How to write a limerick

How to write a limerick

If you want to impress your circle with a tinge of wit, consider mastering the art of throwing out limericks. Here's our guide on how to become a limerick expert

"There once was a middle-aged man,
An unabashed pro football fan.
With eyes glued to the score,
He could see nothing more,
It’s been years since his wife packed and ran."

As anyone familiar with the man from Nantucket knows, a limerick is a five-line poem that features a rhyme scheme of AABBA and offers plenty of opportunity to show off your wit as well as your cheek.

"A limerick is a five-line poem that offers plenty of opportunity to show off your wit as well as your cheek"

No doubt named after the county in Ireland (for reasons that remain murky), the clever little literary concoctions were popularised by Edward Lear in the 1800s. While you may not match Lear’s output—he wrote 212 of them—the ability to toss one off is a useful skill at roasts or retirement parties, or whenever the time is right. Here’s how.

1. Find an easy rhyme to start

To begin, it’s helpful to think of a subject that has lots of rhymes. “There once was a dish with an orange” will inevitably lead you nowhere, as you’ve ended with a word that has no rhyme in English. “Play with the rhymes—go through the alphabet to see what works,” says Philipp Goedicke, who writes the limericks for NPR’s quiz show Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!

2. Devise a plot

How to write a limerick - a group of colleagues laughing around a tableCredit: fizkes

The first two lines of a limerick establish a premise that the remaining lines complete. In our example, “middle-aged man” and “football fan” set up what comes next. How could those two phrases advance both the story and the rhyme?

3. Ride the rhythm

Limericks have a very distinct meter that hurtles you toward the finish. The first and second lines create a pattern of nine (sometimes eight) stressed and unstressed syllables that sound sort of like this: “da-DUM da-da-DUM da-da-DUM.” The third and fourth lines follow a five- or six-syllable rhythm, in our case, the latter: “da-da-DUM da-da-DUM.”

4. Work toward the climax

How to write a limerick - man writing on paperCredit: PeopleImages

With the rhythm of the third and fourth lines in mind, continue with the story. In our example, we have already introduced the man who’s a football fan. What kind of drama could come of that?

5. Wrap it up

The last line should conclude your tale, reinforcing lines three and four. Now read your final version aloud to be sure you’ve nailed the meter. Sound good? You’re ready for an audience.

Check out these famous limericks and listen to how they sound.

6. Make it a collective effort

Back when people drank sidecars and brandished fondue forks, limericks were second only to Twister as a party highlight. And with everything Don Draper-esque suddenly chic again, you might want to bring back the tradition at your next gathering.

"Back when people drank sidecars and brandished fondue forks, limericks were second only to Twister as a party highlight"

With the right crowd, it’s simple: The first person offers the first line, the next person adds the second, and so on until you have your whole rhyme. Then, the next person starts a new limerick. Continue until someone makes an off-colour reference to the host’s wife.

Banner credit: fizkes

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