding comments, it seems that many viewers are tired of the same ol’ lame “humor” of American TV shows. Mindy’s list is refreshing. While the British can and do go over the top sometimes, their “normal” comedy shows are far superior to ours in that the characters, for the most part, look and sound believable. A viewer can be sympathetic to them (I love the show “Rev.” on hulu). I think that’s what most any writer – for TV or a novel – hopes to achieve/

  • Hannah

    Mindy Kaling is the leading comic genius of our time, bar none. Very cool to see her “Rules for Writing” for the insight they shed on her totally right on, tell-it-like-it-is, hysterically funny writing and acting.

  • Leslie Callender

    These rules are nice to see as a list posted to elevate the art of comedy. And it is easy to look back on older but very successful shows and recognize similar “rules” having been applied in the writing of The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Cosby Show. The list could go on. Thanks for sharing!!!

  • Elizabeth Ambrose

    I agree with most of the rules, particularly the need for nuance and the avoidance of stereotypical characters/going for the lowest common denominator, however I do think that comedy (or any genre for that matter) does often need contrasting characters whose own goals do not always match and who are not always the nicest people around. That way, there will be times when the offending person gets their come-uppance in a hilarious way or this person learns a lesson in life and some engaging pathos can be introduced in the comedy. What a wonderful job Mindy has! Elizabeth Ambrose, London.

  • Allison

    These rules are great, and could actually be used to as guidelines for how to see others and/or how to act in ‘real life’. The team of writers at The Office (awesome show!) must’ve shared her views, that is why we ended up caring about pretty much every character on the show (not so much that guy with the glasses who was only there in the last season or so :o). It made us feel great that in the end (super series finale), it worked out for them all!

    I’ll have to check out Mindy’s show.

  • Jeanne

    Read the cover article in EW and love, love, love Mindy. So tired of the cheap shots and mean comments. Nice when the one who makes the rules chooses theses rules. You GO girl!!

  • kkc

    really, I could easily follow all but the “moron” one. there are morons, but I guess it’s too easy and where’s the challenge? overall–great rules!! thank you for sharing~~ excited about the Mindy Project!!

  • Alexandra M Jamieson

    This reminds me of my “mission statement” project (another project Gretchen!) – an umbrella set of rules for my company (writing, coaching, teaching) that keep my projects aligned and cohesive.
    I’d never thought about having a set of guidelines for my writing, too! Fabulous!
    Another way for me to create “freedom within a framework.”

  • http://www.hellobrio.com/ Jennifer Coyle

    These are much loftier rules than I imagined coming from Mindy, but extremely helpful nonetheless. While my writing tends to be on the essay side of things, I will keep these in mind whenever I start to write my funny novel that’s swimming about in my head. Have you watched her TV show yet? It’s quite amazing and I love all of the SNL actors that show up randomly in hilariously quirky roles.