Writing Dialogue: The 5 Mistakes Beginning Writers Make

Hi writers! We kicked off 2019 with a new 4-part blog series called “Craft Q&A.” In this series, we tackle real questions submitted to us by Yellow Bird clients. Each question pertains to the craft of writing fiction. Without further ado, we present today’s question about writing strong dialogue:

QUESTION: “I honestly feel like my dialogue could be a lot better. It either feels too stiff or too rambling. Do you have any advice about how to get better at writing dialogue?”

dialogue pic.png

Dialogue is a natural part of life, serving as a bridge between individuals and characterizing the speaker. Just as conversing is important in any relationship or interaction, dialogue between characters is critical to a story. It provides readers with a direct link into the scene and gives us a glimpse into the immediate thoughts of characters. However, crafting authentic dialogue is a challenge that many of us struggle with. It’s easy to overthink the dialogue, resulting in these common dialogue mistakes.  

Mistake #1: Using formal dialogue that doesn’t sound natural

 Avoid excessively polished dialogue that comes across as stilted and unnatural. You wouldn’t have this conversation with a friend:

“Hello, Morgan. You are looking better today.”

“Thank you for noticing, Alex. I am feeling a lot better. I do not feel as sick as I did yesterday.”

“That is good news, I hope your health continues to recovery.”

People use contractions in everyday use, so they should occur in your dialogue as well. Additionally, while we call out names in order to get people’s attention, we don’t normally address someone by name when we’re talking exclusively to them. The above conversation would probably look more like this:

“Hey dude, you look so much better today!”

“Oh, thanks! Yeah, I definitely don’t feel as bad as I did.”

“I can tell. I’m glad! Get more rest.”

Overthinking the dialogue can result in rigid conversations that don’t actually take place in real life. Making the dialogue realistic to your setting is important to keep in mind, as well as remembering your character’s personality and how their diction might differ from one another. Going back through and reading your dialogue out loud is a good way to ensure it sounds realistic and natural.

Mistake #2: Using dialogue that sounds TOO natural

On the other hand, many people say “um” and “like” in real life, sometimes multiple times in a sentence. That’s just the natural way we speak when we have to pause and think about what to say. However, readers don’t want all these placeholders when they’re reading text. While those superfluous bits are normal for everyday conversations, dialogue between characters is not meant to contain such filler. Reading someone say “um” between every other word can make it hard to decipher the meaning of the dialogue.

Maybe a character is talking to their high school crush and gets flustered while stumbling over their words. In that case, the ums and likes would add important characterization to the scene, conveying the overwhelming nerves that take over in the moment. These techniques can have an effective impact when used carefully, but they should be used sparingly — in most instances, try to instead let descriptions of body language and natural pauses in dialogue convey the characters’ emotions.

 Mistake #3: Not inserting enough dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are such a natural part of stories that they are almost invisible. Yet, while readers don’t often notice them at all, there’s an art to these little markers. The main purpose of dialogue tags is to prevent confusion about who is speaking. They serve a functional purpose before anything else. Using not enough dialogue tags can lead to confusion about which characters are saying what, particularly if there are three or more people involved in the conversation. If a reader has to go back to count the lines in order to figure out who is speaking, you need to add more tags.

 Mistake #4: Going crazy with dialogue tags

While some people tend to forget dialogue tags, others make them more complicated than they should be. An overzealous author might write the following scene:

 “Where were you last night?” she demanded angrily.

“None of your business,” he muttered quietly.

“What did you say?” she shouted loudly.

“I said it’s none of your business,” he screamed back.

This exchange features redundant markers, particularly the adverbs describing the dialogue tags. The dialogue itself, along with actions, should convey the tone and mood of the speakers, so words such as “angrily” or “quietly” should not be necessary. While you may think you’re adding more description to the scene, you’re just being repetitious. Supplementing the dialogue with details about the scene can be more effective than adjectives and adverbs. You also don’t need to insert tags with every piece of dialogue, especially if it’s just between two people.

Some writers try to avoid “said,” opting instead for strong verbs (such as “demanded,” “muttered,” “shouted,” and “screamed” from the example above) to keep the text interesting. However, these can interrupt the flow of the story. Sometimes it is best to keep things simple. The majority of dialogue tags in your story should be “said” or “asked” so that you can focus on creating powerful imagery by showing the emotions and actions rather than telling them.

The above scene could be rewritten with fewer dialogue tags and more descriptions of the scene, such as this:

She heard the door creak open and looked up. “Where were you last night?” She asked, slamming her book shut.

“None of your business,” he said, avoiding eye contact while hanging up his coat.

“What did you say?”

He turned abruptly, looking into his wife’s eyes with a piercing, bloodshot look. “I said it’s none of your business.”

 Mistake #5: Filler dialogue

 Just as every word in your story should have a purpose, dialogue is no exception. You should never use dialogue as filler or small talk; instead, be intentional in creating meaningful interactions between characters. Dialogue can characterize characters in important ways or move the plot forward by having a character accidentally let a secret slip out. While dialogue can be a useful tool to add information to the story, avoid using dialogue to summarize events, and don’t use conversations as a way to dump information all at once. Pacing is critical to stories and specifically to dialogue as well.

 As with any writing technique, it takes time and many drafts to hone the art of dialogue. Also, remember that dialogue entails more than just the spoken word, so don’t rely solely on words to convey thoughts, emotions, and information. Dialogue is just one tool in the writer’s toolbox, so use it masterfully in order to create complex characters and an engaging story.


Layering Your Draft Part Two: Let’s Bake A Novel

Aprons are highly recommended.

Aprons are highly recommended.

Want to start at the beginning of the series? Click here!

Before I go much farther into writing-as-baking, I feel like I have to put my money where my metaphor is. I can’t tell you to run out and buy an apron until I show you how this works in a stripped-down, practical way.

If you’ll remember from the previous post, I don’t really love the idea of separating rough draft and revision. Pretty much all writing includes some of each—most writers do some revision in early drafts, and pretty much all revisions include new writing.

Instead of starting with the idea of a rough draft to bash through, let’s start with this: whatever writing gets you into the story. For some writers, this might be a first full pass that they write quickly and then use as a jumping off point, but for others it will be extensive pre-writing. Maybe a few chapters or important scenes. For others it will be writing their way into the story for as long as it takes to figure the basics out, and then starting back at the beginning. This process might stay the same, or vary from novel to novel.

I’m going to call this searching for your ingredients. You’re gathering up what you need to tell the story. When you go looking in the kitchen, you might find some things easily, while others take significantly more cupboard rummaging. You might discover that you have the ingredients to make something slightly different, which is even MORE exciting than your original idea. Or you might realize you are missing something important (no baking soda = no conflict to raise the stakes)—and you have to decide if you want to put in the time to get that missing ingredient, or if you want to adjust your plans.

Your novels will be the wordy equivalent of this. I promise.

Your novels will be the wordy equivalent of this. I promise.

Then you start baking.

The layers will involve different amounts of work—some full passes, some fast passes, some where you only look at the scenes affected if you’re talking about a secondary character or a subplot.

Here is a (simplified) list of layers that I’ve done on a novel:


  1. Voice and setting
  2. Main character
  3. Plot and structure
  4. Removing a story element that isn’t working
  5. Missing plot details
  6. Narrative tightness and pacing
  7. Main character’s arc driving the story
  8. Emotional climaxes got wonky–work on these
  9. Smoothing out the language and narrative pace
  10. Secondary character dangerously underdeveloped!
  11. Working in suggestions from an edit letter
  12. Timeline issues
  13. Working in feedback about another secondary character
  14. Yet more editorial feedback
  15. Copyedits!

(If you’re feeling really ambitious you can assign a flavor to each of your layers. I definitely have a dark chocolate setting in my new novel.)

One of the best things about this method is that it responds to the needs of the manuscript and the editing process. It’s infinitely flexible. Some novels require multiple passes to work on character; others have tricky plots. Some have lots of research layers that need to be incoporated. This also allows a writer to focus on their story elements, taking time to craft them without the pressure of fixing everythingatonce.

Which, to me, sounds delicious.

-Amy Rose

PS Next time, I’ll talk about the magic of character layers.

Want to work with Amy Rose on your novel? She critiques, content edits, and provides writing coaching for all sorts of fiction. Just click on the contact tab & fill out the easy form to get started!

What Kind of Editing Do You Need? Definitions Edition


Last post I blithely tossed around a handful of terms for the editing services Yellow Bird provides. I may have put the freelance editing process into the right order, but, because of space considerations, I didn’t fully describe what each type of editing entails. So, without further ado, allow me to present What Kind of Editing Do You Need, Part the Second.

Let’s start at the wide end, with content editing and developmental editing. What’s the difference between the two? I like to think of it in terms of editorial invasiveness.

If you’re looking for an editor to douse your manuscript in red ink, you probably want content editing. Your content editor will pore over every sentence in the book, making hundreds (sometimes thousands) of edits directly into the text to improve the content, flow, and style. Line edits are usually made using the Track Changes feature in Microsoft Word, and broader comments about the text are inserted into the margins. This service touches on everything from big-picture commentary (character development, plot, pacing, etc.) to nitty-gritty sentence-level details. Unlike copy editing, which is primarily focused on fixing errors, content editing is inherently subjective and influenced by the style of the particular editor.

Follow this link to see how your pages will probably look when you get them back from a content edit. It can be daunting to see that much red ink on your baby like that. I won’t lie; it’s not for the faint of heart! More importantly, it’s not for the writer who hasn’t already taken her manuscript as far possible with critique partners and beta readers. Get your novel as clean as you can before you pay for this service. You don’t want to hire a pro to do what you can do for yourself, especially when you’re paying, on average, $6-10/ page.

If you’re not ready (or can’t afford) the rigors of a full content edit on your manuscript, developmental editing offers the same thorough, high-level feedback without all the line-edits. Yellow Bird offers two different types of developmental editing, depending on how you prefer to receive feedback:

With Developmental Editing Type A, your editor reads your full manuscript and compiles feedback in an extensive editorial letter, usually ranging from 6-8 single-spaced pages. This editorial letter covers feedback on a range of issues, including: pacing; flow of narrative; transitions; voice; plot; structure; dialogue; character development; audience; potential market. Obviously, this format necessitates a primarily big-picture focus. But that doesn’t mean you won’t get highly specific notes. My editorial letters are always heavily peppered with cited page numbers and quoted bits of manuscript text.

With Developmental Editing Type B, your feedback comes in the margins of the manuscript instead of an editorial letter. Specifically, your editor will read your draft, highlight passages that need attention, and insert a variety of comments in the margins plus “end-notes” after each chapter. The comments in the margins are usually specific to that page, whereas the end-notes summarize feedback for the whole chapter.

Either way you go, developmental editing does not provide actual rewrites. The revising remains completely up to you. But don’t think that means you’ll get off easy! Your editor will still put your manuscript through the wringer, believe me.

The last editing option I want to touch on here is the manuscript critique, which can be thought of as “Developmental Editing Lite.” With a manuscript critique, your editorial letter will likely be shorter (3-5 single-spaced pages) because your editor won’t go into as much depth or detail. If you are primarily just looking for an editor to help you see the big-picture (voice, plot holes, character arcs, etc.) a manuscript critique is usually sufficient. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for extremely thorough and detailed feedback, then developmental editing or content editing is probably a better choice.

Regardless of which editing service you choose, the end goal remains the same: to prepare your manuscript for the next step in its process, whether that’s another round of revisions or pursuit of publication.

Well, I’ve run out of room. So you’ll just have to wait until next time to read about the thrilling and nuanced world of copy editing and proofreading.

Rebutting a Point David Jauss Didn’t Actually Make

I recently learned that I’m a part of the herd in yet another depressing way. According to David Jauss, recent guest contributor on Brian Klems’s Writer’s Digest blog, my choice to write my WIP in the present tense is so “common place” it borders on cliché. Jauss’s post is an excerpt from his book On Writing Fiction. In it he makes the point that the present tense has become “the default choice for young writers.”

David Jauss

David Jauss

I’m certainly not claiming to be young, my beard’s almost as white as his, but I am an early career writer. As such, I’m always on the lookout for free and pertinent writing advice. So I didn’t delete that day’s WD email, “The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense.”

By the way, kudos to Klems for crafting an effective subject line. It may seem uninspired at first glance. But it worked. It got me to read the post.

And that’s how I learned that a fundamental structural choice I had made for my debut novel is trite.

Or is it?

Jauss at least partly bases his conclusion on his experiences with his undergrad writing students. (And it’s only fair to admit that I’m probably being a bit harsh in my depiction of his views on verb tense. Sue me, I got defensive.) While he obviously views the “fad” of present tense writing as a bad thing – I’ll get to that in a bit – mostly he seems concerned with giving less experienced writers some tools to help them choose the right verb tense for their manuscripts. Choose being the operative word in the previous sentence. I applaud and support him 100% in that goal. I also thank him for sharing his list of Pros and Cons.

His post is worth reading, if for no other reason than Jauss’s (short) list of the limitations and advantages of the present tense. He doesn’t say anything new exactly – he is definitely aiming at a greener audience – but that’s part of his point. Which is the other reason his excerpt is such a good read. A well reasoned discussion of verb tense is long overdue. The quote he includes from one of his students really says it all: “Isn’t [present tense] the way fiction’s supposed to be written now?”

Jauss answers in the resounding negative, which is fine. Where I start to break with him is over what seems to be his assumption that the past tense is “the way fiction’s supposed to be written,” that its primacy has merely been usurped by a new trend. That writers need to return to the more venerated model.

How is that better? I hope his (alleged) implication is merely an accident of excerption. Otherwise, he’s simply advocating trading one thoughtless choice for another.

As his essay so nicely points out, both tenses have their advantages and disadvantages. Hopefully, he argues elsewhere in his book that there should never, ever be a default choice in any part of the fiction writing process. That every element of a well-crafted novel should contribute to the story, down to its tiniest word. Because that’s what the great writers do: they make thousands of great choices that result in great fiction. They weigh the pros and cons of each detail and never rely on any short-hand settings, no matter how time honored. Jauss tacitly cedes this point when he states that “the best writers almost always seem to know, either consciously or intuitively, when to use present tense.” Until I read his book I can only hope that this is the lesson he’s teaching his students and not that they should simply replace one lazy habit with another.

And now, mostly because I can’t help but be a smart ass (and because I’m still feeling a bit defensive), I want to offer a quick critique of the validity of his preference for the past tense. Isn’t its use the real cliché choice? After all, Professor Jauss himself calls it “a tense that has served authors since the very inception of fiction,” which is sort of the definition of trite. I’m just saying.

Ah, but I must tread carefully, lest I engage in a debate about an argument he actually made. And where’s the fun in that?

Instead I will simply conclude my rebuttal of the argument David Jauss did not make, confident of my rhetorical (and completely imagined) victory.

Want to be a good editor? Be a stupid reader.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve done all the things my fourth grade teacher told me not to do. I skim. I skip over boring parts. I speed up, rather than slow down, when I’m confused. And when I see a word I don’t understand, I most definitely don’t stop to look it up in the dictionary. In short, I’m a fourth-grade failure.

So how did I wind up here, editing novels and memoirs for a living? The truth is quite simple. Over the years, I’ve learned that my bad reading behaviors are actually some of the same attributes that make me a good editor.

Below are three rules of thumb for editing fiction—whether your own, or a friend’s. You might just be surprised.

1. Be impatient

If you read a manuscript too slowly, you can actually fool yourself into thinking it’s good. The real test is whether it will hold up in the face of a quick-read, which is how potential literary agents and editors (and their assistants and interns) will approach it, given the sheer volume of material they consider every day.

So when you read a manuscript for the first time, don’t stop to analyze every sentence. Don’t pause to parse each densely packed paragraph. Don’t pore over the imagery, waiting for hidden symbolism to manifest itself. Instead, read hungrily, like you’re devouring a slice of chocolate cake. The inedible pieces will quickly become apparent.

2. Be unforgiving

Inevitably, you will stumble upon something in the manuscript that doesn’t make sense. Let’s call this a “huh?” moment. In the face of a “huh?” moment, you might be tempted to re-read the confusing passage multiple times until you experience an “ah-ha!” moment. Once you have that “ah-ha!” moment, you might think, “OK, it makes sense after all. I was just being stupid.”

But, no! You weren’t. It was the manuscript that was confusing. And if you were confused, chances are someone else will be, too. In order to be a good editor, you must be unforgiving. You must not tolerate even a single ounce of confusion.

3. Be stupid

Authors are tricky people. I know because I am one. We sometimes try to sneak in clever metaphors, literary allusions, witty analogies, and other little nuggets that don’t quite fit with the story but are simply too brilliant not to use.

When you take off your writer’s hat and put on your editor’s hat, you can go ahead and forget about all that so-called brilliance. Instead, be as stupid as you can allow yourself to be. Do you still follow the metaphor? Still get the joke? Then it can stay.