Copy Edit Yourself: How To Punctuate Dialogue Properly
If you want your manuscript to get serious consideration from an agent or editor, you have to present it with virtually no errors. I’ve had students who’ve told me they didn’t need to worry about grammar and punctuation because when they got their book accepted, “the editor will fix that”.
Not anymore. Lots of errors in a manuscript cost money to fix, requiring hours and hours of a copy editor’s time. If someone looks at your book and starts seeing a huge editing bill looming, you’re very unlikely to even get it looked at seriously.
Where do many errors occur? In punctuating dialogue. I see it all the time in my work as a freelance editor. Some of it is due to automatic functions kicking in in Microsoft Word, but as a writer hoping to be published, it’s up to you to learn this stuff and fix it yourself.
So here are some basic examples and rules — feel free to print these out and keep next to your computer.
Punctuation always goes inside the speech marks (some people refer to them as quote marks). There are rare exceptions, such as in a one or two word quote as a throwaway, but mostly stick to this one every time.
“The car won’t start,” she said. (Use a comma and no capital letter on she.)
“Why are you angry at me?” she asked. (Question mark inside the speech marks.)
“The car won’t start.” He kicked the tire and cursed. (Two complete, separate sentences here, so the dialogue sentence has a full stop and He has a cap H. Don’t be tempted to use commas where you need full stops — that’s a whole other Medium article about why not!)
“You forgot to fill it with gas.” She laughed at his tantrum. (You can’t laugh or giggle or smile a line of dialogue, so two sentences. Not: “You forgot the petrol,” she laughed. People will argue over this one, but it’s still technically wrong.)
“I did fill up,” he said, “but I think the tank has a hole in it.” (One complete sentence, with the dialogue tag in the middle, so note there are all commas around the he said and no capital letters.)
A character’s actions and dialogue should all be together in one paragraph. When a new character starts speaking, start a new paragraph. This helps the reader know who is speaking and doing stuff. The only exception is where someone is saying a long speech or explanation, in which case you can break it into paragraphs.
Don’t use a bunch of dialogue tags — she demanded, he agreed, she offered, he shouted, she expostulated, he acquiesced, etc. Often you don’t need to use a tag each time at all. If your dialogue is working, sounding like that character and different from other characters, you don’t need the he said/she said on every line. Use beats of action instead:
“You should have asked me.” Susie grabbed her money off the table.
Also if your dialogue is doing its job, you often won’t need an adverb. “I hate your brother! He makes me sick,” she said angrily. (It’s pretty clear that’s the kind of thing that would be said angrily, so delete it.)
In your editing, start by checking the punctuation, then look at the tags, then the paragraphing. Finally, read your dialogue aloud — if all your characters sound the same or sound like you, it’s time to do more character work.