Wednesday, January 27

Posted by Laurel Garver on Wednesday, January 27, 2016 10 comments
Dear Editor-on-call,
Photo credit: Sgarton from

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

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. Research is essential for making it sound authentic. To that end, here are a few previous posts I've written
Swimming in the crick: delving into dialect
Howdy, 'allo, yo: five tips for researching dialect

And here are some addition helpful links 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?
Have an Editor-on-Call question for me? Ask away!


  1. Yes, I've dealt with unhelpful critiques. Unhelpful critiques serve their purpose in that they help me better appreciate useful critiques and those who give them.

    If my story's dialect was continuously critiqued negatively, I might seek out someone who comes from the group who uses that dialect to ask what they think.

    1. Always a silver lining, eh? :-)

      That's a great idea--finding an "expert"/dialect native to give you feedback.

  2. In my current WIP, I have two characters who speak in dialect--two different dialects. I'm familiar with both, but I have people more familiar than I am check it. Also, I do make decisions for readability--if passages are not easily readable, then it's distracting from the story instead of enhancing it and I "standardize" it a bit to make it easier to read.

    1. Dialect sections in my stories are some of the most revised bits. Really getting the hang of another region's vocal cadence is the especially hard part. I hear you about that delicate balance of making unusual pronunciations visible and having the piece still readable.

  3. Does everyone in the critique group pick apart the dialect? Or only just a few? I have great critiques who do not always agree in their assessments of my work. I usually color code comments (red ink, green ink, blue ink, etc.), and where all the colors highlight a specific area, I look long and hard at it. If they all point to a problem, I consider changing. If they contradict one another, I decide it's my call. And if they all like a particular passage, of course I keep that! :-) I think taking everything with a grain of salt is key, but if you find most of their feedback helpful, then stay with that group.

    1. Finding a non-toxic group is huge blessing, even if the feedback isn't as consistently making your skill grow in leaps and bounds. I like your color-coding idea--sometimes a crit is more a matter of one individual's odd life experiences bumping up against your creation, rather than something that especially needs to be changed. The longer and deeper you know your CPs, the easier it is to weigh their advice.

  4. That was great critiquers, not critiques. The spelling police changed it.

    1. No worries. I frequently wish blogger had the "edit" option that Facebook has. I always find the typo after it's too late to fix it. LOL.

  5. Early on I had a few "challenging" critique partners. We learned to write together so it was a nice, albeit stormy relationship. Ours was the butting of two completely different writing "styles". Once we realized we were trying to conform the other to "our" way of writing, we parted ways. I then found four women who has given me so much of what I really needed. We've been together four years.

    A good critique partner/editor will point out your good points as well as your bad. They won't try to suck out your voice. However, they might tell you when you've overplayed it. Too much of a good thing is bad writing.

    Dialect, along with context clues within the narrative, should familiarize your reader to the character's way of speaking.

    Thanks, Laurel. Great post!

    1. Your experience is one many go through--you sometimes have to suffer through a bad match for a while before a good one appears, or indeed before you can recognize a good one.

      Love your description of a good CP/editor. Indeed, encouragement mixed with "change this" is what we all need, and too much of a good thing can be bad in writing, for sure.

      Great point about contextual cues as another way to signal that someone has an unusual way of expressing themselves.