Self-Editing: Back to Basics, Part II – Guest post from Karin Cox, Editor

We wrap up our series on self-editing today with part two of Karin Cox’s guest post on self-editing basics and the common mistakes writers make.

On Monday, we kicked off the series with a post from UK author and editor Harry Bingham (The Writers’ Workshop), who underlined the importance of editing, and how developing your own self-editing skills can greatly reduce the amount you need to spend on professional help (and lead to a better book). If you missed it, that’s here.

On Wednesday, my editor, Karin Cox, gave some practical tips on how to avoid some of the more common errors she sees in writers’ manuscripts, such as unnecessarily florid verbiage, wandering commas, and modifiers gone mad. That post is here.

If you have digested all that, Karin is back with more to wrap things up:

Self-editing: back to basics, part II

Following on from my last post on Wednesday, I thought I would elaborate on two more issues I regularly see in manuscripts submitted by novice authors.

Of course, there is a lot more to successful self-editing than picking up these errors, but they are at least a good start for new writers looking to finetune their work before they send it out to beta readers or (hopefully) to a professional editor.

Remember, the more you polish your own work, the less a professional editor will have to do, which will save them time and save you money.

Dialogue Dilemmas

Dialogue and action scenes are the make-or-break elements of any story. Writing evocative prose is great, but without action and dialogue to drive the plot forward and make the reader feel invested in your tale (and your characters) all you will have is pretty words on a page. Get dialogue right, and your characters’ voices will ring in your readers’ heads; get it wrong, and your characters will seem flat and, frankly, fictional. All too often new authors get it wrong.

There are a lot of ways to go wrong when it comes to dialogue. The first is to hardly include any at all! Without dialogue you will likely have an awful lot of “telling” and very little “showing.” I often see narrative passages that tell me how the characters have been interacting. For example:

When Joe called Nathan into the conference room and told him that Wordsmith Industries could no longer afford to keep him on, Nathan, understandably upset, called him a bastard. Nathan had worked for Joe for fifteen years and angrily told his boss that the company had taken the best years of his life in exchange for a meagre wage and minimum superannuation contributions. Joe, affronted by his employee’s response, immediately told him to get out. As a final indignity, he gestured to Nathan’s uniform and explained that he would need that back, too: it belonged to the company. Nathan stripped off and tossed the clothes on the floor, then called Joe a bastard again, and a coward. (117 words)

In rare cases, a few brief sentences of this type of exposition can summarise an earlier, “off-screen” conversation (especially if you already have a lot of dialogue, or if it would make for a short, choppy scene). However, it is usually far more interesting to show the reader using dialogue and action, even if it requires more words. E.g.

“Have a seat.” Joe gestured towards the conference table.

Nathan, looking worried, took the seat closest to the door.

“I’m afraid it is bad news,” Joe said, sitting at the opposite end of the table. “As you know, Wordsmith Industries has had some financial difficulties this year.” He cleared his throat and smoothed down his greasy comb-over. “You see, we’re going to have to let you go.”

“You bastard! I’ve given fifteen years to this company—fifteen of my best working years—and all for what? A meagre wage and minimum superannuation contributions?”

Affronted, Joe stood. “I was going to suggest you stay on a week to clear things up. But if that’s how you feel, I think you should just get out. Now!” He pointed a trembling index finger toward the door.

Nathan raked the chair back from the table and leaped to his feet.

“One more thing.” Joe pointed to the uniform Nathan wore. “You’ll need to leave that here: it’s company property.”

Scowling, Nathan dropped his trousers and wrenched off his shirt. A button pinged off the conference table, hitting the wall just below the framed print of a mountain peak with the word “Courage” printed underneath. “You really are a bastard!” Nathan spat. “And a coward.” Then he turned and strode out. (214 words. But note that this actually tells us a lot more about both characters than the original “telling” narrative did).

Expository Dialogue

Another dialogue no-no is expository dialogue. Expository dialogue uses the characters as mouthpieces to relay essential elements of the plot, or information about other characters, which the author wants the reader to know but didn’t want to write as exposition. Let’s use Joe and his wife Gloria as an example.

“Joe, you know that our company Wordsmith Industries is in financial trouble and if we don’t get rid of some employees we’re not going to be able to make the repayment this month and the bank will foreclose on us,” Gloria said as she filled the sink with hot water and squirted in a stream of detergent. “I think you should sack Nathan.”

“Yes, my wife,” Joe answered, “but it’s only because of my gambling problem. If I hadn’t bet that ten grand on that stupid horse named Expository Dialogue we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“Exactly!” Gloria pulled on rubber gloves and began scrubbing furiously at a saucepan. “And your brother Tim, who lives in London and has four children, should never have asked you for that loan to add on another bedroom. Now look where it has got us.” She pushed a frizzy curl out of her face and huffed in consternation.

Joe sighed.

“And tell Nathan that he needs to leave his green and white uniform, because we paid for it and had it embroidered with the company slogan “We do it better” in yellow cotton thread last year when we sent it out to Carol Bigby’s seamstress services in Castlemaine.”

Of course, there are other issues with this passage, including wordiness and Gloria’s tendency to divulge inconsequential information. But my point is that there is no need for Gloria to tell Joe things he already knows, such as that their business is in trouble (he would know that), or that his brother lives in London and has four kids (he would know that also). There is no need for her to tell him that the uniform is green and white and embroidered with the company slogan in yellow cotton. There is even no need for Joe to use “my wife” in talking to Gloria, or to tell her about his gambling problem—no doubt poor Gloria already knows about that, too. What is happening here is that the author thinks she is cleverly slipping in description or backstory without passages of exposition. However, this is equally as expository, and it reeks of authorial interference. It also makes the characters seem contrived and the dialogue seem pointless. For more about expository characters, check out this page on TV Tropes, but I warn you in advance that clicking on links can result in you being trapped in this very addictive site for hours on end!

Um, Err, How’s the Weather

Sometimes, writers do their dialogue a disservice by trying to be too realistic. Wait! Did you say “too realistic”? Why wouldn’t we want our dialogue to be realistic? I can imagine some of you thinking. The answer is that you do want a level of realism. But rather than making dialogue slavishly realistic by adding all of the ifs, ums, wells, buts, hellos, how are yous and trivial social pleasantries that pepper real conversation, the aim is to create an illusion of realism.

In real life, we chat about the weather, or work, or how we’re doing, before launching into the nitty gritty of a conversation, but in a book, all of that is filler. Omit filler wherever possible; your readers will thank you for it. They won’t sit there thinking, Gee it was rude that Cassandra didn’t ask Ben how his weekend was first thing on a Monday morning before she blurted out that Sarah was having an affair; at least, they won’t if you “hook” them on your story by writing gripping, authentic dialogue and making your characters credible.

Throw the “Said Book” at Them

We spoke about adverbs in Part I. One of the biggest problems with adverbs is that they can hinder dialogue, especially if used a lot. I’m all for adverbs in moderation, or where they add meaning while keeping writing concise. But try to avoid using adverbs after every dialogue tag. “Said Bookisms” can also make for amateurish dialogue. Some editors and authors insist that writers should only ever use “said” when attributing dialogue; I don’t. However, I do suggest removing extraneous tags and attributions in the first place. If you feel the need to use growled, whispered, screamed, goaded, taunted, muttered, or mumbled on occasion, I say go right ahead, but remember that less is more. If your character is mumbling, muttering, shouting, exclaiming, querying or propounding all of the time, chances are he or she is not distinct or dimensional enough.

When you have just two people involved in a conversation, you can usually get away with just letting them speak, using only their actions to remind the reader which character is speaking. E.g.

“What are you doing?” Cassandra leaned over Ben for a closer look. 

“Deactivating the power source.” Ben flipped the switch on the control panel and slipped the back off the unit.


“Why do you think?” He frowned as he poked a screwdriver into the mass of electrical wires.

“I hope you disconnected it from the grid first.”

“From the grid? Now why would I want to do that?” Ben said sarcastically.

If you have a lot of characters involved in a conversation, I’d recommend using actions or “said” in at least 75% of cases, but using other appropriate tags when—and only when—they add meaning and make sense. Also, do avoid some of the more inane Said Bookisms, e.g.

“What are you doing?” he ejaculated.

“I hope you disconnected it from the grid first,” she snorted.

“Let’s go,” she propositioned.

Name Dropping

There is rarely a need to have your characters use other characters’ names in dialogue, but authors often do this purely to remind the reader who is speaking to whom. In conversation, especially in person, we rarely use each other’s names (although we might in some cases, such as if we are angry, emotional or frustrated). When characters are on the telephone, addressing each other by name, at least to begin with, is standard, but using names constantly in face-to-face dialogue is distracting for the reader and unrealistic.

All of the Above

An example of some flawed dialogue that incorporates all of these no-nos might be:

“What are you doing, Ben?” Cassandra queried curiously, leaning over Ben for a closer look.

“I’m deactivating the power source, Cassandra,” Ben expounded patiently.

“Why, Ben?” Cassandra questioned.

“Why do you think, Cassandra,” Ben grimaced, as he poked a screwdriver into the mass of electrical wires. “If I don’t, it might go off and blow us all to smithereens. But it’s okay. You and I both know I’ve done this before during the Gulf War, although I am colour blind.”

“Ben, I hope you disconnected it from the grid first,” said Cassandra patronisingly.

“From the grid, Cassandra?” Ben ejaculated forcefully. [Yes, I know! Bad, huh?]

See how artificial and stilted this dialogue has become? There is way too much padding around it, which bogs the reader down. If you recognise some of this padding in your dialogue, it is time to revise.

For action sequences or fast-paced sections of your tale, try to streamline your dialogue as much as possible, keeping tags, attributions and actions to a minimum. Writing edgy, minimalist dialogue in small chunks—with brief descriptive or action elements in between to avoid dialogue going on for pages without referencing the setting (which is known as writing “talking heads”)—will pick up the pace and keep your readers invested in the action.

Whoops, wrong word

It is very easy to overlook a homonym used incorrectly or even a word that is similar to another but has a different meaning. Some of the most common mix-ups I encounter are:

Adverse (hostile or unfavourable) Averse (reluctant)

Affect (verb: to influence) Effect (mostly used as a noun, meaning a result or consequence, e.g. a side effect or a special effect. When used as a verb, it means to result in, e.g. to effect an escape.)

A lot (many or often) Alot (no such word!)

Allusion (an indirect reference) Illusion (a false impression or perception of reality)

Altogether (total) All together (many things close together)

Assure (promise) Ensure (make certain) Insure (take out an insurance premium on)

Breath (noun: inhalation or exhalation) Breathe (verb: the act of inhaling or exhaling)

Continual (recurring constantly) Continuous (never-ending or unceasing)

Dam (a manmade body of water) Damn (profanity)

Discrete (separate/distinct) Discreet (tactful or modest)

Every day (every day) Everyday (adjective: occurring every day or mundane, e.g. everyday clothes)

Fewer (refers to individual objects that can be counted) Less (refers to quantities, e.g.  Fewer people will mean less mess)

Imply (to signify, an action performed by a speaker or writer) Infer (to reason or conclude, an action performed by the listener or reader)

Its (pronoun: belonging to it) It’s (contraction of it is)

Lay (to place something somewhere) Lie (to recline or to fib)

Libel (written form of defamation) Liable (obligated)

Literally (100% true) Figuratively (involving a figure of speech such as a metaphor)

Loath (reluctant) Loathe (detest)

Loose (adjective or adverb: not tight) Lose (verb: misplace) I see this one used incorrectly a lot!

Stationary (adjective: not moving, still) Stationery (noun: writing paper)

Their (pronoun: belonging to them) They’re (contraction of they are) There (adverb: location)

On to (e.g. before I move on to the next point) Onto (preposition: we climbed onto the table)

Passed (past tense verb of pass: to have moved) Past (adjective: relating to a former time or place)

Principle (belief) Principal (adjective: most important; noun, authoritative person)

That (for defining clauses, e.g. words that cannot be omitted in a sentence) Which (for non-defining clauses that provide additional information)

Who (subject of a sentence, e.g. The boy who lived) Whom (object of a sentence, e.g. To whom should I direct my enquiry?)

Whose (interrogative pronoun, e.g. Whose book is that?) Who’s (contraction of who is)

For a more complete list, check out Alan Cooper’s list.

As I mentioned in Part I, these are basic errors and are easily fixed. Issues with plot, plausibility, pacing, and characterisation are more time-consuming to correct.

I hope you have found my guest posts useful as a quick introduction to some of the errors to watch out for when you self-edit. Going through your manuscript several times to check each of these things in isolation will help, as will reading your work aloud, using text-to-speech to listen to the computer read it back to you, reading passages backwards, and deconstructing sentences that sound a little “off” to your ear.

For more on self-editing and on identifying and correcting errors in grammar, punctuation, usage and structure, keep an eye on my blog. Thanks for reading and commenting, and many thanks to Dave for hosting me.


Karin Cox is an Australian editor, poet and author and, like many women, is doing her best to be a modern Wonder Woman (minus the cape and the gold lasso). Trained as a professional editor, and with more than fourteen years in the trade publishing industry under her belt, she edits and writes in her “spare time” while being a fulltime mum to her infant daughter and to a black cat with the improbable name of “Ping Pong.”


And a big thank you to Karin for this excellent two-parter. If you are interested in checking out her work, she has self-published two titles. Cage Life is a collection of shorts available from Amazon USAmazon UKBarnes & Noble, and Smashwords, and Growth – a poetry collection – is also available from Amazon USAmazon UKBarnes & Noble, and Smashwords. Karin also has a string of trade published titles (too many to list), and you can get more details on those here.

Out of all the things Karin covered – apart from loath/loathe which I can never get to stick, and a worrying tendency towards unintended double entendres which I seem to slip in (oops) to my MS – I think the most common error I make from the above is “talking heads” dialogue.

I’m quite averse to overly descriptive writing, and have quite a spare style, but each successive draft needs a little more setting and detail (as I tend to go too far with it, especially on my first run). I write dialogue much quicker than narrative, and, as I have the whole scene pictured in my head, I rarely notice when I fail to include the necessary minimum of detail/setting to “anchor” the conversation for the reader, and Karin’s red pen gets busy.

What about you? What’s your most common flub?

46 Replies to “Self-Editing: Back to Basics, Part II – Guest post from Karin Cox, Editor”

  1. Great tips, Karin, and thank you very much sharing. Can we get a ruling on character dialogue that emphasizes the accent or dialect with lots of apostrophes? You know, the kind with lots of apostrophes replacing where letters should go. I think it’s god-awful and annoying, but I’ve seen some of the better authors pull it off.

    1. I would also love to hear about the use of accents in dialog! I’d love to use them in my current WIP, but I’m not sure of the most effective way *quick check on that homonym, and she’s still confused on if she used it right, sigh*… I don’t want it to detract, but I’ve got a couple of classes and nations, none of whom sound like the Protagonist. :} I want to get the idea across, but not make it annoying!

      :} Cathryn

    2. There is no ruling, Paul. Technically, an apostrophe is required whenever letters have been omitted, but I agree with you that it is often unnecessary and can be distracting when you have a lot of text in that accent. In British or Australian English texts, too, where the standard is to use single quotation marks to enclose direct speech, it can be obfuscating.

      My personal preference would be to leave an apostrophe out where a single omitted letter comes at the start or end of a word, e.g. nothin, somethin, anythin, but to include them where it comes between letters, as you would for the contractions don’t, won’t, can’t, ain’t etc or when a good part of the word is omitted or the word could be confused with another. E.g. you would also need to have an exception for ’cause (to avoid it reading as “cause”) unless you used the slang coz. However, I can see where that might seem inconsistent. I’ve mostly gone with convention in my own work, but that is really because of my profession. As a reader, I can see you point.

      Remember that there are no hard and fast rulings on style. Some authors omit quotation marks for speech entirely (Roddy Doyle used an em dash before speech in his award-winning Paddy Clarke Ha ha Ha! and Cormac McCarthy routinely omits apostrophes and quotation marks). The rule is to use a consistent approach across your book (no need necessarily to be consistent across all your works, unless you feel strongly about it). Some readers will be annoyed no end by less orthodox use of punctuation; others will find it liberating. It is your call. I would suggest that if you do decide to do it and you intend submitting to a trade publisher, you briefly mention your decision in your cover letter to avoid it seeming as though you simply don’t know any better.

      1. I just wanted to say that I loved “Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha!” and everyone should read it. That and “The Woman Who Walked Into Doors.” Brilliant stuff. But if you want a really radical approach to punctuation, try Jose Saramago. He doesn’t break out dialogue at all. He rarely capitalizes anything, even proper nouns like “lisbon”. He capitalizes the start of sentences, but can run several sentences into each other, and can even have back-and-forth between characters in the same sentence.

        It’s not as awful as it sounds, and you get used to the style quite quickly. He chooses words so smartly, that there is rarely confusion about what is going on, or who is saying what, nor is it any work to read (after the initial adjustment). And when it really works (like in “The Double” or “Blindness”), a dense claustrophobic gloom settles over the reader. I think it’s less successful in books like “The Elephant’s Journey”, but in that otherworldly stuff, it’s fantastic.

  2. That v Which. Grrrr.
    I think the problem got worse when other budding writers told me to look out for too many ‘that’s, so I scoured my work and took them out. Then Karen pointed out I needed to include ‘that’ in a about ever other sentence, or it made no sense!

    1. “That” is used for necessary dependent clauses; “which” is used for unnecessary dependent clauses.

      An even easier shorthand: “which” uses a comma, but “that” doesn’t.

      1. Yeah, I think I’ve just about got my head around it. I blame poor advice from other amateurs for my overzealous culling of ‘thats’. Now I have to go through the whole thing and correct them (along with half a million other things 😉 )

      2. Tom, your betas are right that “that” is unnecessary in a lot of places, but it IS necessary in other places. That is the problem with overly proscriptive or black and white punctuation or grammatical advice. While a comma usually precedes a “which” clause. There are some cases (where a clause in opposition intervenes between the subject and the “that” of a relative clause) where a comma will precede a “that “too. Although they are rare and JA is right that the presence or absence of a comma usually a good way to determine whether you have a relative or non-relative clause.

  3. I seem to have gone from a mostly descriptive phase to a much more dialog phase. I think that’s a reflection on how well I’ve been coming out of my shell (that’s my theory at least). Looking at some of my more recent dialogs I’ve been keeping everything Karen mentioned in mind (woot!). I’ve also been conciously trying to weave in description with the dialog, but not too much. Nice to see I’m trying to do something right. Whether I’m suceeding or not is another question.

    :} Cathryn

    1. If you read the first drafts of A Storm Hits Valparaiso back in 2006, you would have seen all the above errors (and more). Too many dialogue tags was my first stage. Then it was characters mentioning each other’s names every second line. Then it was: Character X grunted. “Dialogue.” Character Y smiled. “Dialogue.” Character X raised an eyebrow. “Dialogue.”

      Now, that technique is fine – in isolation (like so many things) – but when you have fifteen lines like that in a row it gets tiresome fast. You need to switch things up: Character X action, with some description/setting. “Dialogue.” “Dialogue,” said Character Y. “Dialogue” (nothing else necessary as it’s obvious who is speaking.” — and so on. Some writers dispense with dialogue tags altogether. I don’t think that’s necessary, but varying up the structure and rhythm certainly is.

    2. As an exercise, you can take a scene you have written already with two characters talking – say 10 lines of dialogue or more.

      Try and rewrite it with no dialogue tags and neither character mentioning each other’s name. (It’s not necessary to do that all the time but it’s good practice.)

      Another thing I always have to remind myself of is that characters don’t always stand facing each other motionless while talking. People move around the room. They take things from cupboards. They turn their backs and put the kettle on. Actions like this can add a little dynamism to what is otherwise a stilted conversation with two talking heads, and stops you resorting to characters grimacing, smiling, grunting, or raising eyebrows, which is generally overused.

      1. Very good advice, Dave. Most authors seem to progress through these stages as they learn the craft. I cringe at some of the things I thought were great in my first attempt, which may just remain in the drawer for life.

      2. One end of that spectrum is characters who bounce all over the place and twitch as though they have a nervous disorder. That was my earliest fault in dialogue. I wasn’t trying to avoid dialogue tags; it just came natural to me. Poor dears were taken off to an editing hospital until they recovered.

    3. One final thing I always slip into when putting these actions around dialogue: telling instead of showing. Instead of saying “Carlos felt nervous” you should *show* it, i.e. “Carlos picked at a loose stitch in his sleeve.”

    4. Wow… thank you for all your thoughts (and after thoughts). I need to start bookmarking these pages as I get ready to do some really serious editing on the novel I first wrote in 2005 (I did edit it in 2008, so it’s probably not as horrible as it was, but I”ve been doing a lot of writing since then…)

      Anyway I think I’m prety good at remembering people do things as they talk. But I’ll ave to try some of those exercises you spoke of. :}

  4. This is really, really useful. Especially the list of homonyms. I am currently on the third edit of my book and will be sure to look out for any of these! Thank you very much for your informative blog.

    1. You’re welcome, Fluffypen (love the name by the way).

      It’s a good quick list to do a “search” on in MSWord. Searching for all instances of “their” or “they’re” or “there”, or for “loose” when you mean “lose”, should help you pinpoint any used incorrectly.

      Best of luck with your edit. Self-editing can be draining, but it is a necessary part of the process.


  5. I tend to avoid using names ( of characters) when I believe/hope that the reader is sufficiently absorbed not to need to define them ( except by their own idiosynchratic speech, manners etc) This often leads me to use pronouns without realising that I have introduced another ‘he, she or it’ since the character was in prime focus. Therefore the use of the pronoun fails to refer to whom it should! The balance between realism and clarity is sometimes a fine line! Because I am almost allergic to ‘said’ labels I tend to hope that the dialogue defines the speaker, and sometimes wonder whether (in the interests of dramatic narrative), it really matters who says what at every moment? I wonder what others feel on this? Philippa

    P.S. Really helpful post and likely to produce fruitful exchanges.

    1. As a reader, one of my pet peeves is when I lose the thread of who is saying what (which can dramatically alter the meaning of a scene). Anything that breaks the spell – i.e. pulls the reader out of the flow of the story – is bad. So if I have to go back up half a page to figure out who is speaking, then work forward again, that’s not good.

      You should aim to be clear on that score, and there are a number of ways of doing so without resorting to dialogue tags (but I don’t think they need to be avoided altogether, particularly not he said/she said, which is largely invisible to the reader).

      1. This is my problem with some writing. I always had problems reading Fitzgerald because of this. I think the younger your audience the less savvy they are of figuring out who is speaking without the right tags.

        My biggest writing mix up is with lay and lie which can be exasperating when writing romance. Talk about your inner editor killing a scene as you internally argue whether your heroine laying on the chaise or lying. Let’s just say it forces me to find many alternative words.

      2. Josephine,

        Some people will hate me for saying this, but I’ve always had trouble reading Fitzgerald for a lot of reasons. That is just one of them. 🙂

        Often, it is just a case of popping in an action after the speech to remind the reader who is speaking. There doesn’t need to be a lot. You certainly should avoid having an action after every line of dialogue, for instance. Dave’s right, mix it up a bit.

        1. Oh, snap. Never got into Gatsby. (Couldn’t stand it actually.) I got a collection of his shorter work, “The Diamond As Big As The Ritz and Other Stories.” I remember liking one short, somewhat. The title story was actually a novella, and I hated it. Really hated it. I wasn’t crazy about the rest, and I don’t think I finished it (which is very rare for me).

  6. Yes, it always makes me titter. Lol.

    There are some words best avoided if you are trying to write a serious work and not a parody.

    “Ejaculating words and tittering are probably two of them,” she tittered.

  7. my biggest problem is too many words. I use voice recognition software to write and I discovered that I tend to blather on when I speak more than when I write. It’s one of the reasons I’ve adopted reading my writing out loud to myself – if I run out of breath halfway through a sentence, it’s too long. Reading out loud to myself has had the unfortunate side effect of improving my lung capacity, which complicates the problem. 😉

  8. Great stuff on dialogue, Karin. The other thing is adding a modifier can undercut or distract from what is being said. Dialogue can often be constructed so the reader knows how it is being said. “I’m gonna kill you,” she said, does not require a “violently or a `she spat’ or a “she exploded”. By the way, how long does it take you to edit a 400-pager which has been self-edited to a high standard.

  9. In journalism we learn (that) you can leave out the conjunction almost 100% of the time. I do some amateur editing and I usually leave other people’s thats alone.though I probably use it fewer times than most in my own fiction. I can see your pain as the Golden Rule of consistency cannot be applied without always using or never using “that”. Interesting to hear Karin and David’s takes on that probloem.

  10. ‘Scowling, Nathan dropped his trousers and wrenched off his shirt. A button pinged off the conference table, hitting the wall just below the framed print of a mountain peak with the word “Courage” printed underneath. “You really are a bastard!” Nathan spat. “And a coward.” Then he turned and strode out.’

    This should read: ‘Then he turned and fell over his trousers,’ since they were only dropped, not removed. Yeah, I know it’s pedantic, but it’s funny.

    Thank you once again for an excellent article, Karin.


  11. ‘Scowling, Nathan dropped his trousers and wrenched off his shirt. A button pinged off the conference table, hitting the wall just below the framed print of a mountain peak with the word “Courage” printed underneath. “You really are a bastard!” Nathan spat. “And a coward.” Then he turned and strode out.’

    This should read: ‘Then he turned and fell over his trousers,’ since they were only dropped, not removed. Yeah, I know it’s pedantic, but it’s funny.

    Thank you once again for an excellent article, Karin.


  12. Thanks for spelling “dialogue” properly. American English has come to accept the barbarism “dialog” as a variant spelling—which is wrong for a whole host of reasons.

    I would argue that the biggest problem with “said bookisms” is that writers disregard (or don’t know) the meanings of the words they’re using. There’s nothing wrong with “advised,” for example, so long as the bit of dialogue is actually advice: “Be sure to bring your best game,” John advised.
    I’d even argue that “said” is out of place when the grammatical (or rhetorical) form of the utterance is obvious. Using “said” after questions and declarations, for example, sounds downright awkward.

    “Got the time?” he said. Or: “Got the time?” he asked.

    “After all these years, I’ve finally made it,” he said. Or: “After all these years, I’ve finally made it,” he declared (or a similar verb).

    Or how about: “Never, ever surrender!” he said. And: “I hate you!” she said. Does either sound right to anyone?

    All the same, I agree that one should almost always avoid uncommon polysyllabic words like “pontificated,” “asseverated” and, yes, “ejaculated” in such cases.

    A note regarding “said dispassionately” from the earlier post. I’d argue that the word “dispassionately” is the wrong one in that context because its usual meaning isn’t “lacking passion” but “impartial” or “objective.” The distinction between “un-passionate” and “dispassionate” mirrors that between “uninterested” and “disinterested.” An uninterested person doesn’t care, a disinterested one has no stake (e.g., a judge in a lawsuit is a “disinterested party”). And the opposite of “dispassionate” is not “passionate” but “undispassionate.”

  13. WH Dean, dispassionately has several meanings. The Macquarie Dictionary, which is what I go by (as an Australian, and is also why I spell dialogue the “proper” way) gives the first meaning as “free from or unaffected by passion”, variant meanings are “impartial” or without bias. Unpassionate is an awkward alternative that has largely fallen out of use. The one to really avoid here is impassionate, which can actually mean filled with passion. Most dictionaries have removed impassionate, but it is still sometimes seen in newspapers. The distinction does remain between disinterested and uninterested, however.

    1. Karin,

      According to Gage, my Canadian dictionary, “dispassionate” means “free from emotion or prejudice; calm; impartial,” and the exemplary sentence is “To a dispassionate observer, the drivers of both cars seemed equally at fault.” Since the population of Canada is 34 million and Australia 22 million, and since meaning is based largely on usage, I’m about 50% more correct so far (depending on how you work the numbers). Now I won’t recommend an invasion over this, but I’ll be informing the PM that we should send a strongly worded letter and be decidedly cold in our relations until you fix your dictionary.

      All the same, we are both bit players in this lexical drama, since most e-books are sold in the US market. And Merriam-Webster agrees with me: “not influenced by strong feeling; especially: not affected by personal or emotional involvement / a dispassionate critic / a dispassionate approach to an issue /.” The paradigm sentences include “Journalists aim to be dispassionate observers,” and “He spoke in a dispassionate tone about the accident.” Of course, the second sentence is ambiguous because it doesn’t specify whether the agent was involved in the accident.

      Anyway, the more important rule from an editor’s standpoint is that many people (like me) recognize only one proper usage of the word. Even if many more people don’t register a difference, I suggest that you have to choose the safest course because, as the Psalmist says, “it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks.”

      By the way, “dialogue” is the proper way because it preserves the etymology of the word, which is part of its meaning. The word comes from the Greek, roughly “dia + logos,” which literally means “around- [or through-] speaking.” Once you remove the “-ue” from the word, it’s easily confused with “log,” as in a “ship’s log” or “logbook,” which comes from Middle English. I believe writers and editors have an obligation to preserve such things for the sake of general understanding.

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