Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Editing: Cleaning Up Dialogue

Rebecca Mikkelson, Editor-in-Chief Authors 4 Authors Publishing

Ahh, the dreaded dialogue. I wanted to start with editing your dialogue because it’s simultaneously the easiest and the hardest thing to do. A lot of us struggle writing dialogue in the first place, and now we’ve got to edit to make it better? Gross. 

You don’t need every dialogue tag

Let’s start with the easiest part of cleaning up your dialogue, and that’s with the tags. 

What purpose do tags serve, you ask? Well, their most important purpose is to easily let the reader know who is speaking. It also lets the reader know how the character is speaking—but these aren’t always necessary. Let me give you a few examples of what I mean and how to clean them up.

“I can’t stay here anymore!” Alan yelled. “I can’t take it—I’m leaving.”

Now we know who’s talking in here, but Alan yelling is implied by the fact there’s an exclamation point. You’re better served by either taking out the dialogue tag altogether or using an action beat instead.

“I can’t stay here anymore!” Alan grabbed whatever he could and threw it into the open suitcase. “I can’t take it—I’m leaving.”

It’s more effective for setting the tone of the scene and how frustrated Alan is while he’s planning on leaving. Now let me give you a less clear example of where you can either keep or change the tag: 

“What do you mean you’re leaving?” Charlotte asked quietly, her lip quivering. 

If we take out the qualifier of asked, the dialogue tag becomes redundant and we don’t need it. But, with that qualifier, it’s telling us the intonation in which she asks, and becomes a little more important. However, I’m still a believer that it can always be improved:

Charlotte’s lip quivered. “What do you mean you’re leaving?” 

This cuts the unnecessary dialogue tag while still, to me, implying that she’s saying something quietly because she’s emotionally distressed. And don’t be afraid to move your action beat or tags around to make your dialogue more impactful!


Tone is one of the harder ones to fix, because it’s often a more pervasive problem throughout an author’s manuscript. Your characters need to have their own developed voices so that they become distinguishable from each other, and if there’s a narrator, the narrator’s voice. This is not only important for the readers, but the author to develop story arcs and series arcs for the characters.

My suggestion for keeping track of this is to create a character sheet with basic information about their personality and character arcs planned throughout the book or series so you can easily reference what kind of character they are.

Context matters

The context in which your characters speak to each other really matters. If you have a mother and daughter talking to each other, they might be a little more blunt and gossipy as compared to coworkers or people they’re trying to flirt with. Switching back and forth between the two might make it feel like there are some character discrepancies, so looking at the context in which things are said will help you determine if you’ve created a problem you need to edit away.

What’s the point?

Every piece of dialogue needs to have a point. While people will talk to fill up the space, your characters shouldn’t. Every bit of their dialogue should serve a purpose to move the plot and their character development forward. 

The biggest test of whether or not you’ve written your dialogue with purpose is if you can remove an entire scene of dialogue, or a sentence here and there, and the plot will remain the same. 

Keepin’ it Real

The way that we speak in real life is not the way that our characters talk in books—and for good reason. Truly realistic dialogue is going to sound inane and not going to interest your reader into “listening” to a conversation they could hear on the street or in their own living room. Like mentioned in the previous section, your dialogue must have a point that moves the plot forward. 

So when you’re going through your edits, take a close look at your dialogue and if your characters are stumbling over their words without purpose (like they’re naturally shy speakers and can’t get through a few sentences without saying um or pauses), take it out or change it to have purpose. 

Join us in two weeks for our next post in this series where I talk about cutting the fat.

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