Writing Craft: Watching Out for Bad Advice

by Jami Gold on September 5, 2013

in Writing Stuff

Rotten apple on the ground with text: Watching Out for Bad Advice

In the comments of my post about the number one writing rule, we shared some of the bad advice we’ve heard. Many of the examples didn’t point out advice that’s inherently bad, but rather advice that doesn’t apply equally to all situations.

Carradee shared the example of a writer who naturally overwrites and gives the advice to “trim-trim-trim.” That advice works for those who use too many adjectives, adverbs, or have a too-chatty writing style. However, that advice would mislead writers who naturally write sparse.

The comments made clear that we’re all likely to be led astray by “bad” advice at some point. When we’re first starting off, we don’t have enough knowledge to put tips into context and realize that most advice is situation-dependent.

Most “Bad” Advice Exists because of the Good Kernel Inside

Nicole Willson shared advice she heard from a high school creative writing teacher, who told her that we should never use the word “said.” As Nicole pointed out, there’s a kernel of good advice in that statement.

  • If we used “he said” or “she said” at the start of every dialogue line, readers would quickly tire of the word, so it’s good to find alternatives.

However, taken out of context, that “never use said” advice could lead writers to think that “snarled,” “roared,” “spit,” etc. would be better to use in dialogue tags than “said.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Those aren’t the alternatives we should aim for.

  • Better Alternative: Identify speakers with action beats rather than dialogue tags.
  • Action Beat: A separate sentence where the speaker performs an action. (She leaned closer. “Don’t you ever use the word ‘said’ again.”)
  • Dialogue Tag: Identifying information connected to the dialogue by a comma. (She said, “Boy, this seems boring in comparison.”)

As a bonus, action beats provide more showing details to readers and help avoid the problem of “talking heads” (when dialogue seems to happen in empty space). In my writing, I use action beats 99% of the time and rarely use dialogue tags at all, “said” or otherwise.

Regardless of the intention of the original advice, when we do use dialogue tags, we should stick to the basics (said, whispered, etc.) most of the time. The good kernel inside the advice refers to finding non-dialogue tag alternatives, not to having our characters “expostulate.” *grin*

My Encounter with “Bad” Advice

In my reply to Nicole’s comment, I shared the bad advice I’d heard—and believed at face value. A high school creative writing teacher suggested that we could vary our sentence beginnings by using leading present participle phrases (which we’ll call PPPs for short). Like Nicole’s example, there’s a kernel of good advice in that statement.

  • If we start every sentence with “she did this” or “he did that,” readers will grow tired of the writing style, so it’s good to vary sentence beginnings.

However, leading PPPs can actually be a mark of an amateur (another mark on that list is those too-creative dialogue tags Nicole mentioned). Like the bad advice Nicole received, we shouldn’t follow the advice in the way it seems to imply, in this case, using leading PPPs for sentence variation. Leading PPPs bury the subject of the sentence; they don’t change it.

  • Standard Sentence Structure: Subject(s)-verb(s)-object(s). (George ran up the stairs and shouted for help.)
  • Leading PPP Sentence Structure: Verb-ing an object, subject-verb-object. (Running up the stairs, George shouted for help.)
  • Better Alternative: Vary the subject of a sentence by using non-pronoun nouns; don’t just rearrange the phrases to “fake” variety.
    • Example #1: The treads vibrated under George’s feet, and he chased the echoes of his shouts up the stairs.
    • Example #2: Thumps from George’s rushing feet competed with his shouts for help.
    • Example #3: The stairs seemed to grow taller, as though neither George or his shouts for help would ever reach the top.

No, none of those examples are great (sorry, it’s late as I’m typing this part *shrug*), but they demonstrate that true variety comes from changing the subject of the sentence, not just from rearranging the pieces and parts. Also note that more emotion and/or sensory information often accompanies our efforts to vary sentence subjects.

Using leading PPPs as a sentence-variety crutch is likely to lead to overuse, confused readers, dangling modifiers, and non-simultaneous actions. All things that are Not Good for writers looking to improve their craft.

Solution? Be Willing to Learn, Even When You Think You Already Know

Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that “use leading PPPs for sentence variety” suggestion was bad advice until I seriously studied writing craft. My learning curve required a lot of editing. *sigh*

I’ve mentioned my appreciation for the Edittorrent blog before, for good reason. Theresa Stevens and Alicia Rasley are patient editors, eager to help writers learn. I’ll repeat their advice because this is one of those things that can make others assume we’re an amateur writer, and unlike many other “standard” advice tips, it’s one that many of us don’t know. Theresa posted:

“Five Minutes Could Change Your Style Forever
I know we nag a bit about present participial phrases. I was thinking about this last night, and it dawned on me that people might not understand that this isn’t just some personal peccadillo.

So here’s a quick exercise for everyone to do. It will take less than five minutes, and the results might surprise you.

Step 1.
Go to your bookcase. Take down a book you love, something that really spoke to you when you read it the first time. Open to a random page.

Step 2.
Count the sentences on that page.

Step 3.
Count the present participial phrases. (Skip past progressive verb tenses and gerunds. We’re just looking for the dreaded PPP here.)

That’s it. 1, 2, 3. Do the results surprise you?”

As I mentioned in my reply to Nicole’s comment, I discovered the editors were right. Most traditionally published books contained 0-5 leading PPPs per chapter, nothing like my original 3-5 per page. Yikes!

I learned I was wrong and the advice I’d received was “bad.” So I learned the rule and the reasons for the rule. (Jordan McCollum, a friend I made through Edittorrent, has a great post summarizing those reasons we learned from Theresa and Alicia.)

I learned the grammar behind the rule. I learned the exceptions to the rule. I learned when it was okay to break the rule and when it wasn’t. I learned why leading PPPs were more likely to cause grammar issues than trailing PPPs.

And now… I use 0-5 leading PPPs per story. *nods*

It can be a delicate balance to be open to learning new things and yet not constantly doubt ourselves about what (we think) we know. Bad advice that carries a kernel of good sense doesn’t help. The good elements hiding in bad advice can make us believe in the whole thing, leading us to think we know more than we do.

However, the odds make it likely that some of the advice we’ve picked up over the years is at least partially “bad.” Maybe if we recognize that fact, we’ll be better able to separate out the good kernels so we can ditch the rest. *smile*

Registration is currently open for my workshop on how to do just enough story development to write faster, while not giving our pantsing muse hives. Interested? Sign up for “Lost Your Pants? The Impatient Writers Guide to Plotting a Story.” (Blog readers: Use Promo Code “savethepants” to save $15 on registration.)

Can you think of other examples of bad advice with a kernel of truth? Have you been misled by that kind of advice before? How do you separate out the good from the bad? Had you heard the advice about leading PPPs before? If you tried Edittorrent’s test, what were your results? Does that sentence structure stand out to you if an author overuses it?

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33 Comments below - Time to Add your own.

Carradee September 5, 2013 at 7:19 am

I realize the article you linked to said this—and I’ll probably be saving that link, myself, to share with clients—but…

Participial phrases indicate simultaneous action. That’s both why editors often remove them—they’re frequently misused—and why authors tend not to use them much—there aren’t that many circumstances wherein they apply or are the best option.

“Tiptoeing down the stairs, I stepped on a creaky board” = “[While I was in the process of] tiptoeing down the stairs, I stepped on a creaky board.”

While that sentence is perfectly fine in meaning, it diffuses tension. I’d probably be better served by something like, “I tiptoed down the stairs. Three steps from the bottom, a board creaked.”

Probably. There are exceptions; it depends on context and the narrator involved.

Can I think of examples of bad advice containing a kernel of truth? Yes. You probably don’t want to get me started, but to simplify, any “never” or “always” advice in writing is bad advice holding a kernel of truth—because the “never” and “always” is usually an actual rule of thumb that can be helpful.

For example, I tell my clients to avoid the talking heads and floating heads. It isn’t that those techniques are innately wrong, per se—they’re red flags for places where transitions, setting, and character development are missing.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but schoolteachers often insist that students write a sentence outline before their essay, insisting that they require it for the student’s own good. They completely ignore that sentence essays actually sabotage some types of writers. Whenever I wasn’t required to write an essay first, my grades went up.

Teachers often insist students have to start writing it weeks in advance. While I agree that it helps tremendously to have all your research ASAP—and I did develop a habit of drafting the essays early so I could write the outline from the essay before it was time to turn the outline in—I had a two-hour timed essay on a final exam wherein the teacher gave me a 99% and later apologized for not giving me 100%.

Typing helps me a lot. I don’t write by hand very well. Never have. I’m slow, I transpose stuff all the time, my handwriting’s irregular, and my grip’s odd and makes my hand hurt. (I do realize what disability that sounds like, and it’s probably true, but I was never formally diagnosed.) I was allowed to type that aforementioned final essay.

And yet some folks insist that writing by hand is necessary for the creative process. No, it might be necessary for their creative process, but not the.

Misuse of logic and articles screw folks up all the time.

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Jami Gold September 5, 2013 at 10:30 am

Hi Carradee,

Exactly! That’s the grammatical function of participle phrases, and we can’t ignore that any more than we can put a verb form into the subject or a noun form into the verb slot. That is, we can’t say “Stepped Cindy on a board” without sounding like Yoda. LOL!

Yet many people don’t understand grammar. I know I didn’t when I first started. My schools never taught grammar or sentence diagramming or all that other fun stuff. (No, I’m not being facetious–I find sentence diagramming fun now.< --fully converted grammar nerd 😉 ) That initial lack of knowledge is why I spent months reading--and re-reading and re-re-reading--every grammar-related post on Edittorrent, back to when they first started. Just because we don't understand something doesn't mean we have to stay that way, and we won't know when it's okay to break the rules unless we understand the rules inside and out. I mentioned non-simultaneous action as one of the dangers of misuse of PPPs, and you're right that the articles I linked to by Edittorrent and Jordan McCollum go into more detail, but thank you for adding more explanation. This post was already getting long, and if I focused on that, I'd have felt like I should focus on the other dangers as well. (As you said, the technique itself often flags weak writing that could be improved, so even correctly used instances still point out trouble spots.) I agree--the words "always" and "never" usually indicate a good kernel inside bad advice. 🙂 Like the examples we've shared here, writing craft advice with those words often means that we can break the rule. Yet we shouldn’t break rules without understanding the reason for the rule. Only then can we know if our usage is a flag or something we’re doing on purpose to create a specific effect.

LOL! at your technique to meet your drafting needs and the outlining requirements in school. Er, something similar might have occurred to me as far as how to handle publishers if they required a synopsis up front. 😉

Ooo, yes, I wouldn’t be a writer if I had to do it by hand. In fact, I just remembered this past week about a fan fiction idea I had decades ago–long before I thought about becoming a writer–that I never wrote because I didn’t have easy access to a computer.

“And yet some folks insist that writing by hand is necessary for the creative process. No, it might be necessary for their creative process, but not the.

Misuse of logic and articles screw folks up all the time.”

Well stated! 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Taurean Watkins September 5, 2013 at 11:41 am

Jami, this is WHY I felt so sheepish about critiquing others in a beta-reader fashion. When I was part of a critique group, I met some dedicated writers who became so special to me, but-

Before the group, I’d had some mixed opinions about my stories, I know in hindsight that even some (Not all, though…) the most cruel-sounding counsel I received had some truth, but HOW you infer issues is often harsher than the actual advice given to begin with.

That’s why I make sure any critiques I give are about th, and I think twice before I recommend a book on the issue I have with the story.
I’m honest, but I don’t believe you need to sound like a demonic tyrant to do it.

While there were some bumps in the road (Mostly on my part when it was my turn to be critiqued) it was WAY easier to make needed changes because they didn’t diss what I loved writing, and knowing they liked my genre, and RESPECTED it, I was willing to make some radical changes to improve what I workshopped with them.

I’d have a far more negative view of beta-reading had I not met them. I had to leave the group when I could no longer keep up with our rigorous schedule, but I still stay in touch and follow their efforts online when I can.

To sum it up, I try to avoid sounding “absolute” in any advice I give on my blog or to writers in private, and what absolutes I do speak I feel are universal in terms of consideration, even if the actual execution differs on a story by story basis, as it should.

What your personal pet peeves are can vary depending the story and writer involved. For example, in your post you said-

“In my writing, I use action beats 99% of the time and rarely use dialogue tags at all, “said” or otherwise.”

But if you write for children as I do, I often get the advice from other children’s that kids need more “said” tags than teens or adults, and while I don’t think that’s always true, you have to consider being more direct than you think is necessary. Yet STILL not come off condescending to the reader.

I wish I could write fiction for adults where I don’t have to worry about using “Operatic” versus “Sings really good.” I’m overreaching here, but you get my point, right?

I can so get what you mean by tag lines. I try to limit them, but
These are often times when I feel the beta-reader will get confused (Or thinks the intended kid reader) who’s saying what without considerable tagging. This is why I sometimes read like I’m overthinking things.

While I know you prefer action beats over dialogue tags in the conventional sense, I’m also wondering how much of this is reader/writer preference, versus actually being too vague, or too specific.

This is why I sometimes get annoyed by the “All Writing is Equal” stance a lot of authors take.

It’s also why I have problems sounding like a kid or teen in my writing (I primarily write children’s books) because my life experience aside, I have to show a level of technical competency and clarity in my writing that the average kid or teen may not notice, but the adults I have to convince to get to them do, hence my “Angel and Devil” shoulder moments on this specific issue.

I love books that aren’t afraid to be a little chatty, and so I write that way myself, but my current WIP is suffering from perhaps too much digressing. Yet if I only focus on the plot bare bones, readers feel cheated by not knowing anything about the POV character’s interior life.

For example, I’m not the kind of critique partner who can know how to spot tense shifts and I didn’t even know what a

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Jami Gold September 5, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Hi Taurean,

Great point! That’s a perfect example of when action beats wouldn’t necessarily work as well as dialogue tags. 🙂

That’s why I explained my reasons for using action beats (the showing and talking heads issues) and used words like “most of the time” rather than “all of the time.” Hopefully, without those “always” or “never” words in there, writers would recognize that it’s okay to break the rule if they have a reason. And as I mentioned to Carradee above, when we understand the reasons for the rule, we’ll know when it makes sense to break it.

Like in your example, children’s books have different expectations for showing vs. telling, etc. Therefore, those reasons supersede the reasons for the normal advice.

This goes back my post from a couple of months ago about giving reasons for our beta reading/critiquing suggestions. As you found with your critique group, feedback or advice that respects the fact that there might be exceptions or that the author might have reasons for breaking a rule can go a long way toward helping us improve.

Like you said, I try to avoid sounded “absolute” in my advice. I don’t always remember though, and I appreciate when you or another commenter reminds me of the exceptions and nuances. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Chihuahua Zero September 5, 2013 at 12:14 pm

I knew someone in a writer’s group who wrote great thrillers and suspense stories (he really knew how write in tension), but liked to use a lot of overstuffed participial phrases. If the misuse of participial phrases are bad, then long p-phrases are sentences begging for editing.

But hey, you identified what I find off with most p-phrases. They often cause tense troubles.

—-

I would leave with one other addition: Don’t go overboard with writing advice. Sometimes, by being zealous with a rule, you can end up making a mess during revision.

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Jami Gold September 5, 2013 at 12:31 pm

Hi Chihuahua Zero,

Very true, and long PPPs at the beginning of a sentence double the issue because we don’t know subject of the sentence until the end. That’s a speed bump that forces our brains to rewind and reprocess the leading PPP information once we know who or what it’s referring to. 🙂

I still use trailing PPPs and try to be careful about the simultaneous issue, but I’m sure I make mistakes there. LOL! And good point about how they can cause trouble with tenses too.

“I would leave with one other addition: Don’t go overboard with writing advice. Sometimes, by being zealous with a rule, you can end up making a mess during revision.”

Excellent advice! I can’t tell you how many times I “fixed” something in editing to match a rule and then later decided I liked the voice of it better the other way and had to change it again. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Serena Yung September 5, 2013 at 8:37 pm

Yes, the leading PPP sentences! I used to always use them when I was little, but nowadays I keep using “She”, “He”, “It”, “The”, “A”, “An” as sentence beginnings, because I was consciously imitating the published books I saw around me. One reason why I imitated them was because this constant same structure (i.e. subject starter sentences) didn’t seem to bore me. But sometimes you’d have sentences starters like “Eventually, ….”, or “Once, …”

Apart from starting a sentence with a different subject or with a time indicator, we could start it with a past participle. (I’ve seen Nora Roberts use this method and I liked the effect.) E.g. “Intrigued, he….”

But most of my sentences still start with She/He/It/A/An/The, lol. And I agree that using these types of subject-first sentences make your prose sound more professional. So I’d say that it’s better to imitate writing that you like than to listen to writing rules. We learn through imitation, after all. And often while we’re imitating, we even learn or feel why that style worked so well for us. Like there’s a style that a lot of published writers use with a lot of “She” or “He” sentences in a row. That sounds like a lack of variety, yet when this method is in action, you can see that this repetition is actually quite nice, perhaps because 1) It sounds nice rhythmically; and 2) We’re forced to focus on the subject for several sentences, so our attention’s arrested. Of course, if TOO many sentences in a row start with He/She, then this effect is ruined and becomes tedious instead.

About the “said” vs action beat issue, I personally prefer using “said’s”, because if I do the latter, I start having characters do a lot of stereotypical, or unnecessary actions or gestures. Of course, if I can think of something that the character really would do (is realistic), then I like action beats too. Action beats are especially useful for slowing down the pace or for milking suspense. The reason why I’m comfortable with a lot of “said’s” is because I’ve seen a lot of published authors use this method and which worked well for me. E.g. the Dresden files use tons of “said’s”, as well as the common ones like “asked”, “hissed”, “whispered”, “whimpered”, etc., but I never saw anything wrong with it.

In fact, I think it’s because so many published writers use “said” and those very common tags all the time, that this method has become one of the norms. And when you use a norm, the readers often don’t even notice you using that method because it is nothing out of the ordinary, and thus they focus on the content of your story rather than on what words you use to write your dialogues. That’s an advantage of sticking to the norm sometimes, because norm-things are less noticeable or even invisible to us, which makes us concentrate on what’s actually happening in the story rather than on what the writing is like. (Of course, there are readers who detest seeing these norms, which would be another OTL moment, because when you finally manage to please one audience, the other audience doesn’t like it anymore, sigh.)

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Jami Gold September 6, 2013 at 10:50 am

Hi Serena,

Yes, other words before the subject are fine–I don’t mean to imply we should limit that at all. 🙂

As you said, adverbial phrases are ones that work well, especially for transitions (After…, Five minutes later…). And short past participles like your example work well too.

In general, I try to keep leading phrases of any kind short if there’s a question about who or what the subject is, just because I don’t want readers to have the mental speed bump of having to rewind a sentence once they know the sentence is about character B and not character A. 🙂

There’s a rhetorical device (which I can’t remember the name of) that purposely starts 3 sentences in a row with the same word or words. I love the rhythm of that device. 🙂

Good point about how we can run into the danger of “filler” action beats as well. I’ve learned my action beats improve when I use a deeper POV, and “action beats” is probably a misnomer as some of them are actually internalizations or voice-y observations. LOL!

That’s a great reminder that just as bad advice might contain a kernel of good, good advice shouldn’t be blindly followed 100% of the time either. There’s a time and place for everything. The point is if we understand the reasons for the rule, we’ll know that proper time and place better. 🙂 Thanks for the great comment!

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Serena Yung September 6, 2013 at 8:24 pm

“In general, I try to keep leading phrases of any kind short if there’s a question about who or what the subject is, just because I don’t want readers to have the mental speed bump of having to rewind a sentence once they know the sentence is about character B and not character A. :)”

Oh yes, those moments. It can indeed be quite annoying to the reader if they misunderstand and have to reread the sentence, lol. (Unless you purposefully want them to misunderstand!)

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Jami Gold September 6, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Very true! 🙂

There are exceptions to everything, aren’t there? (Which was kind of the point of these posts… *grin*) Thanks for the comment!

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Melissa Maygrove September 6, 2013 at 5:56 am

Excellent post.

I’ve been lucky that the majority of the advice I’ve gotten since I began writing fiction has been sound. But I read on someone’s blog recently that a man told her a new author didn’t have a chance at getting a publishing contract unless their story was at least 100k or more. Gah! She ended up with a lot of wasted queries and a LOT of trimming to do, poor thing.

My take on the details of fiction writing is: moderation is key. In small doses, you can get away with almost anything. 🙂

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Jami Gold September 6, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Hi Melissa,

Wow! That’s unbelievably bad advice. That poor writer!

Yes, that’s a great point about moderation. 🙂 As I think I mentioned in another comment here, even the best advice can be taken to an extreme. Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee September 6, 2013 at 12:57 pm

I wouldn’t be surprised if some more bitter/angry/meanspirited folks give intentionally bad advice to sabotage new writers, in attempt to keep out the “competition”.

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Jami Gold September 6, 2013 at 1:55 pm

Hi Carradee,

Yikes! I’d hate to think that’s true. Might being bitter/angry etc. affect how people approach writing? Yes, but giving intentionally bad advice to sabotage? *sigh* Let me hope that those are few and far between. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Daphne Shadows September 8, 2013 at 10:41 pm

Yeaaaaaah, the advice on cutting ALL adverbs and adjectives? Grrr. I’m halfway through the first critique of my MS and realized I’m not one of the people who overdue on either of those. So cutting them out? Now I have about zero.
And I’ll have to add some in so my writing isn’t dryer than the Sahara on my next critique.
But random posts like this one help out so much. Often times we KNOW we know something, we’re not just consciously aware of the fact that we know it. So when someone points it out, we smack ourselves on the forehead, wonder how on earth we didn’t already know we knew that, even though we ALREADY knew it. And then we wonder how we understood what we just thought.

And now I’m wondering why I just transitioned to third person. But whatever, you get what I mean (hopefully) and THANK YOU!
For making me realize that I knew what I knew. 😉

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Jami Gold September 9, 2013 at 9:21 am

Hi Daphne,

Ooo, good example! It’s good to cut redundant adverbs and adjectives (“whispered quietly”) and to make sure we’re not modifying everything (if we modify everything, we emphasize nothing). But others–non-redundant modifiers with important information–are needed.

Plus I’m a big believer in rhythm in my writing. Sometimes I’ll let an emphasis modifier (“Her whole body ached.”) stay just because the rhythm sounds better with it than without it. 🙂

Yeah, I break the “rules” all the time. LOL! Good luck in finding that middle ground and thanks for the comment!

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E.B.Pike September 14, 2013 at 9:59 am

Wow–this was a great post, Jami! It’s funny how many things like this there are and how many “rules” need to be broken sometimes, but not too much. 🙂 It’s good to always be learning and growing!

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Jami Gold September 14, 2013 at 10:13 am

Hi E.B.,

LOL! Yes, sometimes we just need to break the rules. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Mongoose March 18, 2015 at 11:22 am

So eventually, as a writers skill grows they will be able to tell when to use ‘said’ vs say ‘ he roared or mixing it with an action beat. I’ve found now that i;’m on chapter 30 I have what I think is a good sense of when to do so and when not to. The above ‘bad’ advice is there imop for young writers so that tehy don’t go overboard, you know? I find that during my current revisions some times I’m adding to those tags, striping them off, or adding in an action tag. Or just leaving it as he said/she said. I think that it boils downt o finding your writing style/voice.

Slightly off topic:

This reminds me of some not necessarily bad writing advice, as to be more opinionated writing advice i’ve gotten. Where the other author said that, I should not have so many of my dialogue tags in the beginning. I did listen, mostly. In that I changed a few of them to have action beats or a (rarely) a different tag for ‘said’ but more often then not I like using he said/she said when I want the focus to be on the dialogue it self. Now mind you if my editor toss it back at me and says the same I’ll consider itOr quietly hire one and have them look at it and see if I get the same response. If it is then yes I will change it to be less of what they dislike but only with valid reason backing it up.

I think that you should make a posting on what people consider fragmented sentences, when thy actually aren’t Todays writing uses them (not all the time mind you!) for empathious, (sorry about the mis spelling I have problems with this and can not find the correct spelling.) draw attention to them and to make a point clear.

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Jami Gold March 18, 2015 at 7:05 pm

Hi Mongoose,

Exactly! And even with the best intentioned (and nuanced) advice, I’ve seen some writers take it to the extreme. For example, advice to limit modifiers and save them for when they’re needed might be taken by a new, insecure, or self-doubting writer to never use them. So advice is definitely a tricky–and subjective on both sides–situation. As you said, once we find our voice, we’re more likely to know what advice to ignore. 🙂

Good point about fragments–and those are tricky beasts as well. LOL! As you said, they’re best used for emphasis. I know several editors who hate when authors use them too often and claim “but it’s my voice!” But of course, if we use them all the time, they won’t work for emphasis any more.

Just like with advice, any technique can be taken to the extreme. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your insights!

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Mongoose/darkocean August 21, 2015 at 2:27 pm

You’re welcome 🙂 sorry if I don’t check back for replys often enough. I have thirty two chapters written now 🙂 My new grumble lately has to do with description. First people say I had to much and now another person is saying I have top little. >_< Gah! I think I'll add in a little bit more where it fits and call it good. Before I was describing for example, how a fountain sparkled and cascaded setting off rainbows and such. When the protagonist was sneaking though the city.The mood I wanted didn't go so well with sparkling water.. 😛

Anyways time to go revise and add a touch more description. I think what she realy means is I need to describe the setting, where they are as her comment was: "Description would really bring this world to life."

Nice critic. I like it when they aren't so focused on grammar and such that they help with the bigger problems.

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Jami Gold August 21, 2015 at 6:40 pm

Hi Mongoose,

Very true. We want to match the writing to the mood, and that means our style might shift slightly as we’re switching from a humorous bantering scene to a tension-filled, escaping-capture scene. 🙂

I also have this guest post with more about settings–that might help. 🙂 Thanks for the comment!

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Mongoose March 18, 2015 at 11:24 am

Excuse my typos, and yes I edited, I find they don’t jump out at me until after I’ve posted something. xD

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Jami Gold March 18, 2015 at 7:06 pm

Hi Mongoose,

No worries–I don’t grade comments with a red pen. 😉

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Mongoose/darkocean October 3, 2015 at 6:46 am

Hea. Okay. Hoo … do the errors that can be found in writing ever stop?! Now I’ve been told my story needs more setting. (!@#$) It has fragmented sentences; I thought I caught all of them. Along with the dialogue tags being in the front to often. Does this ever stop?

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Jami Gold October 3, 2015 at 10:51 am

Hi Mongoose,

LOL! Yes and no. 🙂

Yes, we learn about one technique but then move on to struggling with another. Or we learn about one problem and go overboard in trying to fix it and have to scale back a bit. Writing is a balancing act, and it takes lots of practice to get it close and then even more editing to make it right. :/

That said, make sure that you’re also paying attention to your voice and to the reason for the rules so you know when to break them. As we’ve talked about before, not all fragments are bad.

For another example, the reason for the preference for not leading with a dialogue tag is two-fold:

  • Readers tend to stop and read more deeply (rather than potentially skimming) when they see quote marks at the beginning of paragraphs (dialogue is inherently more interesting than just “he said”), so leading with a dialogue phrase and then inserting the tag is preferred for grabbing readers’ attention.
  • Giving dialogue tags before the speech can feel distancing, like telling us who’s speaking before showing them speaking. It can also feel out-of-point-of-view, as how could the POV character know they were going to speak before they actually start speaking.

I lead dialogue paragraphs either with the dialogue itself, an action beat to identify the speaker (“he pounded the table” is more interesting than “he said”), or in rare cases, a specialized dialogue tag for how the speaker says the line (“he leaned closer and whispered…”).

The latter is technically out-of-POV, as again, how could the POV character know he was going to whisper until he did, but I make the conscious choice to break that rule when I think it’s important that the reader “hear” the line in the correct tone of voice the first time, rather that having to rewind and re-imagine when they get to the tag later. That’s my personal preference because I doubt most readers would think of that technique as out-of-POV, and I think it’s more important to avoid pulling them out of the story to rewind.

Anyway… 🙂 My point is that knowing the reason for the rule can really help us avoid it every time it’s not a conscious choice. LOL! Thanks for the comment–and good luck!

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Mongoose/darkocean October 3, 2015 at 7:29 am

Any so called advice that starts with “always” or “never”; I look long and hard at it. I like to use he/she said often and occasionally use whispered, but most of the time lots of action beats. My problem is I put the tags and beats before the dialogue, oops. This edit is going to take a while. (⋟﹏⋞)

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Jami Gold October 3, 2015 at 10:59 am

Hi Mongoose,

If there’s a reason to put the tag or beat before the dialogue, feel free to do so (see my comment above–LOL!). But yes, usually tags would be inserted after the first phrase or sentence, and beats should go where they make the most sense.

However, as I mention above, the main reason for that rule is just the preference of leading with quote marks for attention-getting sake. That’s a preference, not a hard and fast rule. Your editor might have a stronger preference, however, and be giving you a harder time than you deserve. 😉

So make sure you know the reason for the rule, and make sure when you break it that it’s a conscious choice. 🙂 I hope that helps! Thanks for the comment!

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Kate October 12, 2015 at 7:21 am

I came to this article looking for thoughts on dialogue tags that end with a present participle phrase, like: “I used to spend hours out here with a good book,” I told him, stopping under the big oak that dominated the yard.

I’m beta reading for someone that uses this construction constantly. The use is too frequent for my taste. My immediate urge is to recommend reconstructing most of these sentences. What’s a general rule of thumb? Is that exercise noted in your article also referring to these phrases, or just leading PPPs? Cut down to less than fiver per chapter?

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Jami Gold October 12, 2015 at 10:13 am

Hi Kate,

Fantastic question! 🙂

Trailing PPPs aren’t as frowned upon as leading PPPs (just from a readability perspective–with leading PPPs, it can take a while before we even know the subject of the sentence). That said, any writing tic that stands out is a problem.

Readers shouldn’t notice our words (for the most part) and just become immersed in the story. An annoying writing tic is going to pull them out of the story, and that’s the real problem here. Anything noticeable in a bad way is bad. 🙂

So I don’t know of a specific rule or guideline to cover that situation, but personally, I’d give a side-eye to that structure in a dialogue tag after about 5 per chapter as well (maybe even 3). LOL! (In non-dialogue tags, it’s much easier to mix up PPPs in complex sentences, so they tend not to stand out as much.)

If I were beta reading or editing this story, I’d probably highlight the one where I first noticed the issue and mark with a comment along the lines of:

“I’ve noticed that you use this construction a lot. (Give information about the sentence structure to teach about PPPs.) The fact that I noticed it probably indicates that you use it too much. (Give reasons like I did above.) I’d suggest trying to vary your sentence structure more, especially as this structure usually isn’t needed in dialogue tags. You could instead drop the comma and told/said/etc., and just use the action beat as a separate sentence. (Give example.) Action beats read cleaner and identify the speaker just as well as tags.”

Then I’d probably highlight the next 3-5 instances of the same issue to show them just how frequently it shows up. On the last one, I’d comment with something like, “I’m going to stop pointing these out now because any more and my comments will just be obnoxious. 🙂 But I hope this explains why they stood out to me so much.”

I hope that helps give you some ideas. 🙂 Thanks for the great question!

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Kate October 12, 2015 at 11:33 am

Perfect, Jami! Thanks.

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