Friday, October 2, 2009

Editing Tip # 15: Dialogue Tags

Kathy Ide’s Editing Tips
© Kathy Ide, 2009

In this column, freelance author, editor, and speaker Kathy Ide shares tips on self-editing your manuscript.


A lot of writing books warn against using too many dialogue tags (“he said,” “she asked,” and all the various synonyms), as that can come across as lazy or contrived writing. It is seen by some to be the mark of an amateur writer.

The best way to get rid of those pesky dialogue tags is to replace them with “beats”: narrative descriptions of what’s happening in the scene. For example:

Madeleine looked up from her knitting when her husband walked in the door. “Did you go to the store today?”

“No.” Harry took off his windbreaker. “Why do you ask?”

“Did you forget again?” She shook her head, wondering what in the world she was going to do with this forgetful man.

In addition to getting rid of the dialogue tags, narrative beats help the reader to envision what’s happening in the scene so you avoid having the dreaded “talking heads” syndrome. Beats can also reveal to the reader what the point-of-view character is thinking. They also provide a pause in the dialogue or action. The longer the narrative, the longer the pause.

Now, you can get away with an occasional “he said” or “she asked,” as those are pretty much “invisible words” to a reader. You can even combine dialogue tags with actions, facial expressions, tones of voice, body language, or internal thoughts (as long as the point-of-view character is in a position to see or hear or think it). For example:

“Where are you going?” he asked, his voice trembling.
“I don’t know,” she replied as she tucked her child into the car seat.

Combine the various methods so you don’t have the same sentence structure so repeatedly that it’s noticeable to the reader.

Don’t tack on adverbs to dialogue tags, such as “he said softly” or “she answered loudly.” But avoid “saidisms”—synonyms for said such as retorted, insinuated, interjected, protested, blurted, crowed, pleaded, pointed out. Make it obvious from the dialogue, actions, and body language how something is being said rather than telling the reader in the dialogue tag.

“He laughed,” “she sighed,” and such are actions, not dialogue tags. Words can’t be chuckled or sighed, only spoken. Therefore, punctuate these as complete sentences.

Incorrect: “You’re so funny,” she chuckled.
Correct: “You’re so funny.” She chuckled.


NOTE: It is an infringement of copyright law to reproduce this publication, in part or in whole, without the express permission of the author. To request permission, please e-mail


AUTHOR BIO: Kathy Ide has been writing for publication since 1988. She has written books, articles, play and movie scripts, short stories, devotionals, and curriculum. She is a full-time freelance editor, offering a full range of editorial services for aspiring writers, established authors, commercial book publishers, subsidy publishers, and magazines. Her services include proofreading, copyediting, substantive/content editing, coauthoring, ghostwriting, and mentoring/coaching. She also speaks at writers’ conferences across the country. She is the founder and coordinator of The Christian PEN: Proofreaders and Editors Network ( and the Christian Editor Network ( To find out more, please visit

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