Tips to Write Better Dialogue

Well-written, compelling, engaging dialogue moves the plot forward and brings your characters to life.

We all know that the reading becomes faster and the pace quicker when there’s a lot of dialogue in a novel. However, like anything else, balance is the key. A novel with lines of dialogue after dialogue, page after page, without any narration, action or description in between, will get your book rejected. The same will happen if you have page after page with no dialogue at all. So, chances are agents and editors may dismiss your manuscript just by looking at the first few pages, even without having read them.

Here are 8 tips to help you stay away from amateurish dialogue:

1. Be economic with your speech tags (also known as identifiers or attributes). If you have two characters talking, you don’t need to say “he said” and “she said” each time there’s a new line of dialogue. Likewise, be sure you have some tags for rhythm, pacing and clarity—you don’t want your dialogue to be hard to follow either.

2. Don’t be too creative with your speech tags. Speech tags should be ‘silent’, meaning they shouldn’t distract the reader. Stick to the common ‘said,’ and ‘asked’ for the most part. This doesn’t mean you can’t replace ‘said’ with verbs like yelled, cried, muttered, mumbled, groaned, whispered, etc., but do so sparingly and only when necessary.

3. Avoid spitfire dialogue. This happens when you have two characters or more talking one after the other without any pauses or action in between, so that the conversation looks like a tennis match or reads like a screenplay.

4. Don’t interrupt dialogue unnecessarily. This happens when you have an interesting exchange of dialogue and suddenly interrupt it with an unnecessary paragraph of exposition or description. This makes readers impatient and prompts them to skip ahead to get to the good stuff.

5. Let the characters talk—don’t paraphrase them. Noah Lukeman, author of The First Five Pages, calls this ‘journalistic dialogue.’ Don’t quote your characters. Let their dialogue flow in complete sentences instead.

6. Stay away from exclamation marks! (No pun intended). An editor once told me, “Only one ‘!’ per each hundred pages.” No kidding. Dialogue filled with exclamation marks is an instant sign of an amateur. Readers don’t like to be shouted at, and that’s what it feels like when there are many exclamation marks in a story.

7. Avoid commonplace dialogue. (“Hi. How are you?” she said. “Fine. How are you?” he responded.) Remember that each line of dialogue must have a purpose in your story. This type of dialogue can only work if your aim is to portray your characters as boring and unimaginative. Yes, we talk like this in real life, but that doesn’t mean you should include it in your novel. Cut the ‘realistic,’ everyday dialogue and leave the rest.

8. Avoid fake dialogue. One of the surest ways for a dialogue to sound fake is when it’s used to convey information that should be presented in a more subtle or indirect manner. Obviously you can use dialogue to give reader new information, but it takes skill to do it right. It takes subtlety. As Lukeman states, “[Fake dialogue] is dialogue that characters would never use in real life, interchanges that are not artistically real, that don’t spring from characters’ needs, desires and relationships. Instead, this is dialogue imposed on them by the writer.” That’s the key word: imposed. You want your dialogue to sound genuine, natural and spontaneous. He goes on to say that “The most common malady is use of dialogue to convey backstory. The solution is to follow this rule: Dialogue should not be used to state things both characters already know, that is, one character should not remind the other character of something. This is an obvious ploy, intended only for the reader.”

Keep these tips in mind and you’ll be able to write better dialogue and spot mistakes when you revise your own stories or someone else’s.

The Difference between a Review and an Endorsement

At its most basic, a review can be positive or negative, but an endorsement is always positive.

A review’s primary purpose is to inform the reader and help him make a decision on whether or not he should spend his money and time on a book, while an endorsement’s primary purpose is to help promote a book.

Also, unlike a review, an endorsement doesn’t have a certain structure that includes an opening or lead, a brief summary of the story, and an evaluation. An endorsement is simply a 1-3 sentence recommendation of a book. Often, publishers approach well-known authors to write endorsements on an upcoming title. These endorsements, or parts of it, are often placed on the front or back cover of a book.

When reviews are positive, however, snippets of it can be used as endorsements for the book. So parts of a review can be used as endorsements, but endorsements aren’t reviews.

Obviously, the advantage of an endorsement is that it is always positive, but endorsements, unless they come from a well-respected source, are viewed by readers with suspicion, especially when written by fellow authors.

The con of reviews is that, of course, they might not always be positive, and authors may not always be able to use them as endorsements. But reviews are considered a more trusted resource and, unlike the endorsement, give the reader a well-rounded evaluation of a book.

Benefits & Rewards of Reviewing for both Aspiring and Experienced Authors

If you’re an author or your goal is to become one, the benefits of book reviewing are enormous. If you already review books, you know how true this is.

When you review books…

1.You learn about the craft of writing because you get to identify both the weaknesses and strengths of a book. You learn what works and what doesn’t, and eventually you become more apt in avoiding amateurish mistakes when you write your own books. You can do this because you’re able to look at someone else’s book objectively, something that it’s hard to do with your own writing. In this sense, reviewing can make you a better writer and a better judge of literature. This comes very handy if you belong to a critique group or serve as judge at contests.

2. Your writing becomes easier and better. Reviewing is writing, after all, and the more you write, the better it gets. Reviewing helps to hone your skills as a word builder.

3. Your thinking skills become sharper because you have to ponder and reflect on why you liked or disliked a book. This sometimes takes keen perception.

4. You become familiar with publishers and the type of books they publish. This is especially helpful if you review in the genre that you write in and if you’re looking for places to submit your work.

5. You become familiar with agents and the type of books they like to represent. How do you know this? Most authors thank their agents in the acknowledgements page.

6. You network with other authors who in the future might help you promote your book. Authors are very thankful to reviewers for taking the time to review their books, especially if the reviews are positive.

7. You develop an online presence, a platform. If you have an attractive blog where you post honest, intelligently written reviews, eventually you’ll build a good reputation as a serious reviewer and readers, publishers, authors and publicists will want to become your followers. Having lots of followers will instantly make you more attractive in the eyes of a publisher when you submit your book for consideration.

8. You develop an identity as an expert, especially if you review in the same genre you write in. For example, if you review only young adult novels, and you write reviews often enough, soon you’ll acquire a thorough knowledge of the genre and what’s new out there, and your reviews will become more insightful because you’ll be able to compare works by different authors who write in the same genre. It’s difficult to become an expert in all genres, but this is doable in one genre if you’re dedicated enough.

9. You may land a contract with a publisher. This happened recently to one of the reviewers at one of the sites I review for. Her reviews were so well and thoughtfully written, they caught the eye of a publisher. They asked if by any chance she had a manuscript around. Well, she did and the publisher ended up offering her a contract!

10. You can build yourself a pretty nice library if you’re one of those reviewers who read and review quickly. I know some reviewers who review several books a week.

11. You’ll discover authors you didn’t even know existed. Review blogs are especially attractive to small press authors and publishers because they usually have trouble getting reviewed by the big publications.

12. You build relationships with publicists who work at major publishing houses. Once they’ve come to trust you as a serious reviewer, you can request those books you’re most interested in.

13. You get to feed your addiction—for free!

14. You can build a resume with publishing credits. They will come very handy when you start sending out those queries to agents and publishers.

15. You can eventually get paid by submitting your reviews to those sites and publications that pay their contributors.

What about the downside of reviewing? Is there one?

For me, at times it has gotten to the point where it has become overwhelming and I’ve had to put aside my own writing in order to keep up with it. It’s important not to get carried away and request more books than we can realistically handle. So, if you’re an author, reviewing can take time away from your own writing and it can give you stress. And when reviewing becomes a chore, it isn’t fun anymore. It becomes a job for which you’re not being paid for (unless, obviously, you’re being monetarily compensated by a publication).

Also, it doesn’t pay well. Take it from James A. Cox, Editor-in-Chief of Midwest Book Review. He states that “the only way to make money as a reviewer is to marry rich!”

After you’ve been reviewing six months to a year, and feel comfortable in your reviewer’s skin, I’d advise you to start approaching those sites and publications that pays for reviews. You can keep reviewing for free if you like, either for your own blogs and/or favorite review site(s), but it’s also nice to get paid for your work. I’m not talking here about charging authors and publishers for your reviews! I’m talking about getting paid by a publication and in a situation where you have no direct contact with the author or publisher of a book.

FTC Regulations and the Reviewer

If you’re a book reviewer, chances are you’ve heard about the new FTC (Federal Trade Commission) regulations concerning bloggers who review products online.

What’s going on and what do their new guidelines mean for you, the book blogger/reviewer who writes reviews? Is the FTC keeping records of who’s doing what online? Can the reviewers be fined for accepting books for review if they don’t have a disclosure posted on their blogs stating how they got their books, and whether or not they bought them themselves or were provided by authors or publishers?

The truth is, the FTC has been struggling with how to deal with bloggers for a long time. The FTC doesn’t see book bloggers as journalists, so the guidelines that apply to, say, The New York Times, wouldn’t apply to an independent book blogger. The people at the FTC see blogs as a new type of communication so blogs must be treated in a different way.

What’s the difference between a reviewer who works for a newspaper or magazine and a book blogger?

Basically, their reasoning is that in the case of a newspaper reviewer, it’s the newspaper that gets the compensation, not the book reviewer, whereas in the case of the blogger, she gets to keep the book. So there’s a direct connection between the compensation and the review. Many people think this is silly. After all, there’s nothing stopping a newspaper reviewer from keeping a book. There’s no one at the newspaper making sure all review copies are stored in a secured shelf once reviewers have read the books.

How do you deal with this new regulation if you don’t want to get into trouble and want to come across as an ethical reviewer?

The FTC has made it pretty clear: A disclosure is required.

In order to meet the standard, all you have to do is put a disclosure on your blog, a brief, clear message prominently displayed on your sidebar or on the ‘About the Blogger’ or ‘Review Policy’ pages. Your disclosure could be something like this: “Review copies are provided by authors and publishers. I don’t receive monetary compensation for my reviews.” (If you receive monetary compensation or, let’s say, a gift such an Amazon gift certificate, you must state this clearly). The clearer and more straight forward the disclosure, the more you’ll come across as an honest, ethical reviewer. It’s all about integrity and good practice behavior.

If you go to my blog, www.mayrassecretbookcase.blogspot.com, and scroll down a bit, you’ll see my disclosure on the right sidebar. As you can see, it’s pretty short.

Here is an example of a longer disclosure from a mom blogger: http://www.theclothdiaperreport.com/2009/07/disclosure.html.

Though the degree of prominence isn’t spelled out (as far as I know), some bloggers are including this disclosure at the bottom of every review they post, but this isn’t really necessary, not as long as the disclosure is easy to find somewhere on your blog.

The FTC regulation is a good thing for the consumer. If you’re a reviewer with Amazon Affiliate purchase buttons all over your blog, I want to know if you’ve accepted monetary compensation in exchange for your reviews. Granted, most bloggers earn only pennies from their affiliate buttons, but I still want to know.

The FTC guidelines also put responsibility on the authors, publishers and other marketing people (such as publicists) who are trying to promote a book. For example, if you’re an author looking for bloggers to review your book (as in the case of virtual book tours), you should make sure those bloggers you send your book to have that disclosure. Or at least, this is what the guidelines suggest.

But to go back to one of my initial questions: Can reviewers be fined for accepting books for review if they don’t have a disclosure posted on their blogs? The answer is, it will depend on each individual case. The FTC has stated that they will look at this on a case by case basis.

There are millions of blogs out there, and most of them do some form of reviewing in some sense or another. It would take the FTC a lot of money and resources to check what every single blogger is doing, but at least by following their guidelines you can be sure you’ll be on the safe side. I should also point out that these new regulations are especially targeted at bloggers who often receive expensive items for review, such as furniture, electrical appliances, beauty supplies, etc.

Here are two great audio interviews that book publicist Penny Sansevieri conducted on the subject. Be sure to listen to them at your convenience if you want to be better informed.

Interview with Intellectual property specialist and attorney Michael Donaldson.

Interview with Liza Barry-Kessler of privacyCouncel.net.