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Editing the Dialogue

Tisha Martin vintage typewriter 1940s WWII reporter desk chair

This blog post first appeared on Almost an Author, June 22, 2018.

Many writers are introverts and don’t prefer to talk a lot. Some writers are extroverts and love to talk. For those, speaking isn’t hard at all and is as natural as brushing our teeth or tying our shoes. Even then, writing natural dialogue is a challenge sometimes. (However, writing dialogue is a topic is for a writing blogger on Almost an Author. This is an Editing blog post!)

If writing dialogue is hard, then perhaps editing dialogue is even harder. Where do you put the comma again? Before or after the dialogue tag? How do you format the quotations? Wait . . . what? I have to make my characters sound realistic without making them sound like they’re dumping information? How on earth do I accomplish that?

So . . . let me help clear the air, the pockets of confusion, the panic that’s probably constricting your chest right now. Below are three general rules for editing your dialogue so that your manuscript is clean, efficient, and your readers will fall in love with your characters. (Bold text has been added for emphasis. This does not mean publishers want you to bold these items. It’s merely there for your ease of reference. Please don’t bold anything in your manuscripts.)

Three Rules for Editing Dialogue

1. Insert double quote marks around the beginning and ending of the spoken portions within your story.

Double quote marks, or curly quotes, look like this:

Freddy, if we don’t get moving, it’s gonna rain on us.

There are double quote marks at the beginning of this dialogue and at the end of this dialogue. If your font has straight quote marks, be sure to keep them consistent. Nothing like inconsistency on something so small as quotation marks that sadly ruin a great reading experience!

2. Place the comma on the inside of the quote mark, before the dialogue tag.

As a contest judge and an editor, I constantly mark this common error in manuscripts (and published books!) I’m reading. Proper comma placement within dialogue looks like this:

“She’s a keeper, all right,” Hercules said, looking across the street.

Did you see the comma between the last word and the ending quote mark? Comma goes between those two elements, especially with a dialogue “tag,” such as said, stated, inferred, etc. Not after. Please.

3. Watch for inconsistent structure in dialogue.

Many times, I see beautiful dialogue, but the structure is wonky. When you have action beats and dialogue beats around a segment of dialogue, it can be tricky to know how to organize it. Try this method:

“I’m about as horse crazy as you are.” Susan winked. “When I was ten, my parents bought me a pony for Christmas.”

Notice the period at the end of the first sentence and then the quote mark. The action beat comes after. Then the dialogue starts up again.

But what if you want to include a dialogue tag instead of an action beat? Try this method instead:

Laurie wasn’t sure how sick she was, but Dad’s tone did make her feel sick. “Why do I have to go to the hospital?” she called, her voice cracking.

Notice the question mark goes inside the quote mark, followed by a lowercased pronoun and a comma after the dialogue tag and the exposition of how the character’s voice sounded. Please do not capitalize the pronoun after the character speaks. You want to keep good form.

Here are a few excellent resources for you in editing your manuscript:

  • Come to Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference, October 12-13, 2018, where I’ll be teaching two workshops on beginning editing and advanced editing. I’d love to see you there! You can register at Breathe Writer’s Conference. It’s in Michigan, and it’s very affordable!
  • Buy Kathy Ide’s book, Proofreading Secrets of Best-selling Authors, link to purchase from Amazon here. Or win a free copy at one of my Breathe sessions!
  • Buy Joyce K. Ellis’s book, Write With Excellence 201: A lighthearted guide to the serious matter of writing well—for Christian authors, editors, and students, link to purchase from Amazon here. Or win a free copy at one of my Breathe sessions!

I hope this helps you in knowing how to edit your dialogue, or at least some of it. I’m creating a session for beginning editors and advanced writers on editing, and they should be available by the end of the year. I’ll include practical advice that’s helpful and encouraging. Always looking for ways to help authors be able to write easier and not be super worried (maybe you’re not) about editing dialogue. Agents, editors, publishers, and readers just prefer a clean manuscript. And you can confidently give them one by learning these quick tricks!

Join in the discussion! I’d love to hear from you!

Take a few minutes and ruminate. What does your dialogue tell about your characters?