Saturday, October 10, 2009

Self-Editing One Step at a Time: Cleaning Up Those Dialogue Tags

This step may be combined with others during the sentence-by-sentence editing read as it addresses only these three mechanics of labeling dialogue.
When dialogue is carried on between two people, use the dialogue tag only as often as needed to let the reader know who is speaking.

“You know what I mean?” said Marjorie. She waited for her brother to answer.
“Don’t be silly. Of course, you do.”

When the dialogue involves more than two people, add a dialogue tag each time the speaker changes, or use a leading sentence before the dialogue to identify the speaker.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” Marjorie said.


Marjorie raised her eyebrows and tilted her head. “I don’t understand what you mean.”

Use "said" in your dialogue tags, with perhaps an occasional "asked" or "repeated." Other words that describe speech such as hollered, yelled, whispered, mumbled, yelled, and shrieked might be used once in a great while, but it is best if the dialogue and narrative show the speaker’s behavior and tone, rather than the author telling us. Avoid verbs that introduce actions other than speech. Examples are coughed, spat, choked, and lied.

As in most other editing tasks, the aim is to avoid pulling the reader out the story with unusual phrasing or word choices. Using a dialogue tag to convey information the reader wouldn’t otherwise know (the speaker is lying, for example), or that the reader already knows (the speaker is lying, for example), is distracting.


Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).

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  1. Great tips. I often suggest not to use "repeated" if the sentence is a word-for-word repetition, because the word repeated is then redundant.

  2. Bingo about sticking with "said" or "asked".

    It seems to be a sign of weakness on the part of the writer to "thesaurusize" words for "said" such as bellowed, queried, whispered, stated, asserted, boomed, and so on.

    These terms also sound forced - in everyday real conversation, most people just say "said."

    Cheers, Jill

  3. Thanks. This is very helpful because I am in the middle of writing a lengthy dialog. Have a nice day.

  4. Yup. Right on. I was grateful this was covered in the creative writing classes I took when I went back to complete my degree a few years ago.

  5. Good points here! Not only do you address dialog tags, but you zero in on "show and tell" usage. It's always better to show the reader what's happening rather than tell because the reader relates so much better to the scene.

  6. I didn't intend to be anonymous . . .

  7. I had an editor once whose bugbear was the use of "said" as a dialogue tag for questions. He insisted it always had to be "asked".

  8. Sorry to be wandering the country when my posts go up, but I'm in Illinois at the moment. I'll be moving on to Indiana (and Bouchercon) next week. Thanks to everyone who has dropped by The Blood-Red Pencil today.

  9. Thanks Patricia, I do find I get bored with using "said" from time to time.

    Bargain with the Devil

  10. This is fantastic. I love your blog. Thank you for the contribution you're making to the writing life. Please follow me as I am following you. Peace and all good things for you in creativity. Sincerely,



The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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