Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wednesday Writerly Way ~ There's a Difference in Dialogue

Should proper grammar be used throughout your book? NO.

I recently proofed a novel that had been previously edited by an English teacher for an adult audience. Now I have nothing against English teachers, I was a ESL (English as Second Language) teacher for a dozen years or more because of my ability to speak several languages fluently. Not that speaking several languages is a prerequisite.

Every sentence was perfectly correct in grammar and spelling even the dialogue. One of the characters in the book was a tween. Another was from the south, and yet another was from New York. Now all have distinct speech patterns, agreed? I asked the author if she knew anyone who spoke in perfectly correct English. Kids and adults are possibly going to cuss and they are going to use slang. Just like a child is not going to make adult like decisions or have the same thought processes, it jerks the reader out of the story when they cannot suspend disbelief.

As a result of this teacher's editing, her characters came off like paper dolls and two dimensional. With constant reminders like, "in a southern drawl, XXXXXX said." Now as a reader, I want to see the character as a southerner dropping his "g's," and using words like "fixin' to" and "ain't" not read repeatedly that this kid had a southern drawl or dropped his "g's." I don't want to be told every time they open their mouth.  I find this plain irritating even if it's grammatically correct.

In the end I asked the author if she wrote these characters this way. She answered, no those were editing suggestions for corrections. I asked to see the unedited version. I was right, she originally wrote those characters in full fledged dialect, and they came alive for me and jumped off the page as I read through the original copy of the book. Granted there were tons of grammatical errors too. But the author had the right idea of how her characters should be presented but not strong grammar skills. Just imagine Harper Lee's novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, without slang and dialect.

Now I can understand the teacher's stand point if she was told to correct the grammar errors, she did that. I didn't find one grammatical error in the edited copy. But the teacher was not a novelist. A novelist has license to kill the English language in dialogue and a few other places. You have to know grammatical rules to break them and where. One word can be a sentence. Heck, for Stephen King one word was a whole chapter. Anyone remember what that one word was or which book besides me?

So the caveat to this blog...
Be cautious on who edits your novel. A teacher is okay if the teacher is also an novelist. There are insights a novelist can use that has nothing to do with grammar which brings your story alive. When choosing an editor for your book look at what they have edited before.

Keep writing and loving the Lord. 


  1. I've found having your book read by a novelist is so different than by a reader or English teacher. As you say, a novelist understands the licenses that can be taken in crafting a novel.

  2. People don't speak proper English - or it's a rare person that does. It would sound unnatural if everyone spoke proper English in a book.

  3. I just had a letter to the editor published. The editor deleted one of my periods and created a long run-on sentence. Every editor I've worked with has some quirk they impose on writers. Argh! One of the nice things about self-publishing is that I can write for a specific audience.

  4. You're absolutely right--we don't speak in textbook English, and having every character speak that way is a recipe for boredom.

  5. Yes! I don't remember if it was an English teacher who did this to me, but it has taken me *years* to learn that contractions in a book are *okay*. For so long I was spelling out can not and do not and has not, etc. Every single time. Ridiculous!

  6. I agree with Lara. When I was teaching English, I tried to show my students the difference between grammar in dialogue and grammar in other writing. We need to write the way we speak—the way our characters speak—for our stories to sound believable. Great post!


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