Tactical Tuesday: Advice for Self-Editing

Dialogue comes naturally to some authors, but others struggle with trying to share realistic, pertinent, and dynamic conversations in their fiction. Today, let’s take a look at some practices to avoid and some that will assist in providing vibrant dialogue.

If the conversation doesn’t add to the story, nix it. You’ve no doubt heard it before. In fiction, the weather is only important in fiction if a tornado or other natural catastrophe is pending. Likewise, the niceties each of us endure when we come upon a friend or acquaintance are not interesting in real life. If the conversation between your characters doesn’t move the plot forward, if it isn’t instilled with conflict, delete it.

Don’t let your characters discuss things they know about each other. If Mary and Sue have been friends since grade school, don’t have them sitting down to tea to discuss the things they know about each other, especially if this conversation is utilized in order to bring in back story or information that is best received another way. Don’t do it, especially if the back story or information isn’t pertinent. If it is pertinent, bring it in via conflict.

“Mary, I told you I didn’t want to see George again. Cancel his invitation to the party.”
“I don’t understand your fixation with this. He’s just an old friend from school. Get over it.”
“Get over what? The fact that he never was a friend or that he attacked me after the Homecoming Dance our senior year?”

Match the character’s speech with his/her background and education. Quite simply, a doctor isn’t going to talk like a mob boss, and a mob boss isn’t going to converse like a mother of three children. Well, of course, you could have some very interesting characters if there was a reason for them to do so, but generally, ah, no.

Accents are a great way to define a character’s speech, but don’t overdo it. Joel Chandler Harris got away with writing heavy dialogue in his Uncle Remus stories, but those stories are very difficult to read. It is best to stick with a handful of words that will define the accent being conveyed. An easy example is our American Southern accent. Everyone knows we don’t say our “r’s” and “g’s.” There’s also that ever-ready y’all (but make sure you use this correctly. This is an abbreviation for “you all,” and “y’all” is plural. Never have your Southern Belle talking to a lone individual when she invites, “Y’all come and sit here a spell.”)

Everyone uses contractions. Your characters should use them, too. The greatest tell an author has with regard to whether he or she takes seriously the writing of dialogue, is in the writing of conversations in which contractions are never used, such as: “I will be there tomorrow. Do not forget. You will have to pick me up at the airport.”

And that leads to the last note regarding dialogue:

If you really want to know how your dialogue flows, read it aloud. Reading aloud will help you to hear the nuance, or lack thereof, you are trying to develop. For example, if you read the above example aloud, you would most likely realize that it would sound better like this: “I’ll be there tomorrow. Don’t forget. You’ll need to pick me up at the airport.”

If, after reading the line aloud, the author decided emphasis was needed, he might write: “I’ll be there tomorrow. Do not forget. You’ll need to pick me up at the airport.”

Happy editing.


  1. Reading my work aloud has helped so much!

  2. Modern day, we totally use contractions. How would you deal with them in an historical, especially with the upper class, i.e. royalty?

  3. Kate: I think it would depend upon their personality and speech pattern, but for the readers' ears, I do believe that using contractions is less jarring. Now, I can see a Dame Judy Densch-type character who would be very proper and might use the lack of contractions in her speech to denote power.