The Journal: Dialect

In today’s Journal

* Topic: Don’t Write Dialect Unless You Know How
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Topic: Don’t Write Dialect Unless You Know How

Simple, straightforward advice, right? And it makes sense. Few problems will jerk a reader out of your story faster than poorly written dialect.

But it’s also a paradox. After all, how can you learn how to do something if you don’t try? But if you try, you’re not following the advice.

I have both a book (Writing Dialect) and an audio course (How to Write Effective Dialect) on the topic. But even in those, I didn’t quite cover everything.

Because how characters speak is such an important topic, I’ve also added Writing Effective Dialect and Writing Dialogue and Dialogue Tags to the list of topics in the Writing Craft mentorships. That increases the number of topics in the Writing Craft I mentorship to 14 and lowers the price of the mentorship to under $72 per topic.

Of course it also makes those two new topics available to those who select Writing Craft II or III. (I also had a brain aneurism and lowered the price of Writing Craft II to $129 per topic for 2 to 5 topics.)

For those who sign on for a mentorship, I can check how they use dialogue and dialect directly in their work and give them personalized real-time instruction.

For now, though, let me just say this. If you want to use dialect in your work, especially if you want to use phonetic spelling to effect your dialect, know the rules of pronuciation. THAT’S how you can know what you’re doing, more or less, before you attempt to write dialect. For example, it might be valuable to know that an E tacked on the end of a word that begins with a hard consonant usually makes the earlier vowel pronounce long.

I read a very short story that was submitted to a contest recently, and the writer substituted “dere” for “there.” Jerked me straight out of the story. In my mind, “dere” pronounced the same as “deer.” I understood the author wanted me to hear “derr,” but to get to that point I had to stall my reading and figure out what the writer was trying to say. Even then, it looked like the writer was TRYING to write dialect instead of actually knowing how to write it.

Folks, anytime you force a reader to “interpret” you work — anytime you force him to try to figure out what you’re trying to say — you risk losing (or running off) that reader. Your job is to tell a story and entertain the reader, period. And the reader’s job is to be entertained, period. The reader doesn’t work for you. You work for the reader.

The same writer in the same story also substituted “dat” for “that” and “dis” for “this.”

Now, almost nobody EVER says “dat” or “dis.” (One exception is the ever-popular “diss” meaning “disrespect,” as in “she dissed me,” but that isn’t the same as using “dis” as a sustitute for “this.”) “Dat” or “dis” might sneak into some spoken constructions (depending on the sound of other words that are juxtaposed next to it), but most often the actual pronunciation is ” ‘at ” or ” ‘is ” (the apostrophe that replaces the missing “th” makes it sound like “iss”) not “dat” or “dis.”

Finally, the writer also wrote “Come ‘ere.” And I can pretty much promise the characters were not British.

Uh, no. Read “Come ‘ere” aloud. If I’d had a shot at this manuscript, I’d have recommended the writer use “C’mere.” Why? Because that’s how it sounds when people combine “Come here” into one spoken word. Sometimes even in the UK.

Here are the original two lines from the story:

“Leave dat thing alone! Wanna get us caught?”

“Come ‘ere, help me get dis open. Dere must be a fortune in it.”

See what I mean?

So one more tip — If you’re going to write dialect, you MUST read your work aloud afterward. If you read it aloud and it sounds stupid or unintelligible or like you’re trying too hard, it is and you are.

So to revise the initial advice, don’t write dialect until you know how (or until you at least have a good grounding in the rules of pronunciation).

Talk with you again when I can.

Of Interest

See “Another Go At A Myth…” at And instead of renting Adobe In-Design you can buy Affinity Publisher outright for around $50. And if you don’t own a Mac (so can’t use Vellum) you can learn to format your work in Word and use D2D to create a beautiful ebook. Just sayin’.

See “How is The Speed of Darkness Faster Than The Speed of Light?” at Interesting discussion.

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 800 words

Writing of “Five Tight Indians” (short story memoir)

Day 1…… 2715 words. Total words to date…… 2715 (done)

Writing of Body on the Beach (novel, working title)

Day 1…… 1135 words. Total words to date…… 1135
Day 1…… 1409 words. Total words to date…… 2544

Total fiction words for the month……… 10532
Total fiction words for the year………… 325815
Total nonfiction words for the month… 10880
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 148450
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 474265

Calendar Year 2020 Novels to Date…………………… 5
Calendar Year 2020 Novellas to Date……………… X
Calendar Year 2020 Short Stories to Date… 12
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 50
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 208
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31


4 thoughts on “The Journal: Dialect”

  1. Viz dialect:
    The tractor stutttered to a halt.
He looked up at the cab.
    A grey, weathered face greeted him. ‘Now then, Olly.’
    ‘Now then, George,’ he said.
    ‘Bloody starvin’ tint it? Nithered me.’ George clambered from the cab.

    ‘Cold all right,’ he said.
    ‘Well? As found owt?’
    ‘Think happen have,’ he said.

    ‘Then?’ George pulled his greatcoat collar up around his ears and tugged on his checked cap.
    ‘Burnt pit. And a few cists by the seem. Early Bronze age probably.’

  2. Viz dialect in ranslation:
    The tractor stutttered to a halt.
He looked up at the cab.
    A grey, weathered face greeted him. ‘Hello Olly.’
    ‘Hello George,’ he said.
    ‘It’s vey cold, isn’t it? I’m feeling frozen.’ George clambered from the cab.
    ‘It is very cold,’ he said.

    ‘And, have you found anything yet?’
    ‘I think I may have found something,’ he said.
    ‘So, what have you found?’ George pulled his greatcoat collar up around his ears and tugged on his checked cap.
    ‘Burnt pit. And a few cists by the seem. Early Bronze age probably.’

    • Hey Bill. Great example, and thanks for providing both versions. I understand. I would’ve recommended a couple of changes to your dialect version if I were your copyeditor, but not so many as you might expect.

      I’m with you. I generally prefer the dialect version to bring the voice of the character to life. Only it isn’t about what we, the writers, prefer. It’s about what the readers can understand easily, by which I mean without either the dialect itself or trying to figure it out distracting them from the story. It’s a fine line to walk.

      One note — if you’re certain your audience is primarily in the country or region where the story takes place, the dialect is probably fine as-is. If it’s a worldwide audience, not so much. But again, I would have recommended only small changes.

      And one more note — I wouldn’t have changed “now then” to “hello” even in the translation. That’s something the reader would pick up on and accept immediately.

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