Adventures in Editorland: Dialogue Tags Edition

Funny story. I was having a little go-round with an author over adverbial dialogue tags and said substitutes in her (upper) middle grade dark fantasy. That is, she didn’t believe me when I told her they were passé.

“But everybody uses them,” she said, taking the conversation out of the margins and into email.

“No, they don’t,” I said. I explained why.

“Well, they’re all over Harry Potter! They’re in lots of the books I’ve read!” She mentioned Rick Riordan, of whom I am not a fan.

“I think you’re perhaps misremembering the books you’ve read,” I wrote. “I agree the Harry Potter books aren’t the most beautiful writing in the world, although the story is very good, but I have read them and many others.” Then I suggested she should change at least half her tags to a plain ol’ said. I’d live with the rest. (I’d also have a word with the publisher’s copyeditor later.) I sent the manuscript back. “Trust your dialogue,” I said.

On the next pass, nothing had changed, and she said it again. Everybody does it.

At that point I said a bad word in my office. Then I pulled four books off my shelves, from four authors (J. K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, Susan Cooper, Kate DiCamillo)—all of whom write what my author was writing: dark middle grade or young YA fantasy. I chose three spreads from each book at random, unless there was no dialogue, in which case I opened the book again—so six pages from each book—and then I catalogued the dialogue tags. Yes, I made a list. Because I am that stubborn.

This took me an hour and a half. I did the math—and you know it’s bad when I am forced into math—and then I sent the evidence to her in an email:

Here’s a sampling, and you can take it for what you will. But what you’ll see is the majority of the tags are saids. There are a few adverbial tags and a few said substitutes.

The Rowling has 24 percent adverbs/substitutes; Gaiman has 0 percent; DiCamillo has 12 percent; and Cooper has 13 percent. Cooper surprised me because her books were written in the ’70s when adverbial tags were more accepted. I think that speaks to what a good writer she is. I only have Riordan in digital format, and to be frank, I don’t want you to emulate him. :) You can be better. The authors here, though, have all written books right in your age range and genre, and I’d be happy for you to emulate any of them.

In your case, I think you should reduce the adverbs/substitutes by 75 percent (this’ll put you in the Harry Potter ballpark) and give consideration to consistency of characterization. That is, I noted that sometimes, on just one page, we see a character run a whole range of emotions through his/her dialogue tags (from screaming to replying morosely to growling to interjecting delightedly) and I think—even if you do want to depict that roller coaster—you can show it with body language, activity, moving around, and so forth rather than taking the easy way out with an adverbial tag or a substitute.

I perform a lot of functions when I’m editing but it mostly comes down to two things:

• story analysis, and
• craft standards

The first is only my opinion*; the other is a confluence of a lot of other opinions, styles, and fashions that have developed over time with writing teachers, critics, and other literary tastemakers.** It can be a little fluid, what I’m calling “craft standards,” but I do my best to keep current on what conventional publishing wisdom says.

For example, when I tell you prologues are, for the most part, frowned upon these days, that’s not just my opinion. I’m telling you the people who have the power to make your manuscript a success aren’t excited when they open it and see a prologue first thing—so maybe we should find another way into the story, if we can.

And when I tell you that you’d be better off using said—no added adverbs, no substitutes—it’s not just me making something up because I can. Yes, yes, I know it hasn’t always been this way, I do. Those Nancy Drew and Tom Hardy books we all read when we were kids are full of them. So are my beloved Georgette Heyer novels. And so are more literary novels from that same time period: open The Great Gatsby at random and you’ll find howlers like “he snorted contemptuously.” This is the stuff of which purple prose is made.

But styles and tastes change, and conventional wisdom nowadays suggests that said is the best option. All those contemptuous snorts draw attention to themselves and make the reader forget what she’s doing. And careful readers must surely wonder how anyone can laugh or shrug a line of dialogue. Sprinkle in a few, fine. Make ’em really count. Too many of them, though, and it just gets ridiculous.

Most importantly, this is an issue I know in-house editors and agents look for when they are deciding whether or not to take a project. Too many said substitutes are a sign of an amateur—and then the editor or agent will start looking for other problems. Why take that risk?

When we’re working together, then, keep in mind that I enjoy a lively discussion, and can be persuaded to change my opinion—when we’re talking about topics that fall into that category. I am less persuadable in matters of craft, because it’s my responsibility to look after your manuscript. So it helps if you’ll at least consider my professional advice—which, finally, my middle grade fiction writer did.***

* That said, it’s a pretty good opinion. I’ve got some experience with this.

** For example, best-selling authors Stephen King and Elmore Leonard have both published writing advice that includes the counsel to just use said.

*** She also gave me permission to use this story. :)


Tweet: Adventures in Editorland: Dialogue Tags Edition!
Tweet: Said substitutes as dialogue tags: “But everybody uses them,” she said.
Tweet: I catalogued the dialogue tags. Yes, because I am that stubborn.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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  1. Jamie, your client is lucky to have an editor who is willing to do the extra math to improve her manuscript. Just after I’d completed my first draft of a novel I enrolled in a webinar that included a critique of my first 1500 words. All the agent needed to say to me was that descriptive dialogue tags were amateurish. I ditched 99.9% of them after that.

    And I hate prologues. Last week I deleted the first two chapters of my most recent wip, that I was entering into a contest, because I realized it was a prologue in disguise. Now the book begins in the right place.

    Thanks for teaching us through your posts.

    Easter Blessings ~ Wendy ❀

  2. This entire piece is fascinating to me, Jamie! And so helpful. I tend not to use anything if I’m writing dialog – just the words in quotes. If you know who’s speaking to whom, seems like you don’t need much else.

    One question for you: what are the options to a prologue?? (in a non-fiction book. I’ve been invited to write one about my journey with my mom and thought I’d do one of those. What else should I do?)

  3. […] deep breathing for a few minutes. Haven’t we discussed this? Repeatedly? Yes. Yes, we have. Just use said. Show, don’t tell. No, really, just use […]

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  1. By Snicker, Sputter, and Snarl on 7 September, 2015 at 3:31 pm

    […] deep breathing for a few minutes. Haven’t we discussed this? Repeatedly? Yes. Yes, we have. Just use said. Show, don’t tell. No, really, just use […]