I’m going to start with a rather bold statement today:
Writers cannot edit their own work beyond a certain point.
Yes, we may be able to fix crucial plot problems and catch quite a few spelling and syntax errors on our own, but after a while, no matter how sharp our eyes, how well-trained we are, how many times we read the story, we’re going to eventually stop seeing the problems.
How do I know this? Well, I see it a lot even in heavily edited manuscripts. But also, it just recently happened to me.
I gave one of my short stories to a friend a couple weeks ago as a sort of introduction to my writing. Since this story is currently making the submission rounds, I figured it was a good place to start. I’ve edited it to death, after all, so I was confident in sharing it. However, a few paragraphs into it, he looked at me and said, “You wrote the wrong ‘coarse’. ”
In other words, I’d written the wrong homophone.
At first, I thought, “I’ve already submitted it! What am I going to do?” (The answer is: nothing.)
Then I thought, “I’m an editor. How could I have missed that?”
Then I laughed. All of the Muses had read this story at one point or another and yet not one of them caught that mistake either. I myself have combed through the piece a thousand times.
But my friend—a non-native English speaker, in fact—saw it within seconds.
So what’s the moral of the story?
Get other people to read your work. Not just your writing buddies, not just your critique group. Find an assortment. Non-writers, for instance, may see the story more as a reader would see it. A programmer (as my friend is) is accustomed to noticing small errors and may be more detail-oriented (but in a different way than your average writing editor). Different people will see your story in different ways. You’re not obliged to implement all of their advice, but fresh perspectives may offer new insights. They may also save you from small embarrassments.
Now, if the literary magazine truly wants to publish my story, they’ll probably overlook the “course” error and allow me to fix it later, but proofreading is an essential part of the manuscript preparation process. When you think your work is as perfect and shiny as it can be, find someone who has not yet read the story to read through it again for you. The more people who read it, the better your chances of finding those lingering errors you no longer see.
Even editors need editors, after all.
Here’s something the Muses don’t know about me: Ten years ago, I got my first lesson in writing dialogue from a friend in high school. She wasn’t a writer, but she seemed to know more about the whole tagging business than I did. I never could get the commas in the right places or use the right tags, and she’d return my manuscripts covered in red ink. If I ever had a “first” editor, she was it. But she was essential. She got me to ask an important question: How should I write dialogue?
Finding the answer wasn’t easy. I got it wrong again and again and again. I probably still get it wrong. I went through a lot of stages, a lot of trial and error. But in the intermittent years, I’ve learned how to avoid some of the common mistakes I see when I’m editing. Below I’ve amassed some tips to consider when writing your own dialogue.
Know the difference between an action and a dialogue tag
Dialogue tags show who is speaking. That is really the only reason to use them. Secondarily, they can show how the spoken dialogue is expressed (said, asked, whispered), but their primary function is to provide clarity.
Dialogue tags are most commonly separated from the quoted speech with a comma.
“I love you,” he said.
Action tags show an action done by a character (smiled, huffed, yawned, shrugged). They do not influence the words spoken by the character. To remember this, ask yourself, can a character smile his words? Can he yawn them? (The answer is no.) But action tags have their uses. They can provide beats between quoted speech to vary the rhythm and also show who is speaking.
Action tags are separated from quoted speech with a period.
She smiled. “I love you.”
Use “said” and “ask” and forget the rest
Several years ago, I went through a stage where I was determined to use every word in the English language as a tag. You know . . . for variety. My characters were “acquiescing” and “acceding” and “concurring” and “soliciting” and “inquiring.” Let’s just say I was making the most out of Shift + F7.
But dialogue tags aren’t supposed to call attention to themselves. The strength of your dialogue should be in the quoted speech, not in the tag. If the reader notices it, you’ve thrown them out of the story, and we all know that’s bad bad bad.
I’m not saying you can’t use a different tag if the situation calls for it, but it’s worth noting that in the majority of cases, the tags “said” and “ask” will suffice.
Kill the adverbs
We’ve all probably written or read a novel where the characters are yelling angrily or murmuring helplessly or . . . you get my point.
To be honest, I love adverbs in moderation. In the right place, they can add entire dimensions to a text, but if they’re a part of your tag, you’ve got a problem. Why? Because adverbs in dialogue or action tags have a tendency to be a) redundant and b) telling.
For instance, a reader will know a character is angry if they are yelling at someone. Ideally, a reader should get a sense of the character’s anger from the actual dialogue itself (always aim for this!), which would render even the “yelling” part a distraction.
Your prose should show me what the adverb is telling me. Rich dialogue should illustrate the thoughts, the feelings, or the state of mind of a character. The best dialogue tag is simple. Rely instead on the strength of your voice.