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Self-Editing Master Class: Punctuating Dialogue

Whenever I talk about my work with groups of college students or writers, I always get asked what common errors I see in the manuscripts I edit. I’m turning the answer to this question into a new segment here, which I’m calling Self-Editing Master Class (SEMC). I hope it helps to serve as a refresher or as a checklist for you, to help you make your manuscript the best it can be before you submit it for publication.

Welcome to the first installment: punctuating dialogue.

The basic rules

You probably remember the basic rules of punctuating dialogue from high school English class.

  1. At the end of a line of dialogue, you should use a comma rather than a period before a dialogue tag, and it goes inside the closing quotation marks. The first letter of the first word in the dialogue tag is lowercase.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted.
  2. If your line of dialogue ends with a question mark or exclamation point, those are not replaced with a comma, but they also belong inside the quotation marks.
    “English grammar is fun to learn!” your teacher insisted.
    “Don’t you think English grammar is fun to learn?” your teacher asked.
  3. If the dialogue tag comes in the middle of a sentence, commas should be used around the tag.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted, “if you don’t let it stress you out.”
  4. Sidebar rule: Every time a different character speaks, a new paragraph should be started.
    “English grammar is fun to learn,” your teacher insisted.
    “Actually, it sort of stresses me out,” Bobby offered.
    “I bet it wouldn’t be so bad if you actually studied once in a while, Bobby,” Sue teased.

Here’s where it gets a little trickier…

Beyond mistakes to the basics, a common error I see is sentences tacked on to dialogue that aren’t actually dialogue tags; instead, they’re separate actions not directly related to speech.

Now, it’s true that just using “he said” and “she said” over and over can get a little boring, and it’s tighter writing to say something like “she insisted,” rather than “she said insistently.” But words like, for example,  insisted, exclaimed, and inquired are all just descriptive synonyms for said or asked.

When the verb in the sentence after the line of dialogue is an action other than said or asked—something like laughed, or pointed, or smiled—you need to start a new sentence. For example,

“English grammar is fun to learn.” The teacher smiled. (Here, you can’t technically smile a spoken sentence, so it’s not a dialogue tag; it’s descriptive action.)

Contrast this with: “English grammar is fun to learn,” the teacher said with a smile. (Here, you use the punctuation for a tag, because said is the verb.)

Another example: “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to keep the rules straight.” Bobby sighed. (You can’t technically sigh out a sentence.) and “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to keep the rules straight,” Bobby said with a sigh.

Some editors do let sighed go, along with verbs like grunted and huffed and laughed, arguing that they describe the tone of the speech, but my advice is, when in doubt, ask yourself if the character could technically say the sentence using the verb given. For example, a mafia goon could possibly grunt a one-word response to his boss (“Yeah,” he grunted.) but he couldn’t grunt an entire sentence, right?

Master class

One of my favorite rules in the Chicago Manual of Style (yes, I’m nerdy enough that I have favorite rules) is the one for sudden breaks in speech. For those of you following along at home, it’s rule 6.84. Getting this right is sure to blow your editor’s geeky little mind.

Here’s my paraphrase: If a character performs an action in the middle of a line of dialogue, the action is set off by em dashes, which go outside the quotation marks. (For those of you who haven’t discovered the em dash, this most glorious bit of punctuation, it’s the dash that’s usually autoformatted by Word when you type two hyphens together. I can also be found in the Symbols menu or created with alt + 0151 on the number pad of a PC. For a Mac, it’s Command + Option + a hyphen.)

This is what it looks like:

“These grammar rules are confusing”Billy pointed at his English book“and I don’t think I’ll ever learn them all.”

I often see a line like this tacked on as tag: “These grammar rules are confusing,” Billy pointed to his book, “and I don’t think I’ll ever learn them all.” But because the “tag” is action and not speech, Chicago favors em dashes to set it off.

This is also handy if you want to note a change in tone or describe the way a line is delivered in a more in-depth way:

“English grammar is fun to learn”—the rise in her vocal pitch betrayed her excitement—”if you don’t let it stress you out!”

Kinda cool, huh? Once you learn the sudden break rule, you’ll notice it in books you read and you’ll find it useful in your own writing.

Gotta question about anything I covered here? Feel free to post it below!


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“My Writing Needs Help … But What Kind?”

Seeking the help of an editor can be a lot like taking your car into the shop: you know enough about your work to realize it doesn’t sound quite right when it starts, or the shimmying in the middle is a sign of trouble, or it flat-out breaks down at the end. Or maybe it’s polished to a high shine in your eyes, but every time you take it out into the world, warning lights come on.

In other words, you know something’s up, but you have only a vague idea (or, it’s okay to be honest, absolutely no idea) what to do to fix it.

Stereotypes about women and mechanical things aside, I always feel more confident calling my mechanic when I at least know the right jargon. There’s dignity in saying, “I think my fan belt is loose” rather than “When I hit the gas, it goes squeeeee, like a pig is being jabbed by something really sharp under the hood.”

Though I’ll leave car diagnosis to reruns of the Tappet Brothers (RIP, Tom Magliozzi), I can clarify some editorial jargon. Before you approach an editor for help with your manuscript—or before you embark on the exciting publishing journey with the editors at your publishing house—here’s what you need to know about what he or she can do for you.

Developmental edit: Think of this as the “big picture” edit. A developmental editor is concerned with issues of content: Is the manuscript complete and organized logically? Is any material missing, out of order, or repetitive? Is the overall work uneven—with some sections weaker (or slower, in terms of plot pacing) than others? Are the plot and characters fully developed? Does the book achieve the goals it sets out to, or deliver what it promises the reader?

What will I get from a developmental edit? At this stage, the editor reads through the entire book and makes detailed notes, which are presented to you in the form of an editorial letter. In this letter, your editor asks very targeted questions, which attempt to draw additional material out of you or guide you to clarify or refine existing material, and makes specific suggestions for moving, expanding, or combining content (be it paragraphs or chapters). You may also receive a copy of your manuscript containing some higher-level edits (using Word’s Track Changes feature) as well as marginal comments and queries.

Is this what I need? If you have concerns about your manuscript’s organization or the completeness of its content, or if your story feels stalled out or just “not quite there” and you don’t know why, this is the edit for you.

Line edit: Once a manuscript’s been developed to the satisfaction of the author and editor, the next step is the line edit. In this stage, all or most of the content should be in place; the line editor is looking for consistency of tone and style and for inconsistencies in plot or character.

Because things may have moved during the developmental phase, the line editor’s “fresh eyes” can catch any errors that may have been introduced—like the same paragraph appearing more than once—or details that may have been overlooked (e.g., the main character is sometimes Rachel and other times Rachael, or her eye color is blue in chapter 1 and green in chapter 7) while bigger issues were being addressed. The line editor also makes fixes to things like grammar, punctuation, and style (usually according to the Chicago Manual of Style, though every house has their own preferences) though this is still not the primary focus of this round of editing.

What will I get from a line edit? At this stage, you’ll certainly get a manuscript that’s been edited using Track Changes and that contains many queries and suggestions in marginal comments, along with an editorial letter that outlines (and elaborates on) those queries and comments.

Is this what I need? If you’ve already been through several drafts of your manuscript and you feel confident that it’s complete but you need a comprehensive read-through and feedback for tightening up, this is the edit you need.

Copy edit: Now we’re starting to get to the nitty-gritty. The copy editor is your eagle eye for matters of grammar, punctuation, and style, and she also fact-checks all proper names, places, dates, and other areas where a simple typo could cause major embarrassment.

What will I get from a copy edit? A manuscript that’s been edited using Track Changes, and may also contain some queries and suggestions in marginal comments, if she catches something the others missed. (Never underestimate the power of fresh eyes!) Copy editors also typically create a style sheet that records character, place, and brand names and any exceptions to the style guide that were retained in the manuscript; this is so the proofreader doesn’t come along and, say, change every instance of “okay” to “OK” (in keeping with Merriam-Webster preference) after the author has already expressed a preference for the former.

Is this what I need? If your manuscript’s already been edited and all beta reader feedback is positive and you just need that final polish before sending it out into the world, this is the edit for you.

Proofread: Generally speaking, this stage is only needed for books that are about to be published; the proofreader looks at a PDF of the typeset galley or, for an ebook, a type-styled Word document. The proofreader is looking for typos (repeated words, missing words, duplicated or dropped punctuation, miskeyed words that spell check won’t pick up [like “no” for “not” or “know”]), grammar or spelling errors that might have slipped by the other editors, and inconsistencies between the galley and the style sheet, and is checking the elements of the book’s layout (column alignment, type styles applied, correct headers and footers, correct page references, proper line and page breaks).

Because the book is pretty clean and ready to go at this point, the proofreader’s eye is free enough that it can often catch content mistakes, too. While doing proofreads for reprint editions, I’ve found mistakes that slipped through and were published in the original editions—inconsistent character name spellings, illogical action (like a character closing a car door twice in the same scene between lines of dialogue), and misspelled brand names. Again, fresh eyes are invaluable!

What will I get from a proofread? A book that’s ready to enter the world!

Is this what I need? Only once all other edits are complete and you’re preparing to publish the work.

I hope this breakdown has helped to take some of the guesswork out of finding the right kind of editor for your manuscript. While it’s certainly not as complicated as the inner workings of the combustion engine, at times it can feel every bit as intimidating. But it doesn’t need to be. The successful editorial process should begin with a conversation in which all expectations are clarified and recorded, and that’s the key to ensuring your editorial partnership works like a well-oiled machine.

If you’re an editor at a publishing house and there’s something that works differently on your team—or something I forgot or that you would like to add—please post a comment or message me so I can make this post as accurate as possible. If you’re a writer and this post inspired additional questions about the process or terminology, please let me know what you’d like to know and I’ll address it in another post. Thanks!

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