Writing And Editing A Book For Publication: Listening To Dialogue

Posted at 16:10pm on 12th April 2009

Whilst it is true that editing and proof reading are an editor’s job, many would-be authors erroneously believe that they will undertake to knock their unleavened narrative into shape. However, your manuscript is unlikely to progress from the slush pile to the editor’s desk unless it has undergone some serious editing before hand. And whilst professional editing is available, it is not inexpensive. For most of us, editing and proof reading at home should be accepted as the natural outcome of creative writing projects if we are to have any hope of being published.

We’ve been looking at various aspects of the relationship between editing and publishing, and what I want to look at today is what we should be looking for in the way of dialogue when it comes to the final draft of a manuscript. In other words, what editing and proof reading should be undertaken to make it more readable?

How to write a dialogue? As all readers and authors know, conversation, gossip, chat and the exchange of ideas between people is what brings meaning to relationships – and to life. And this is particularly true when it comes to fiction. Dialogue between characters is the yeast that makes the dough of a narrative rise. It creates a lightness and airiness; a clotted cream effect which I’ve written of previously.


  • Make sure your character speaks as he/she would in real life. Read aloud and listen to what you've written to see how authentic it sounds.
  • Is he taciturn: given to monosyllabic answers, incomplete sentences, and almost no spontaneous statements or opinions?

‘Nope!’ ‘Dunno!’ ‘Not my avenue of expertise.’

  • Does her shyness or sense of inferiority make her hesitant, with broken sentences?

‘I’m – I’m not quite sure – if you know what I mean?’

  • Syntax and vocabulary should match your character’s social status.
  • Make it more formal and commanding for a professional; more casual and either deferential or cocky for a manual worker.

‘See to it, Smith, that you make an accurate assessment of the documentation before implementing the scheme.’

‘Right you are, guv.’

  • The age of your character will dictate expression.

‘Aw, mum, don’t make such a fuss! It’s only a cut on my head,’ from a teenager, might translate into,

‘Mummy, mummy! No, don’t touch. It hurts. It hurts,’ from a younger child.


  • Exposition is necessary in writing to convey something which could/should otherwise be explained visually.
  • However, it should NOT be used in dialogue. See how silly it sounds:
  • In expository dialogue your taciturn character would say:

‘Okay. You’re pointing to the TV. It’s an old analogue. Brown wooden surround. You’re asking me to mend it. I’m saying nope. Not my avenue of expertise.’

  • Editing would render this:

She pointed to the TV, an ancient analogue model, brown wood surround.

‘Can you mend it?’

He ignored the pleading in her voice and said, ‘Nope! Not my avenue of expertise.’

  • With expository dialogue, the shy character might say to a companion:

‘I’m – I’m not quite sure. We’re walking down – um – the High Street, I think. Wouldn’t you say? Now we’re going past Marks & Spencer. I – um – I’m not familiar with this area. If you know what I mean.’

  • After editing, this might become:

She hardly dared look at him as they walked down the unfamiliar street and on past Marks & Spencer’s.

‘I’m – I’m not quite sure. I think this must be - the High Street, would you say?’ . . . and so on.


  • Rarely, if ever, use the following tags: hissed, exploded, bleated, trumpeted, roared, purred.
  • Use 'said' instead. Readers are so used to seeing a simple ‘said’ that they barely notice it, so it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the dialogue.
  • Even then, cut out all tags whenever possible.
  • Where only two characters are in a scene, you need only to remind readers occasionally who’s speaking. Thus:

He closed the door. ‘It’s snowing outside.’

‘I haven’t been warm all day.’

‘I’ve built up the fire, so it shouldn’t be too bad.’

‘Perhaps – perhaps we should sleep down here tonight?’

He looked at her quizzically. ‘You okay with that? I’ll take the chair and leave you the sofa.’

  • Use action, instead, to convey which character is speaking. Thus:

He passed her a bowl of soup. ‘Careful! It’s hot.’

‘I need something to warm me up.’ She began spooning the soup into her mouth.


  • Dialogue should only be used to advance your plot.
  • Cut out ‘Well,’ ‘Oh,’ and other useless words / phrases whenever they add nothing to the scene or characterisation.
  • Remove mundane dialogue and cut to the important stuff. Thus:

‘Good morning, Mrs Brown.’

‘Good morning, Rev. Green.’

‘A fine day.’

‘It is indeed.’

‘I hear the doctor came last night?’

‘Doctor White. Yes, about 11pm. It was very frosty.’

‘He tells me Mr. Brown died half an hour earlier?’

‘That’s right.’

‘I’m sorry to hear that. I’ve come to offer my support.’

I don’t suppose I need to tell you what the important stuff is here!

Some of the editing I’ve suggested in this series may seem elementary, but it’s amazing how often we err. Even after the most scrupulous editing and proof reading, I’ll come across something glaringly obvious that I’ve missed. But painstaking though it may seem, hard work at this stage of your writing may make the difference between being published or not.

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