Category Archives: dialog in writing

Write first, revise second, third, fourth, and edit last

Revising and editing are distinct actions.

Revising means changing text in significant ways, such as adding or deleting words, sentences, paragraphs or even whole scenes.  Revising means changing weak verbs to stronger, specific verbs.  Revising means changing sentence order or sentence beginnings or combining sentences or separating too many ideas in one sentence.  Revising means making big changes and should be done before editing.

Editing means polishing text in subtle ways, such as changing punctuation, spelling, and choice of synonyms and antonyms.  Editing means deleting most -ly adverbs, many adjectives, and obvious information.  Editing means making small changes, sometimes stylistic changes, and should be done after revising.

Which are revising and which are editing?

revising editing
Deleting backstory from the beginning of text
Using simple Anglo-Saxon vocabulary instead of longer, more complicated words
Replacing abstract nouns with concrete verbs
Deleting vague, qualifying words (e.g. some, never)
Deleting “that” except when needed for clarity
Combining sentences to delete unnecessary words
Adding information for clarity
Using “said” instead of “told,” “related,” “cried,” and other words saying how a person spoke
Replacing forms of the verb “to be” with specific verbs, action verbs if possible
Rewriting sentence beginnings for variety
Replacing most compound sentences or compound predicates with complicated simple sentences
Deleting overused words like “so,” “then,” “just” and “like”
Rewriting conclusions to add meatier ideas
In dialog between two people, not identifying who is speaking for each line of dialog
Writing direct dialog rather than indirect dialog.
Calculating words per sentence to keep within 15 to 20 words on average.
Looking for the kind of grammar mistakes you often make, such as run-ons, and fixing them.
Showing, not telling.

A mistake student writers make is to edit as they write, losing the flow of their thoughts.  It’s better to keep going, even though you know you spelled a word wrong and are tempted to look it up.  Writing is harder than editing which is why writers are tempted to edit as they go.  This is particularly true of perfectionists.

Editing before revising is a waste of time.  Good revising will delete many early edits.  Write first, revise second and third and forth, and edit last.

Imitate classic sentences to improve your writing

Do you want to improve the sentences you write?  One way to do that is to imitate classic sentences, according to Stanley Fish, author of How to Write a Sentence (2011).  A sentence form he recommends imitating is the additive (cumulative) sentence.  This form of writing seems spontaneous because it shifts back and forth, digresses, repeats, and loses itself in details—much like the speech of some people.

How do you recognize such a sentence?  Many are compound sentences, or if not compound, then containing compound subjects, predicates, and phrases.  They use coordinating conjunctions, especially “and,” “but” and “or.”  One word or idea is not more important than another.  They mostly use one- and two-syllable words.

Why would you want to use such sentences?

  • To show spontaneity, distractedness, and randomness of thought.
  • To write in a way which seems unplanned and lighthearted.
  • To create dialog which ambles from one thought to another.

Ernest Hemingway is one of the best known writers of additive sentences.  Here, for example, is one such sentence from A Farewell to Arms (1929):  “In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.”

Where do you begin to imitate such a sentence?  One way is to identify its structural components.  It starts with 1) a prepositional phrase showing a general location; 2)that phrase is followed by  “there” plus the verb “to be” followed by two nouns acting as subjects; 3) they are followed by two adjectives connected by “and”; 4) they are followed by another prepositional phrase showing location; 5) “and” is followed by another noun acting as subject of the second clause; 6) then come three adjectives describing that noun; and 7) and another prepositional phrase related to the subject of the second clause ends the sentence.

Or and easier way is to substitute the words in Hemingway’s sentence with your own words.  That’s what I did to come up with the following three additive sentences:

  • Example 1: In the fur of the dog there are fleas and more fleas, jumping in the moonlight, and the dog scratches and twists and bleeds from the bites.
  • Example 2: In the driveway to the house there are drifts, blowing snow, cold and white in the storm, and the snow is thick and racing fast and scurrying over the driveway.
  • Example 3: On the test in Miss Mathers’ class, there are short answers and essays, some easy and some hard, and the students must think and decide quickly and write in their bluebooks.

If you practice creating enough sentences like these, using various additive forms, you will become good at it, and these kinds of sentences will occur naturally to you, expanding the sentence universe you can rely on.

(For a related topic, see a previous blog on Hemingway’s writing rules.)

11 rules to keep you, the author, invisible to your readers

Most fiction writers want readers to get so captivated while reading a story that they forget someone wrote it.  If invisibility is the effect you want, you might want to read these eleven rules of Elmore Leonard–author of 45 novels–from 20 years ago.*

Rule 1:  Don’t open a passage with a weather report.  People read novels to learn about people, not the weather.

Rule 2:  No prologues. Prologues usually contain backstory which can be added later as the story unfolds.

Rule 3:  Use “said”—nothing else—when a character speaks.  “Said” is almost invisible, but any other word—asserted, warned—distracts the reader from the action to the author.

Rule 4:  Don’t use adverbs to describe “said.”  Adverbs distract from the story action and remind the reader that an author wrote this story.

Rule 5:  Limit exclamations marks to almost zero.

Rule 6:  Don’t use “suddenly.”  If you say, for example, “Suddenly, he fell,” the reader knows something is about to happen before the story’s character does.

Rule 7:  Rarely use regional dialect.  That requires apostrophes and weird spellings.  Once you start, it’s hard to stop.  And hard to read.

Rule 8:  Keep descriptions of characters brief.  Let their dialog conjure images in the reader’s mind.

Rule 9:  Keep descriptions of places and things brief.  Descriptions of anything slow down or even stop the forward action of a story.

Rule 10:  Skip long paragraphs without dialog.  Readers do.

Rule 11:  Don’t use proper diction if it sounds unnatural, or if it slows down the action.

*These rules are paraphrased from the July 16, 2001, edition of The New York Times, Section E, page 1.  I recommend you read Leonard’s original words.  They’re a hoot.

Show political leanings through dialog

From many studies* of how politicians speak, writers like you and me can glean insights into how to write dialog for fictional conservative or liberal characters we couple in discussion

Studies show that conservative and liberal politicians speak differently.  In general, conservative politicians

  • use simpler language than liberal politicians, and
  • prefer short statements—simple sentences—expressing one thought.

Liberal politicians, in general,

  • use more complex language than conservative politicians, and
  • prefer longer, more complex thought structures—compound and complex sentences—expressing qualified thoughts.

How can we use this information?

Suppose you have created a character—let’s call him Mr. Conti—whom you want to portray as a conservative.  Maybe he hails from Texas, votes Republican, accepts the teachings of a church which he regularly attends, wonders about global warming, and supports a pro-life organization—all qualities associated with conservative thinking in the US.

Suppose you have also created a character—let’s call her Miss Libby—whom you want to portray as liberal.  A native of Boston, perhaps she votes Democrat, has stopped attending church, teaches physics in a high school, and wears a mask everywhere during the covid 10 pandemic—all qualities  associated with liberal thinking in the US.

To further differentiate Mr. Conti and Miss Libby, you can use dialog.  For example,

Miss Libby:  Oh, this heat!  I heard on NPR that it might rain later today, but the showers will likely be scattered.

Mr. Conti:  Rubbish!  My arthritis is aching.  It’s gonna rain.

Miss Libby:  According to the meteorologists on the Weather Channel, satellite imagery shows a clear though humid atmosphere this morning.  Any rain later will be haphazard.

Mr. Conti:  Satellite battelite.  When my grandma’s bones ached, it rained.  When my momma’s bones ached, it rained.  My bones ache.  It’s gonna rain.

Miss Libby:  You demonstrate such confidence, such surety, about the weather, Mr. Conti.   Is it innate?

Mr. Conti:  Nothin’ innate about it. It’s in bones.

As a writing exercise, try writing dialog between a conservative thinker and a liberal one.  Choose a nonpolitical topic and see how you can show political thinking thought vocabulary and sentence structure.

*For more information on the studies, go to a recent article in The New York Times using this hyperlink:




Never start a direct quote with “He said”

When you are interviewing someone, and you want to quote that person directly, how should you identify who is talking?  Compare these examples:

  • Mrs. Smith said that I might want to avoid the back yard because  the dog poops there.
  • Mrs. Smith said, “You might want to avoid the backyard.  That’s where the dog poops.”
  • “You might want to avoid the back yard. That’s where the dog poops,” said Mrs. Smith.
  • “You might want to avoid the backyard,” Mrs. Smith said. “That’s where the dog poops.”

Each of the examples offers the same information, yet one excels.  Let’s examine them individually to find out why.

  • Because what is said is more important than who says it, the first and second examples are not as good as the third and fourth examples. But the first example has another problem:  it uses an indirect quotation when a direct quotation is livelier.  The reader would prefer to hear the exact words of the person being interviewed, providing that person is not hemming and hawing.
  • The second example improves on the first example because it replaces the indirect quotation with a direct quotation.  But it still starts with the least interesting information, who is speaking.
  • The third example is better than the first two because it uses direct quotes to start.  However, the reader needs to wait until the completion of the quote before knowing who is speaking.  Since there are two sentences, it makes sense to identify the speaker at the end of the first sentence.
  • The fourth example identifies the speaker after the first part of the direct quote, the correct location to do so. And it directly quotes the speaker.  This example wins.

So, to recap, use direct quotes rather than indirect quotes when the quotation is lively and dramatic, or when it shows off the speaker’s personality or diction.  Start with the direct quote, but pause either at the end of the first sentence or at a natural spot in the first sentence to identify the speaker.