So you’re getting your story onto paper (or screen, as the case may be) and are thinking about hiring an editor to give it a once (or twice, maybe thrice) over. Maybe you’re on a tight budget and are trying to query publishing companies first, since they provide editing services, but you want your manuscript to be as polished as possible before you send it in. In this series, I’ve compiled a list of tips and tricks that will help you self-edit, and believe me, your editor will thank you for it!
Disclaimer: I named this post in jest! Really, I’d just like to give writers some tips, and perhaps placate a few editors 😉 So, without further ado, here’s some
Volume I: Badly Written Dialogue
When writing dialogue, it’s important to keep the flow of conversations going naturally. You don’t want your reader to be pulled out of the story by awkward wording or misplaced punctuation. If it’s difficult to tell who is talking, or the prevalence of tags breaks the conversation up too much, your readers will get frustrated and might throw your book across the room in a fit of petulant rage. That is probably not something you wish to encourage.
Obviously, there are a lot of mistakes you can make here. Errors in tags, punctuation, capitalization, and layout can drive your editor up the wall if they’re present throughout your manuscript. They will also distract—and probably confuse—the reader (which, let’s be honest, is the real issue here). You have to be careful, even with editing software; for example, one editor mentioned that some word processing programs will automatically capitalize anything after quotation marks (how dumb is that?) Here are a few of the most common issues we run across:
Dialogue tags are the “he said, she said” of the writing world. The two main problems most writers have are knowing which ones to use and how many to use.
Only an action that can describe the speech (said, replied, answered, etc.) can be used as a dialogue tag. Word choice is of utmost importance; while you don’t want the conversation to be flat, when you use too many exotic tags it can be extremely distracting. Don’t be afraid to just say “said” in your dialogue! It blends into the background while still clarifying the speaker. When you’d like a particular phrase to stand out or are trying to set a specific mood, it’s perfectly fine, even desirable, to use something more descriptive like “yelled” or “whispered”. However, if you’re using a different word every time, particularly an unusual one (I have one client that was overly fond of the word “hollered” but luckily he wasn’t married to it), the tags can steal the spotlight from what’s actually being said.
You also want to make sure you’re using the proper tags. If you use “replied” at the beginning of a conversation, it will be confusing, as the reader will be wondering just who the character is replying to. Additionally, make sure the connotation of the word matches what’s being said. “Confessed” and “admitted” imply that the character is revealing something they would rather not, such as something they are ashamed of, whereas “declare” and “state” carry connotations of blunt and/or direct remarks to which the character does not necessarily expect a response. I shouldn’t have to say this, but just in case you were thinking about it… Do NOT use “ejaculate” as a tag. (The reasons for that should be obvious!)
Deciding how many tags to use can also be challenging. Too few tags and the reader may lose track of who’s talking; too many and the dialogue becomes choppy and hard to read. When there are only two characters engaged in the conversation and it consists mainly of short, one or two sentence lines, you won’t need many tags; the reader will know who is talking without being explicitly told. However, if there are more than two characters, you will need to use more tags.
You can also use action beats in place of dialogue tags. A character may lift an eyebrow, laugh, or shift uncomfortably; when you mention this, the reader will automatically assume that the next line (or the one immediately preceding it) is spoken by the character to whom the action applies. When you have an action beat, unless there’s a tag as well it won’t be part of the same sentence. For example:
“Frank, come on. You’re being unrealistic,” she shook her head.
is incorrect. It should either be
“Frank, come on. You’re being unrealistic.” She shook her head.
or something like
“Frank, come on. You’re being unrealistic,” she said, shaking her head.
Punctuation and Capitalization
Dialogue probably has the most complicated punctuation rules of all. I most often find an abundance of periods where a comma should have been used. If you place a tag before a line of dialogue, you should always use a comma to separate the tag from the speech:
She said, “This is the way.”
If you place the tag in the middle of a sentence, a comma should be used before the tag (inside the quotation marks) and after the tag (outside the quotes):
“This,” she said, “is the way.”
However, when you are placing the tag after the dialogue, there are a few things you need to consider before deciding which punctuation mark to use. Is it a question? Use a question mark. If the character is shouting, you should use an exclamation point. For any sentence that would end in a period, though, you should use a comma.
“Which way?” she asked.
“This way!” he shouted.
“Let’s go,” she said.
Note that the tag will ONLY be capitalized if it is at the beginning of the dialogue.
Another thing you’ll need to think about is where to place punctuation in the rest of the sentence if you have more than just dialogue going on. Sometimes, you’ll need a comma after a dialogue tag (she said, considering her wording carefully.) You won’t need them in every instance (she said as she typed); it will depend on how the action following the tag is worded.
A good rule is that a verb ending in “-ing” will need to be separated from the dialogue with a comma, the same way you would separate it in a regular sentence. In the sentence, She walked over to the desk, running her hand across its surface, you put a comma between desk and the verb running. Similarly, you would use a comma in this sentence: “This is a smooth desk,” she said, running her hand across its surface.
You may want to consider using action beats without tags in places like this; the action will indicate who is speaking without the need for “she said.” So, in our previous example, leaving out the tag would give us: “This is a smooth desk.” She ran her hand across its surface.
Even when a section of dialogue ends in a question mark or exclamation point (instead of a comma), the tag following it (if there is one) will be lowercase. Basically, treat it the same way you would any other section of dialogue. So
“Is it like that every time?” She asked. – WRONG
“Is it like that every time?” she asked. – CORRECT
“It’s like that every time!” She yelled. – WRONG
“It’s like that every time!” she yelled. – CORRECT
For more on capitalization, take a look at this post about a client who changed my perspective on the capitalization of racial descriptors.
While it is generally not your editor’s job to fix layout (except perhaps during the final proofread), inconsistent spacing and paragraphs can be very difficult to ignore. If you’ve double-spaced dialogue with no indention in one place, then you shouldn’t put it the way this post is laid out in another. Most word processing programs have options for paragraph styles that will ensure that your formatting is consistent throughout your manuscript.
Here is a sample dialogue I made up on the fly:
“How do you think I feel?” she asked.
He sniffed. “I assumed you would be grateful.”
“Well,” she replied, “you assumed wrong.”
“Do you have any idea how hard I worked for that?” he asked, frowning down at her.
“It doesn’t matter; it’s not right.”
“I can never win with you!” he exclaimed, exasperated. “Every time I try to do something nice, you throw it in my face!”
“Maybe that’s because you’ve never taken the time to consider—”
He cut her off with a dismissive gesture. “I’ve already spent too much time on you. You’re so dramatic! If it’s not one thing, it’s another. I’m done.” He turned to leave.
“Wait,” she called. “I’m sorry.” Her eyes welled up with tears and she stifled a sob.
He paused, then said, “It’s too little, too late,” and stalked away through the trees.
Hopefully this will give you a bit of insight to help you improve your dialogue (and give your editor a bit more time to focus on your story instead of just trudging through the technical bits!)
Michaeli lives in Harvest, Alabama with her fiance, Mark. They have two cats, Henry and Louise, and live the quiet and satisfying lives of two nerdy introverts. In her spare time, Michaeli enjoys playing the piano, singing, playing JRPGs, Tabletop gaming, and (of course) reading.