“Tag!” She Scowled

Let’s talk about dialogue tags: the “he saids” and “she saids” that you can’t do without if you’re writing fiction or memoir or anything that includes people talking. (Except play and film scripts: those are different.)

How did they come to be called that? I don’t know. “Tag” to me suggests a bit of paper attached by string, wire, or plastic to an item for sale at a yard sale or in a store. Or a children’s game in which one kid catches up with another and yells “Tag, you’re it.” I think of them as “attributions,” because they attribute speech to one speaker or another, but “tag” is shorter so I’ll stick with that.

There’s plenty of hoohah out there about dialogue in general and tags in particular. I’ve contributed a bit to the hoohah: “Monologue About Dialogue” and “Of Dots and Dashes.” Here’s a bit more.

Most of the style guides, how-tos, and freelance pontificators agree on two points:

  • Tags are supposed to be unobtrusive.
  • “Said” is usually the best choice.

As guidelines these are fine. As rules? Not so much. “Said” is often the best choice, but by no means always, and “unobtrusive” does not mean “invisible” or (maybe more important) “inaudible.”

Dialogue tags can do so much more than attach words to speakers. Depending on what you choose and where you put it, they can help convey how your character is saying whatever s/he’s saying and where s/he pauses to breathe or think.

Take a scene from Wolfie, my novel in progress. It involves several speakers and a lot of dialogue. Having  written it in longhand, I typed it into the Word file, doing a very light edit as I typed and paying particular attention to the tags. Most of the tags are “said,” but we’ve also got “stage-whispered,” “admitted,” “called out,” “muttered,” “advised” (twice), “agreed,” “added” (twice), “ordered,” “protested,” “continued,” “told,” “hissed,” and “wondered.”

Here’s a sample. The scene is a big bash celebrating Lorna’s retirement. Shannon has just arrived. Not to worry: the tags aren’t italicized in the original. I just want to call attention to them here. (“Seemed” in the first para is italicized in the original.)

Lorna gave Shannon a big hug then held her at arm’s length. Lorna was actually shorter than Shannon: she only seemed six feet tall. “Looking good, girl,” she said, then she leaned in closer and stage-whispered, “Is that love light in your eyes?”

“Lorna, darlin’,” Shannon said, shaking her head, “you need to make an appointment with your eye doctor.”

Lorna wagged a stubby, impeccably manicured finger at her, setting her beaded bracelets to clinking merrily. “You don’t fool me for a minute,” she said. “I know that look.”

“Well, I do have a new dog,” Shannon admitted. “I can’t believe you’re really leaving.”

When I write dialogue, I’m usually transcribing a scene playing out in my head. I use tags and punctuation to convey it the way I hear it, the cadence, the facial expressions, the body language of each speaker, but without weighing the passage down with detailed description.

When I write, I just write. When I edit, I play around with alternatives. Go ahead: play around with that passage. Would said work better than stage-whispered or admitted? How about changing one of the saids to something less neutral? Experiment with tag placement. See how it changes the pacing of the sentence?

In this particular passage, all the tags have the same structure: Shannon said, not said Shannon. In what follows there’s a said Lorna and a said Shannon. No problem. Recently I fell in with some editors discussing online whether”John said” or “said John” was better. One asked if one was more “correct” than the other, and someone else surmised that one was more typical of British English than American.  When editors start talking like this, it’s time to run in the opposite direction.

Whether “John said” or “said John” is better depends on whether it precedes, follows, or comes in the middle of the spoken part. And on what’s being said. And on whether the speech is being attributed to a noun or a pronoun: “said she” calls attention to itself in a way that “said Shannon” does not. If it suits the tone of whatever you’re writing, by all means go with it.

Choose whatever works best in context. What you do want to avoid is using the same structure every time.

One more thing about tags and editors: Some editors take exception to using words like “smile” or “scowl” or “grimace” as dialogue tags. Hence the title of this post. These aren’t synonyms for said, they argue. No, they’re not, but they can (I argue) convey how something is said — and heard. A phrase said with a smile on the face doesn’t sound like the same phrase said with a scowl. So (say these editors) write “she said, with a smile” instead of “she smiled.” Sorry, no. That separates the smile from the sound. Sometimes that’s fine. Other times it’s not what you want.

The scene excerpted above includes this line:

“What, you’re not retiring to Florida?” Shannon grinned.

Here the question mark fudges the issue of whether grinned is a tag or not. I don’t believe it is. As I see and hear it, Shannon asks the question, then grins. But say that line was followed by this one:

“No way,” Lorna scowled.

It isn’t, but to my mind and ear it’s fine, and neither Lorna said, scowling nor Lorna said with a scowl conveys quite the same thing. The difference is subtle, but if you hear it, don’t let a tin-eared editor talk you out of it.


Sturgis’s Law #3

Early last month I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. Here’s #3:

A good sentence is more than the sum of its parts.

We talk about “constructing” sentences as if sentences can be built block by block like houses and bridges, and in a way they can.

We learn the building blocks early on. A sentence must have a subject and a verb. It can then be dressed up with direct objects, indirect objects, prepositional phrases, and clauses of various kinds. The component parts can be dressed up with adjectives and adverbs. Two complete sentences can be linked with a conjunction — the most common ones are and, but, and or — a semicolon, or a colon.

To make matters more complicated, or more fun, depending on how you think of it, sentences are rarely entire of themselves. They exist in relation to other sentences. They can be joined into paragraphs. Even when a sentence stands alone on a line, a paragraph unto itself, the reader connects them as she moves from one to another.

Sentences can be grammatical and unclear at the same time. Here’s a snippet I quoted in “Editing Workshop, 3,” which focused on sentences:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

This comes from a long nonfiction manuscript I edited earlier this year. I skidded to a halt at the end of that first sentence. It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and the work wasn’t published till 2008. In the second sentence, “in an interview” weakens the connection between subject and verb by coming between them. Here’s my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

None of the words have been changed. They’ve just been rearranged.

We can critique sentences in isolation, but often we can’t tell what’s unclear or clear enough, what’s more effective and what’s less so, unless we see it in context. Here’s an example from my novel in progress. “She” is a sixth-grader swinging on the school playground. “It” is a dog trotting down the path behind the school. She’s never seen it before.

She watched it as the swing descended and then rose again. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Nothing wrong with that, although an overly meticulous copyeditor might argue that the “its” at the beginning of the second sentence could be taken to refer to the swing. Most readers know that swings rarely have heads, so this “it” must be the same as the one in the first sentence. But I turned the first sentence around:

As the swing descended and then rose again, she watched it. Its head snapped to the left, then it took off up the path at a flat-out run.

Moving the dependent clause to the beginning emphasizes the motion of the girl on the swing. Then the movement stops for a moment before starting up again, this time following the dog. I also liked the way the revision brought “it” and “its” together.

Play with your sentences. Rearrange them. Read them out loud, in isolation and with the sentences that precede and follow them.

Once in a while I’ll screech to a halt and gawk at a beautifully constructed sentence. Casual readers don’t generally do this, but writers and editors can be forgiven for taking a second look at an admirable sentence.

Or a not-so-admirable one. I don’t know about you, but I probably learn more from the sentences that don’t work than from the sentences that do. Identifying what doesn’t work is easy. Understanding what makes a sentence clear, effective, eloquent, whatever — this is hard. Awkward and unclear sentences clamor for attention. Good sentences just flow on by. This may be one reason editors and teachers get a reputation for being negative and critical: we naturally focus on the sentences that don’t work so well.

Remind me to flag a couple of really, really good sentences in the next manuscript I edit!

Editing Workshop, 3

This one’s about sentences.

I just finished copyediting a long nonfiction book on a tight schedule. The author has many years of high-pressure writing experience, but this is his first book. The manuscript felt like it was a couple of drafts short of final — not uncommon when a rush to deadline is involved. A glaring symptom of this was sloppy sentences. If sentences come out sloppy in early drafts, it’s no big deal. You’ll clean them up when you start revising — right? right??

In this particular manuscript, the author probably didn’t have the time to make them clearer or more effective. So yours truly the copyeditor did it, pruning some elements, rearranging others, and querying whatever I couldn’t figure out either from context or from a quick Google search.

There are plenty of books out there on how to construct a sentence. You know the basics: subjects, verbs, and objects, phrases and clauses. The tricky thing is that sentences can be grammatically impeccable and at the same time unclear, ambiguous, or downright misleading.

Here are some hints on how to make sentences more effective, whether you’re writing, revising your own work, or editing someone else’s.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Clotheslines tend to droop in the middle. So do long sentences.

Sentences are like clotheslines: they tend to droop in the middle. In the middle of a long sentence, the reader’s attention starts to wander. So if you’re trying to get across an important point or detail, don’t bury it in the middle. Placed at the beginning and the end, it’s more likely to catch the reader’s attention, and to connect with the sentences before and after.

This is also true of paragraphs, by the way. Paragraphs that take up a whole page of text are daunting. KEEP OUT! they say. Or maybe WELCOME TO THE LABYRINTH.

What poets do with line and stanza breaks, prose writers can do with sentences and paragraphs.

I love long loopy sentences, but when one long loopy sentence follows another and another and another, nothing stands out. It’s also easier for subjects and verbs, or nouns and pronouns, to come adrift from each other. Confusion often results.

The closer together words are in a sentence, the stronger — and clearer — the relationship between them. The opposite is also true: the further apart they are, the more tenuous the connection. Here’s an example adapted from the book I just edited:

Smith requested and received permission to publish the translation from Jones in 2005. . . . Smith, in an interview, described the text as boring.

I skidded to a halt at the end of the first sentence: who? what? when?

It took me a few moments to sort it out: It wasn’t the translation that came from Jones but the permission, and what happened in 2005 wasn’t the publishing but the requesting and receiving of permission. (It was made clear elsewhere that the work was published in 2008.) In the second sentence, the parenthetical “in an interview” unnecessarily separates subject from verb.

Here is my edit:

In 2005, Smith requested and received permission from Jones to publish the translation. . . . In an interview, Smith described the text as boring.

Be especially careful with pronouns. “Antecedent unclear” and “unclear referent” are among the most common editorial queries, in both fiction and nonfiction. They mean we can’t figure out for sure whom a he, she, it, or they is referring to. In the job I just finished, the vast majority of the players were men — as is often the case in books about politics and international affairs, which this one was.  Often a he, his, or him could have referred to either of the two fellows mentioned in the preceding clause or sentence.

Authors often miss these unclear antecedents because the antecedents aren’t unclear to them. They know exactly who’s being referred to. Readers, however, aren’t in the same loop. We need a little help. Better to repeat a name than leave it ambiguous. This is one reason second readers can be so important: they come to the manuscript without knowing what you mean. They just read what’s there.

Have you got an unruly sentence that could use some untangling, or one that you’ve successfully untangled yourself? Send it along! The best way to develop an eye for what works and what doesn’t is to pay close attention to how sentences work. We can do this in our reading, in our writing, and in our revising.

People Talking

People talking. Dialogue. Here’s what the American Heritage Dictionary (online) has to say about it:

1. a. A conversation between two or more people. b. A discussion of positions or beliefs, especially between groups to resolve a disagreement.
2. a. Conversation between characters in a drama or narrative. b. The lines or passages in a script that are intended to be spoken.

Here we’re mainly concerned with #2, but as you’ll see, #1 is also important, especially #1a.

Writers of technical and scholarly material may not have to bother with dialogue. They can write papers and whole books in which people don’t talk to each other. For fiction writers, memoirists, and writers of nonfiction of a more personal kind, dialogue is almost indispensable. It also comes in handy for journalists and academics who incorporate interviews with real people into their work. They don’t make the dialogue up, but it takes skill and sensitivity to make effective use of it.

I say “almost indispensable” because it’s definitely possible to write a story, a personal essay, or even a novel or book-length memoir with no dialogue in it. But think of all the wonderful things that good dialogue can do:

  • It moves the story forward.
  • It reveals character, and the relationships between characters.
  • It breaks up the text so the reader isn’t confronted by a wall of print on every page.

Don’t discount this last one. Page after page of solid, often lengthy paragraphs can make a book look pretty forbidding. That’s one reason good writers, editors, and designers of technical manuals and academic books use paragraph breaks, headings, illustrations, and other graphic devices to break up their pages.

Listen to people talk. Eavesdrop shamelessly but be discreet. Think twice about writing things down. (Recording people without their consent is definitely unethical and possibly illegal. Don’t do it.) You don’t need the exact words. Pay attention to tone, facial expression, body language.

Listen to the voices talking in your head.

Pay particular attention to conversations where one person is trying to persuade another of something, or trying to get that person to do something.

If you have an opportunity to watch an improv troupe at work, in person or online, use it.

Read everything you write out loud. Especially dialogue. Try it this way and that way till the reader is likely to hear it the way you do.

Lesson #1: The dialogue in novels, memoirs, and even plays sounds real, but it doesn’t sound the way real people talk. Real conversations meander all over the place. Often they never get to the point — or they do, but it’s not obvious what the point is. Sometimes the point is just to keep silence at bay. Sometimes it’s to keep another person from talking.

Lesson #2: Wonderful, vivid dialogue can be crafted from this raw material. Some writers take to it naturally, others have to work harder at it — but it’s like most things to do with writing: the more you practice, and the more observant you are, the better you’ll get at it.

A couple of my previous blog posts deal with dialogue. See “Of Dots and Dashes” and “Editing Workshop, 1.” Both focus on punctuation, which is an essential tool in shaping dialogue.

So — have you got any bits of dialogue that are giving you trouble? Other Write Through It readers can learn from your questions — and from the bits that work especially well too. Send them along using the contact form below.

No Need to Shout!!

99% of all editors, writing instructors, and experienced writers will tell you: “Use emphasis sparingly.” Emphasis includes ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, and italics. And exclamation points!!!

(OK, 99% is an unverified statistic. I made it up — you know, to emphasize my point.)

This is why our gatekeeper friends will relegate a manuscript to the slush pile if the first couple of pages include too many italicized, bolded, underscored, or ALL CAPPED words and phrases. Fairly or not, they’re leaping to the conclusion that the writer who relies heavily on gimmicks is not ready for prime time.

How many is “too many”? If they’re the first thing a person notices when she pulls your ms. out of the envelope or opens the file, that’s too many. Aim for “none” and you’ll probably get it about right.

“But,” you wail, “how do I show what’s important?”

Good question!

When we speak, we can emphasize words and phrases by speaking them more loudly, or drawing them out, or exaggerating their each and every syllable. We can use our hands and our faces to express our feelings or underscore a point.

You can replicate some of these methods in writing. You can describe how a character said something and/or what she was doing while she said it. Too much description, though, can slow a passage down when you want it to move right along. Lucky for all of us, written English offers some powerful tools to call attention to whatever you want to call attention to. and without using ALL CAPS, bold, underscore, italics, and other gimmicks. Learning to use them is part of the writer’s craft.

So how does one go about this?

Here’s where I advise even non-poets to read lots of poetry. Good poets make every word count. They have to: poems use fewer words than stories, essays, and full-length books. They read their written words aloud and pay attention to how they sound. Poets who work in traditional forms, like the sonnet, use meter and rhyme to emphasize important words. Words at the ends of lines and lines at the ends of stanzas get particular emphasis. And so on.

Prose writers use sentences and paragraphs the way poets use lines and stanzas. Words at the beginning and, especially, at the end of a sentence are emphasized. Likewise sentences at the beginning or end of a paragraph, and paragraphs at the beginning or end of a scene.

Have you ever confronted a paragraph that sits on the page like a dark gray lump? One sentence follows another with no break, maybe for a whole page or more. If the eye gives in to the natural temptation to skim through to the end, the mind is almost certainly going to miss something important.

But there’s no need to bold or italicize the sentence you want to call the reader’s attention to. If that paragraph belongs to you, try breaking it so that your key sentences fall either at the end of one paragraph or the beginning of another. If you’re reading it in a book, identify a place or two where author or editor might have started a new paragraph. (You may not find any such places. It’s possible that the paragraph really needed to be that long.)

I like long loopy sentences, but I also know that long sentences tend to lose energy. So I pay close attention to the words, phrases, and clauses that make them up. When I’m editing, I’ll sometimes break a compound sentence in two in order to focus more attention on each of its parts.

Here’s where the oft-repeated advice to “omit needless words” comes in handy. “Needless words” are the ones that camouflage or otherwise distract attention from the important stuff. What’s tricky is that you have to identify the important stuff before you can decide what’s needless, and this often doesn’t happen till a second or third draft.

The best way to develop your skill at emphasizing key points without resorting to gimmicks!! is by experimenting on your own work, getting feedback from editors and other writers, and giving feedback to other writers on their in-process work. Anyone out there have an example to share with other readers of this blog? Keep it fairly short, say 100 words or so. You can use either the comments link at the top of this post or the contact form in the “You!” tab on the menu bar.





Location, location, location!

It’s not just about real estate. For writers it’s also about where you place the words, phrases, and clauses that make up your sentence.

English is wonderfully flexible in oh so many ways. Sentences don’t have to follow the same subject-verb-object pattern. The same word can change the meaning of a sentence depending on where it’s placed. Here’s a simple example, using “only”:

Only she would eat coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat only coffee ice cream for breakfast.

She would eat coffee ice cream only for breakfast.

Phrases and clauses can mean different things depending on where they’re placed in a sentence. I do much of my copyediting for trade and university presses. The authors of the manuscripts I edit are a generally experienced, accomplished lot. They know what they’re doing. When a sentence brings me screeching to a halt, it’s often because a phrase or a clause either creates ambiguity or gives the wrong impression altogether. The phrase or clause itself is fine: it’s just in the wrong place.


Recently I copyedited a biography whose author had a penchant for dropping short phrases in between subjects and their verbs. An example: “Smith, at times, tried to relax.”

Mind you, this isn’t wrong. Sometimes sticking a phrase between subject and verb yields exactly the shading and cadence you want. In general, though, proximity strengthens the connection between two parts of a sentence, and usually we want our subjects clearly and closely connected to their verbs. More to the point, this particular author was splitting up subjects and verbs so often that I suspected a literary tic — one of those habits writers get into without realizing it. So I made it “At times, Smith tried to relax.”

If you deal in dialogue or quoted material, where you place the attribution — whatever you’re using to identify the speaker — can make a big difference in how readers  read/hear the text. “He said,” “she said,” and all the rest function like punctuation. They can create a pause or emphasize a phrase or group a string of phrases together. Here’s a random example from my novel in progress. Matthew is a four-year-old being bratty in the back seat.

“That’s enough, Matthew,” said their mother, not turning around. Matthew looked surprised. “When we get home,” she promised, “I’ll put water in the play pool and you can play in it while I work in the garden.”

That last sentence could be arranged in several ways. “She promised” could come at the end, or after “play pool.” The “when” clause could come in the middle or at the end. For now I like it the way it is. (I beginning to suspect, however, that the mid-October weather is too chilly for the play pool and that Mom isn’t much of a gardener.)

Here’s a nonfiction example, adapted from the biography mentioned above:

“The big issue of the campaign,” stated Williams, “will be security.”

Coming upon this sentence, my immediate reaction was that putting the attribution in the middle weakened the connection between the subject and the object — when “big issue = security” is the whole point of the statement. So I moved it to the beginning:

Stated Williams, “The big issue of the campaign will be security.”

Again, the original isn’t wrong, but the edited version is stronger. (The author liked it better too.)

The lovely flexibility of English makes it possible to construct sentences that are perfectly grammatical but that either don’t say what the writer meant to say or make it unclear what the writer did mean to say. Here’s an example. The author is writing about the New Deal.

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda which saw such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps vanish amidst the exigencies of war.

Huh? thought I. FDR’s domestic agenda killed the NYA and CCC? On second reading, I realized that no, it was the congressional counterattack that helped do the agencies in. The “exigencies of war” evidently had something to do with it, but “amidst” was vague about what. And was the congressional counterattack just sitting on the sidelines watching all this happen?

As a writer, I know that ambiguity can be intentional, but in a history book it’s generally not a plus. I didn’t see a way to move the “which” clause closer to “counterattack” without making a big snarly mess, so I broke the sentence in two:

The Republican resurgence in the elections of 1938 and 1942 spawned a congressional counterattack against FDR’s domestic agenda. That, along with the exigencies of war, caused the demise of such agencies as the National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.

Because the original was somewhat ambiguous and because my edit made the cause-and-effect relationship more explicit, I flagged it with a query to the author: “OK?” It was.


Finally, here’s an instance where a very capable writer didn’t realize that the words weren’t saying quite what he meant to say. The question was whether Jones (not his real name) was “the right man for the job in China, which required more diplomatic finesse and fewer prejudices than he was capable of.”

Jones was fairly riddled with prejudices, and being capable of more wouldn’t have made him the right man for the job. The writer knew that; the problem was the word order. The fix was easy: I swapped “diplomatic finesse” and “fewer prejudices” and voilà, the question now was whether Jones was “the right man for the job in China, which required fewer prejudices and more diplomatic finesse than he was capable of.”