Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Editing 101: Easy fixes #1 - The Dialogue Tag

I've been editing longer than I've been writing fiction, so my roots are really sunk deep in the firm foundations of irritating everyone I know about proper punctuation, spelling and usage. But as I've been working in the fiction world, I've learned lots of new editing tricks to tighten up a story, and I thought this would be a perfect forum for those (all new folks to irritate!)

Despite my joking tone, I do take this stuff pretty seriously. There are plenty of books on craft, and most writers have read any number of them. But sometimes it's hard to make the jump from reading a book to tightening up your own writing. So I thought I'd tackle a few easy fixes. And the first is the dialogue tag.

When I edit for others, this is one of the things I try to smooth out up front. We all use them, and a lot of us overuse them.

Not sure what I'm talking about? Try this on for size:

"I'm dying to go out with him," Michelle said, twirling her hair.
"He is really cute," agreed Margot.
"I know," Michelle said. "And his hair is so shiny and purple."
"I love boys with purple hair," Margot said, tripping over a rock as she skipped along.
"Be careful!" Michelle cautioned. "This road is covered in rocks."

You get the (painful) idea.

So let's tighten that up by removing some of the unnecessary tags. (It won't make the faux story any better, though, I fear!)

"I'm dying to go out with him." Michelle twirled her hair around her finger as she talked.
"He is really cute." Margot nodded.
"I know. And his hair is so shiny and purple."
"I love boys with purple hair." Margo tripped over a rock as she skipped along.
"Be careful!" Michelle pointed at the road. "This road is covered with rocks."

This is a terrible -- really, truly terrible -- example. But the point here is that adding "he said" or "she said" -- or worse: "he moaned/whined/smiled" after every line of dialogue feels stilted. Instead, the tags can often be replaced by something else, something that SHOWS the action in the scene. (Isn't it funny how every piece on craft eventually drops that 'show, don't tell' thing?)

When you have only two people talking, it's easy to eliminate tags. Hopefully your characters have distinct voices, so the reader can tell who's speaking without being told. A tag here and there never hurts to clear up any confusion, but we definitely don't need them for every line.

In a piece with more than two speakers, tags become more needed, but again -- use them sparingly and try to replace them with a shot of action instead.

This is pretty basic, but I find that sometimes the most basic things are the rules I need to review now and then. Happy writing!


  1. Yes, some of the really elaborate or clever tags just trip me up like so many rocks in the road (hee hee). But the "said"s just disappear into the background.

  2. That's a good point - if you're going to use a tag, don't get creative! Said works fine and most readers skim right over it!

  3. With dialogue tags, less is often more. Quite often, they're in there more for rhythm and pace than just letting people know who's doing the talking.

  4. Ah, a painful lesson that took me awhile to learn :D I still go back through after the first draft to eliminate a ton of unneeded tags :D

  5. Great post! I'm guilty of this. My first round editing often makes me cringe.

  6. We all do it. I'm pulling them out of a draft that's been edited by two people besides me right now! They're niggly little guys...


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