Tuesday, June 14

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, June 14, 2011 16 comments
Dear Editor-on-call,

How do we figure out where the line is between a stylized voice/dialect vs. proper grammar? I know this is a hugely "case-by-case" basis, but I often find the pieces I write with a bit of a dialect or style get corrected by critiquers for grammar, effectively changing how the character would think.

Dialectable Dilemma
a.k.a. Sophia at Sophia the Writer

Dear Di,

I suspect the subtext of your question is this: "What do you do when your critiquers are so zealous in their campaign to promote 'good writing' that they suck all the voice out of your work?"

Let's face it, reading is a subjective thing. Some people like to experience cultures beyond their own, to meet people very unlike themselves--and others don't. Any literary device you choose to use will have its fans and its detractors.

As I see it, you have a few options in this scenario.

A. You keep changing your book trying to please everyone until you hate it so much you shelve it.

Can we say neurotic need for affirmation? Nothing will make you quit writing faster than trying to be everything to everyone.

B. You ignore everything the grammar zealots say, because they obviously don't get you.

Of course, they very well might have good insights into non-dialect sections. Do you really want to lose that too?

C. You ask only those who get what you're trying to do to read and critique.

Here, you run the danger of stagnating, because these friendly folks won't push you to change and grow.

D. You provide requests for specific feedback when asking anyone to critique:
"This story contains dialect. Please highlight spots that you think aren't quite reading smoothly."

If you're getting a lot of advice that feels useless, consider how you can be more explicit about what would be useful. Every reader goes into some default mode when they aren't given instruction. For some, the default is "find a dozen nice things to say." For others, the default is "find every instance of nonstandard usage and sloppy grammar."

You can probably guess which option I favor (D, of course!). While it's a good idea to periodically reassess how healthy or dysfunctional your critique relationships are, don't be too quick to sever ties with those who seem too harsh--or give unhelpful advice. Most folks who get into critique groups do so with the intention to learn and to help. Sometimes all that's needed is a meeting session in which you establish some ground rules, then ask for specific kinds of feedback whenever you submit work to be critiqued.

If that doesn't change things, you can decide to ignore certain kinds of critique (like grammar correcting dialect), mull the crits and weigh their merits, or simply leave if the overwhelming feeling from the group is constant negativity and put-downs.

While I haven't read it myself, I've heard others recommend The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide: How to Make Revisions, Self-Edit, and Give and Receive Feedback by Becky Levine as a great resource for both new and established critique groups to function well.

And when it comes to dialect, go light. And here are some great links from folks more experienced than I on the topic:

The Uses and Abuses of Dialect
Grammar Girl: Writing Accents and Dialects
Writing Dialect: It's in the Rhythm

How have you dealt with unhelpful critiques? What's your take on dialect in fiction?


  1. I think this piece of advice: "This story contains dialect. Please highlight spots that you think aren't quite reading smoothly," would be the best way to start. That way you can still get what is necessary from your critique partner without seeming like you are becoming defensive when they are only trying to help :o)

    Yeah, I have dealt with horrible critiques. One clearly from someone who REALLY DIDN'T GET ME. But that's not their fault. They have their tastes and I have mine. It's trial and error. Shop around until you find a partner that fits :o)

  2. I always use dialect in fiction. It adds the flavor to the book that you wouldn't normally get. I know when I send out something for review and it comes back red-lined or crossed out, then I know that person doesn't know or understand what I'm trying to do so I ignore it.

    Although I agree with Jessica, using the line "This story contains dialect..." is a good one.

  3. I think it's important to know who is critiquing. What is their level of writing? A lot of time newer writers love to jump on the rules b/c they don't know how to make suggestions on aspects like character and plot. So if you know what level the critiquer is at, it helps to know how much to apply and how much to listen.

  4. Great advice. I would agree with Laura--know the level of who is critiquing the piece. I also like your idea on using the line--"This story contains..."
    I have heard great things about that book by Becky Levine. I need to pick it up.

  5. One of my old WIPs had a lot of made up dialect, which several readers stumbled over. And while my purposes were very intentional, the best feedback I got was to be consistent about the vocab/dialect use. The advice was to choose a "list" of dialect related words and use those with the consistency of regular grammar. The dialect should still follow its own grammar rules. Just my two bits!

  6. Sometimes even the critiquers who 'don't get us' have good advice. Sometimes they don't say it right and I have to figure out what they're saying.

  7. Jessica: I've been able to rehabilitate a crit relationship by giving better directives beforehand. But you're right--some readers will be a bad fit with you no matter what.

    Anne: It's nice to be able to avoid that twist in the gut feeling when you see someone has gone heavy handed stripping away voice. Right? Hope the little directive helps you with your critters!

  8. Laura: Absolutely--the less experienced the writer, the more their own anxieties come out in critiques. Sometimes we just have to be patient with people and willing to winnow the crits they give. Good crit relationships can take time, and many who start off weak do get better quickly.

    Christine: Directives can help so much. It's always interesting to see what 'default mode' readers fall into without them.

  9. JEM: Great thoughts! A couple of the links I mentioned (Grammar Girl in particular) follow a similar line of thinking: Consistency, a few "tag words" and its own grammar rules. Another of the links mentions cadence as another way to do dialect well.

    M Pax: YES! I hope it came through that I believe in having a few readers who don't normally read your genre. They often have extremely helpful insights that insiders will miss. Those insights might have unhelpful stuff mixed in, but the winnowing is very worthwhile.

  10. lolol I read this question going, "I wrote this?" It took a full minute for me to realize what I was talking about :P.

    D is great advice!

    Sounds like I have the opposite concern from most commenters - I have a tendency to think my CPs "know better" than I do. I'm trying to stay true to my own voice more. Everyone has such great advice for how to do that!

  11. Great advice! I love that you hone in on the real problem. The critique group advice is wonderful on so many levels. I can use this. Thanks!

  12. Good point - specific requests with critiques can really help. I wonder if it would be possible to show the critiquers a paragraph of published dialect, like from The Help, to give the critiquers an idea of how dialect can be boon if done well.

  13. The only unhelpful critique I've gotten is the one that said, "This is all great!"

    I think all constructive comments can help, but you're right--no writer can please everyone. Dialect is hard to do well, but certainly can be done right. But even Mark Twain had (and still has) readers who hate Huck Finn because of the dialect!

  14. Sophia: It was weeks ago that you asked, sorry. :-) It takes time to develop confidence in your own vision for your story. Giving directives about the kind of crit you want should help you get support where you need it, rather than confidence busting where you don't.

    Janet: I sensed Sophia's issue was more with the criticisms of her dialect use rather than how to do it. Glad this is useful to you. But I did throw in some links on dialect too.

  15. Margo: That's a great idea--especially if you can find dialect use you really admire.

    Stephanie: I call that kind of reader an "alpha reader". And it's nice to have a cheerleader or two like that around, just to keep discouragement at bay.

    Huckleberry Finn is one of the most cited examples of OVERdoing dialect. Marguerite Henry's Misty books are also overdone--I tried reading aloud to my daughter and gave up! I think contemporary writers are more sensitive to readers' impatience and use fewer phonetic spellings and more cadence, word choice and unconventional grammar to get dialect to come across.

  16. Great advice! I use a little bit of dialect in my current wip, but only for sideline characters to show their difference from the MCs. I think it works - have to check with the crit buddies! :)