Editing Dialogue Articles / On Dialogue

Recently I had a conversation with an author about the differences between editing dialogue and editing narrative. It occurred to me that this is something I do automatically, but I don’t really know if it’s a hard and fast rule or if editors follow their own rules. Maybe editors don’t make adjustments or aren’t consciously aware they make them. Perhaps I over think things. Anything’s possible.

So, me being me, I decided to try to put down on paper some of the reasons I edit dialogue and narrative differently and what adjustments I make in my editing and commentary.

Dialogue is more casual than narrative. Most people do not speak proper English. We use contractions—hell, we make up contractions on the fly. We speak in fragments and run-on sentences, and we mispronounce words. Young children confuse verb tense, and those learning the language misuse words altogether. Dialogue isn’t always perfect.

02-08 Editing Dialogue

Dialogue conveys a character’s voice. Often, the technical “rules” of writing that make narrative clean and concise can squelch the voice of a character significantly. Take comma splices, for example. We’re all well aware comma splices are a no-no when used more than very occasionally in narrative. However, we speak in comma splices all the time. At least, I do. I’m from New York, I talk fast.

See what I did right there?

If I were to speak that sentence, there would barely be a pause, much less a stop. Yes, technically I could use a semicolon, but I actually like to leave the comma splice to show the speed, urgency, or sense of united thought those two separate phrases are meant to convey.

The same can be said for fragments—perhaps your character is impatient and barks one-word orders a lot—or run-on sentences—maybe your character is a little absentminded and loses her train of thought, resulting in a long, drawn-out ramble. These “mistakes” add another layer to the picture you’re painting of your character.

Dialogue conveys a character’s emotions. A character’s words are predominant in drawing an emotion from the reader, but how the dialogue is punctuated can aid in that goal… or not. If I were to read a paragraph of narrative full of ellipses, em dashes, and fragments, I might twitch a little. Okay, a lot. But imagine your character were a small child attempting to relive a frightening experience for the sake of therapy or a police report. Those pauses, stops and starts, stutters, and bits of words would be crucial in showing her terror.

So, what adjustments do I make when I’m editing? Overall, I tend to ease up on the rules when it comes to dialogue as long as the reasoning behind deviation from the rules is valid. (Please note that this does not pertain to dialogue tags, which I will edit to death if they’re too creative.) But if Sam and Joe are having a chat, and suddenly all structure and format disappears from their dialogue without an obvious reason, I’ll mark it up and most likely leave a comment wondering what the point was. Conversely, if there’s dialogue between children and every sentence is grammatically correct with perfect syntax, punctuation and spelling, I’ll most probably flag that, too.

What differences between narrative and dialogue would you, as an author, flag to edit differently? What other things do you think dialogue can convey with a more relaxed edit? Let me know; I’d love to hear what you think.

Happy writing!


  1. I have not consciously thought about it, I do the same; ease up on the rules for dialogue but not for narrative. thanks for the clarification!

  2. As a fellow editor, “like” is one biggie I know I tend to leave alone in dialogue. We say it. As much as it grates my last nerve, it’s a grammatical fact that, like, seems, like, here to, like totally, stay. In narrative, however, I will as, as if, and as though that puppy into oblivion. *tightens editorial saddle and cracks grammar whip* Yee haw!

  3. Thank you for a simply explained and great article. I also agree with DJ’s comments, except for use of the word “like”. If used with adults, they will be like, teenyboppers. One other point. In dialogue, if proper grammar is used it can often make characters come across as unreal. However, since my books involve people from England, I’ll often use proper English because that’s often the way they speak. i.e. it’s a way to distinguish their nationality from other characters in my books.

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