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Sunday, November 23, 2014

Editing Dialogue: Some May Be a Surprise

I'm doing some final editing before releasing the 2nd edition of my The Frugal Editor in paperback.  The ward-winning (Global Ebook Awards) e-book version (  is now available, but I keep getting requests for the paper, so I'm on it! Thanks Linda Ballou!
 Anyway, as I was working on it, I thought I'd share this little section on  writing professional dialogue.  There's more on punctuation, etc.--this is just a taste.
There’s a lot more to editing dialogue than reconsidering the tags. Here are ten easy ways to improve your dialogue without reading whole books or taking a seminar on the subject (though if you undertook one of those projects, you would probably be glad you did):

~Keep it simple. He said or she said will usually do. Your reader has been trained to accept this repetition.

~Forget you ever heard of strong verbs (just for the purpose of editing dialogue—then go back to your strong verb mode). Skip the he yelped and the she sighed. They slow your dialogue. If you feel you need them, look at the words—the actual dialogue—your character used when he was yelping. Maybe it doesn’t reflect the way someone would sound if he yelped. Maybe if you strengthen the dialogue, you could ditch the overblown tag without losing any meaning.

~When you can, reveal who is saying something by the voice or tone of the dialogue. That way you might be able to skip tags occasionally, especially when you have only two people speaking to one another. Your dialogue will ring truer, too.

~Having characters use other characters’ names to identify who is speaking is the lazy writer’s attempt at clarity. In real life, we tend to reserve using names for times when we are angry, disapproving, or we just met in a room full of people and we’re practicing our social skills. Overuse of names in dialogue might annoy a reader enough to distract her from your story.

~Avoid putting internal dialogue in italics or in quotation marks. When you write in a character’s point of view, your readers knows who is thinking the words. Point of view is a convention of literature and writers need to learn how to make it work for them instead of taking the easy way out. [There's also a section that will give you enough information on using italics fon internal dialogue to give you enough fodder to at least reconsider if you are already using them.]

~Be cautious about using dialogue to tell something that should be shown. It does not help to transfer the telling or exposition from the narrator to the dialogue. It does make the character who is speaking sound longwinded and negate one of  the things dialogue does well—that is, move the pace of the story forward quickly. Putting quotation marks around exposition is the lazy writer’s approach to revision.

~Don’t break up dialogue sequences with long or overly frequent blocks of narrative. That, too, keeps dialogue from moving the story along. If a writer inserts too much stage direction, it loses its forward motion along with the tension it is building.

~Avoid having every character answer a question directly. Some people do that (say a sensitive young girl who has been reared to obey her elders), but many don’t. Some veer off with an answer that doesn’t follow from the question asked. Some are silent. Some characters do any one of these things as a matter of course. Some do them purposefully, say to avoid fibbing or to change the subject or because they are passive aggressive.

~Avoid dull dialogue that doesn’t help draw better characters or move the action forward. Forcing a reader to hear people introduce themselves to one another without a very good reason to do so is cruel and unusual punishment.

Use dialogue to plant a seed of intrigue unobtrusively. When a character brings up a concern that is not solved immediately, the page-turning effect of your story is heightened. Just don’t forget to answer the question raised at another appropriate time in your story. 

For those who just can't wait or prefer e-reading, well, it's there waiting for you.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson edits, consults. and speaks on issues of publishing. Find her The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success (How To Do It Frugally series of book for writers). Learn more about her other authors' aids at , where writers will find lists and other helps including Great Little Last-Minute Editing Tips on the Resources for Writers page. She blogs on all things publishing (not just editing!) at her Sharing with Writers blog. She tweets writers' resources at . Please tweet this post to your followers. We all need a little help with editing. (-:

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