MT McGuire Books

Why Can’t Indies Punctuate Dialogue? I Think I Know.

Gah, welcome to the world of Victoria Meldrew. I was reading a post on a forum somewhere recently, complaining that self published authors are rubbish at dialogue. Well, sticking my neck out, I’ve just discovered a lot of my dialogue tags are wrong.

So once again, I am at home to Mr Cock up. Frankly, he’s going to be moving in at this rate. I dunno what’s wrong with me at the moment. I seem to be dead from the neck up.

So, now that I’ve bombed, I’m may as well to tell you what I’ve learned so you don’t have to.

At school — and sodding heck, it’s only 20 years ago — I was taught to write dialogue like this:

Writing speech is a pain in the arse.” Said M T McGuire.

Sometime, between me leaving school and starting to write books for a living it changed to this.

Writing speech is a pain in the arse,” said M T McGuire. “Never mind. On the up side, entirely fortuitously it’s right in book two.”

So here’s what Mr Cock up has taught me on my latest visit.

Golden Rule Number 1, then: Even if you left school five minutes ago, question the rules of punctuation you were taught.

After all, you only have to look at how often government policy on education changes to realise that the shelf life of any received theories propounded to you as a child, will probably be out of date before you leave school.

So yes, I’m afraid those rules of grammar that it hasn’t occurred to you to doubt may be completely at odds with the way things are done now. And if they are, you will be looking like a spanner. NB, even if you write business English for a living, check the types of grammar you don’t use in your every day job that you will use in a book. Like speech! Gaaaah.

Can you guess who didn’t do this? For heaven’s sake, I have a very high IQ — I really should be smarter than this. It’s a bit like being one of those people who can build something really pointy-brained, like a satellite, but can’t boil a kettle… except that I haven’t got any satellite-building abilities against which to offset my piss-poor kettle boiling skills.


Oh well, on we go.

Golden Rule Number 2: Don’t trust the internet.

Having realised I may well have ballsed up a lot of the dialogue tags in all my work, I tried to find out what was the right way on the internet. All I could really discover is that one, there is a lot of disagreement and two, none of it looks like the way I was taught at school.

You can google a lot of things but not grammar. There are too many strains of English round the world and not everyone knows which is which. Hmm… Which leads me onto number three.

Golden Rule Number 3: Ask the right questions.
Because I remembered what I’d been taught it didn’t occur to me to ask at first but when I saw what the editor had done, and failed to understand what was going on, I did ask her. The answer she gave was that I should treat the whole thing, speech and tag, as a sentence. That was right but it still gave me plenty of scope to do it like this.

Punctuating dialogue drives me crazy.” said M T McGuire.

Which is still wrong, wrong, wrong.

Golden Rule Number 4: Ask the right people.

I now use a different editor who is pretty good. I was still confused when I first started working with him though. So why didn’t I ask him? I haven’t a blind clue. So when you find someone who knows what they’re doing and you trust ask them. If you can find somebody who is absolutely pukka writing, trad pubbed establishment ask them too.

Golden Rule Number 5: Always be open.

One day I might get this writing thing sussed but I suspect not. Language is a living thing. It’s always going to move and change. So even if you begin to think you know what you’re doing it’s worth remembering that actually, you may not.

Which brings me onto the 6th rule.

Golden Rule Number 6: Always use an editor.

This is really important. Seriously. Unless you are some kind of grammar savant, use an editor. Hell, use two. I do… and beta readers and I’ve still stuffed up. Ninety nine point nine percent of authors cannot proof their own work. Trust me on this. Get somebody else to do it. Then if you have any gimlet-eyed reader friends, get them to look at it.

Golden Rule Number 7: Keep an eye on what you learn.

As you learn more your work will get better and your punctuation more professional. Each work you produce is a shop window on your talent. If the punctuation is a bit dodgy, or old fashioned, it doesn’t reflect well on you so if you learn something new that hits you out of the blue or change the way you punctuate, I dunno, interrupted speech or something, remember to apply it retrospectively to all your work. Not just the one it’s cropped up in.

Sure your skill with the business of arranging words will grow but so will you knowledge and while your actual writing style may change, editorially continuity is best — a house style if you like.

So there you go, in a nutshell, think about what you’re doing. Always.

I hope that helps.

Posted July 1, 2012 and visited 3271 times, 2 so far today

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  1. Hi MT,

    I’ve seen and enjoyed a lot of innovative punctuation but the examples you gave from your schooling (on an Amazon thread and also posted here) were new to me. I like to see people use unusual punctuation for stylistic reasons and e.e. cummings is one of my favourite poets, but I can’t imagine how the use of a full stop where a comma is usual in dialogue could serve any useful stylistic function. Have you met anyone else who was taught to use this form?



  2. I found someone today! Check the self published books pain or gain thread on, page 103. Elayne Cantrell 😉