by Lu Ann Staheli
I’ve been working as an editor now for a long time, first with students at school, but more recently I’ve returned to editing manuscripts for local publishers. As I’ve been working on the most recent projects, I’ve started to keep a list of suggestions that would help the authors improve the flow and content of their stories. Each of these is a simple fix, yet applying them could make a huge difference in the quality of writing, and improved quality means a better reading experience for your audience.
1. Use the Natural Order for Dialogue Tags
“He said” is the natural order of things and should be used whenever possible. Lately I’ve read three manuscripts where the author has elected to use “said he,” every time. Although an occasional use of this order works, using it too often makes the reader begin to focus on the tag and not the dialogue, the place where the focus should be. In an effort to avoid the same-old-same-old, authors tend to let the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction, thinking their new sentence structure will seem fresh and interesting. Instead, it feels awkward and annoying. My philosophy of writing is: Never annoy your reader. If your reader become too annoyed, they will no longer be your reader, and in the publishing world, that’s the last thing you want them to do.
2. Stop Telling Me How to Feel
Although it is important for your reader to experience a sense of place and character, adding a tag or beat that tells them how the character speaks easily becomes distracting. Words or phrases such as laughed, with a smile, in a serious tone, or asked happily are all examples of the author telling the audience. A better way is to strengthen the dialogue itself, so there is no doubt in the reader’s mind how the character feels when they say these words. Of course, an occasional directive may be needed, but most of the time these tags and beats can go.
3. Echoes are for Mountain Tops, Not Fiction
If you are in the habit of letting your characters echo or question everything that is said to them, you need to stop. When new ideas are thrown at a character, it is likely they will want to know more, but instead of repeating the key word from the previous dialogue, give them a question that covers new ground. Insist those characters listen the first time, then build upon the information they have been given. Stand-alone questions like what and huh are wasted words, something most novelists really can’t afford.
4. Put Your Dialogue Tags on a Diet
When you were in grade school, you probably had a teacher who insisted that you use a variety of words to replace said. It’s great that you know all those words, but in this case, your teacher was wrong. Dialogue tags need to be invisible. They are only there as place markers, a way for your reader to know who is speaking during a conversation with two or more characters. Keep your tags as bland as possible. Use said, whispered, and asked, always things a speaker can actually do with words. If you want to add a little spice, you may do so, but don’t change dialogue tags every time the character speaks. As a matter of fact, see how many times you can get away without using them at all.
One way to do this is to know how to use a beat, a descriptive phrase that also adds sense of place. Recently I edited a manuscript that used the following tags on a single page: said, questioned, replied, asked, replied, answered, said, said, questioned, answered, laughed. Not only were most of them too heavy, but the repetition of those heavier words stood out like an elephant in a group of penguins. An occasional beat like this might have worked better: “He could hardly keep the laugher from bursting through his words.”
5. Stop Beating the Dead Horse
Once you established a point, get on with it. Develop the information more if you need to, but don’t continue to tell us the same thing, just in new words. This might be harder for you to recognize in your own work than the other points I’ve made. Ask your trusted readers—the ones who see your manuscript before it goes to an editor—to look for times you’ve gone too far in making a statement. Sure, it might be significant to your story that the audience understands how handsome a character is, that another one is a klutz, and that they each have things they want, but give us credit for being able to remember that from the things they do and say, without you, the author, reminding us numerous times per page.
These are the kinds of errors that are easy to make as we write with the muse. They are also corrections that are easy to do. Sometimes we need the help of other people to recognize we have fallen into their use, but most often, we can find them in our own work. Learning to write well requires constant work; each new piece brings its own challenges, but when we pay attention to detail and watch our writing improve, the rewards make all that work worthwhile.