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Grammar’s Role in Dialogue | Finding a Critique Partner

book editor Adina PortmanAdina Portman

Do grammatical rules apply when writing dialogue? Are accents and slang fair game?

This is a fantastic question. The grammar you use in your dialogue should match the grammar the character would use while speaking. You can use grammatical style as a tool for character development. Characters rarely require dialogue with perfect grammar, because few people speak that way. Even characters who would be described as literary have their quirks and patterns of speech that stray from what’s considered correct grammar, and this is one way dialogue can deepen your characters.

The same might be said for punctuation in dialogue. When I was in a college workshop, someone genuinely asked me whether it’s possible to convey a semi colon in speech, and if not, whether it should be used in dialogue. The question struck me as strangely existential, yet ultimately irrelevant. Do we punctuate our thoughts? How would using a semi colon in dialogue be any more problematic than using an em dash or a comma? Or a period for that matter? What role do punctuation and grammar play in our speech? Each piece of punctuation, each unit of syntax helps us convey further meaning within our written language. We wouldn’t mention aloud that the two sentences we’re saying are related, but in written form, a semi colon gently conveys this to the reader. These stylistic variations of grammar and punctuation help to bring our intentions into focus.

Regarding accents and slang, it’s important to be culturally sensitive and to avoid co-opting speech that you don’t fully understand. That being said, variations in spelling and punctuation can clarify the world of a character. Done carefully and deliberately, incorrect spelling and grammar can be the most accurate way to communicate. This is a good example of the fact that if you want to break the rules artfully, you need to first know the rules inside and out.

What qualities would you look for in a critique partner? Should I look for someone whose writing is similar to mine?

There are pros and cons to having a critique partner whose writing is similar to your own. This person might be more familiar with your intentions—might understand what you’re trying to do in your writing. This person might have a similar stylistic tool belt from which you can borrow, or a base of literary knowledge that is relevant to your work. This person might also be able to recognize some of your patterns and show you when they turn into traps and when/where/how/why you fall into them.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily shy away from a critique partner simply because of a different writing style. Having someone who naturally views the world from a different angle can shed new light on your writing. It can also help you speak to a larger audience if you learn what readers with different tastes might enjoy.

What I look for in a critique partner is someone who reflects my intended readership. Readers who have the self-awareness to step back from the direct experience of reading to observe their reactions and report on them honestly and in a way that is useful to me. Selfishly, I look for readers who are smarter than I am. I look for readers who have nothing to gain from praising or attacking my work. I look for readers who are honest, humble, strong-willed and passionate—people who read a ton and can point me to authors who have already done what I’m trying to do.

 

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