Here are some options to identify speakers in dialogue.
1. Tag your dialogue with any descriptive word other than said, such as exclaimed, interjected, sputtered, yelled, and so forth. I learned this in Middle School and followed it for many years. Now the recommendation is to avoid doing this, as it singles lazy writing. I prefer to show the speaker’s emotion instead of stating it. For example:
Bruce narrowed his gaze and pursed his lips. “I can’t believe you did that,” he said.
I far prefer that to “I can’t believe you did that,” Bruce snarled.
I only use a descriptive tag if I feel it will make the passage stronger.
2. Only use said. While we need to identify the speaker, most readers skip the connecting word—or so I hear. Some people feel that using anything other than said is an annoying speed bump. Some people even recommend doing this for questions, as in: Then Gene said, “How long will you be gone?”
I generally use said when I need a dialogue tag, but I still use asked for questions.
3. My preference, however, is to use context to identify the speaker. In this way I minimize the use of dialogue tags and let the surrounding text show who the reader is, as in this exchange:
Ben stared at the book in his trembling hands. “You mean I get to keep this?”
Sue’s eyes danced. “Yes, it’s a gift.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“How about thank you?”
“I so appreciate this.” Ben blinked three times, fighting to hold back tears. “Thank you. This is wonderful.”
In this passage, there are no dialogue tags at all, but the context shows us Ben is the first speaker and Sue, the second. Since this is a rapid exchange, readers understand that Ben then replies to Sue, and she responds in the fourth line. Then to make sure readers don’t get confused, the fifth line confirms Ben is talking.
This takes more work to write, but it seems this is the current trend and strikes me as powerful writing.
Last week I experienced the importance of accuracy.
With anticipation I opened an article submission. The topic was relevant and novel.
My excitement, however, waned as I read his opening sentence. The author stated the earth’s population was 6.2 million. I thought there are over seven billion people on our planet, so I sought confirmation. Indeed we surpassed the seven billion mark a couple years ago. His number was wrong, out dated. That’s when I realized his second error, a typo: million instead of billion.
Spotting two factual errors in the first dozen words caused me to question the accuracy of the entire piece. I almost rejected the submission at that point, but I continued reading.
Then the author wrote that Mandarin is a lesser-known language. I questioned that as well. An online search confirmed my suspicion. Around a billion people speak Mandarin, more than English and Spanish combined.
I became angry over the article and mad at the author. Surely the writer had accuracy issues or just threw something together without much thought. I knew if I wanted to run this piece, I’d need to carefully scrutinize every sentence and check each assertion. I didn’t have time for that.
Had I not caught his errors, running the article as submitted, the author would have lost credibility and my magazine would look sloppy. This would turn off readers and damage our reputations.
But what if this wasn’t an article and instead related to a book?
If egregious errors exist in a query letter, an agent or publisher will not ask for the proposal.
If mistakes pop up in a proposal, the full manuscript will never be requested.
And if the book opens with the blunders I encountered in this article, the work would risk dismissal before the reader reached page two.
When you invest time and energy in writing a book, don’t let sloppy errors torpedo your efforts. Although I persisted with this article despite glaring mistakes, had they occurred in a book query, proposal, or manuscript I’d have summarily dismissed the entire project.
I didn’t know what I was doing for the first book I ghostwrote and charged in the mid-four figures. But it was an easy project, so my compensation worked out okay.
My second ghostwriting experience was much more involved, and I charged twice as much. The fees for that book turned out okay, as well.
I understand that the minimum going rate for an experienced ghostwriter is $15,000, with established ghostwriters in the $25 to $35,000 range. (And I’ve heard of much higher numbers too.)
As a means of comparison, Book In A Box, now called Scribe, is a business that offers a turnkey solution to authors. Scribe will ghostwrite, edit, and publish a nonfiction book for $36,000. They may effectively be your competition.
Discover What Type of Writer You Are and Then Embrace
There are different types of writers. They have different motivations, are at different places in their writing journey, and have different goals. Here’s how the different types of writers break down:
1. The Aspiring Writer
I’ve heard many people refer to themselves
as aspiring writers. But they’re misusing that label. They say aspiring
because at this point in their journey they lack the confidence to say they’re a
writer, so they qualify it by tacking on aspiring. If this is you, I
encourage you to take a deep breath, drop aspiring, and boldly say, “I
am a writer.” It will take practice to say with confidence, but you can do it.
You are a writer.
In truth, an aspiring writer is someone who doesn’t actually write; they merely aspire to write—someday. But they’ll never get around to it. Yes, they act as a writer. They read books on writing, go to writing conferences, and hang out with other writers. They talk a good game, but that’s all it is: talk.
They want to have written, but they
don’t want to put in the hard work, to actually sit down and write. They aspire
to write, and that’s where it ends.
Don’t be someone who aspires to
write. Just write.
2. The Hobbyist Writer
Next, we have people who write for
fun, write for therapy, or write for family and friends. They’re hobbyists. There’s
nothing wrong with that.
So, if a hobbyist writer describes you, accept it. As a hobbyist, you may not publish much and certainly won’t make much money from your work, but you are writing. And that’s what’s important. Own that label, and celebrate it.
However, if you want to realize more
from your writing, consider moving beyond the hobbyist phase.
3. The Passion Project Writer
Some writers have a book they must
write. It’s a compulsion, a calling. They work hard to produce the best book they
can. They self-publish it. Then they spend years promoting and marketing their
It’s their passion.
But it may be the only book they
ever write. Or if they do write other books, these may fall short because the
passion isn’t there. And it shows.
There’s nothing wrong with having a
passion project. I know many people who write one book, and that’s it. That’s
okay. But if you want more, consider the next two categories of writers.
4. The Artist Writer
I know many writers who view themselves as artists. They produce wonderful work and produce it with some degree of regularity. But they write when the muse hits, and they write when they have a deadline. However, if they don’t feel like writing, they don’t. They’re often discovery writers (pancers: they write by the seat of their pants). Writing speed and output frequency doesn’t matter. They’re artists, and that’s what they care about.
If you’re thinking of the phrase starving artist, that fits this category of writer. They may not make much from their art, and they certainly won’t earn enough to support themselves. That’s why the artist-writer needs another source of income. This could be a day job or a side hustle. It may be a spouse, an inheritance, or a generous patron.
5. The Career Author
The final category is a career
author. Although their words may flow from many different motivations, they
have one thing in common: writing is their job, and they strive to make money
from it, either full-time or part-time.
They haven’t sold out. They’re just being intentional. They value the craft and may even view it as art. They also write with passion. But, in addition to that, they write with purpose. They want to share their words with others and earn money as they do. They have an entrepreneurial mindset. They are an authorpreneur.
A Final Thought about the Types of Writers
At various times in my writing journey, I have been each of these types of writers. Some of my stops have been brief, and others longer, but where I am now—and where I want to remain—is as a career author.
Right now, I make some of my income as an author, and my goal is to one day earn all my income through writing. But money is not my motivator; it’s the outcome. My desire is to share my words with others. As I often say, my goal is to “change the world one word at a time.” And making money from doing so is a sweet result.
Discover what type of writer you are and embrace it. Don’t let anyone tell you your path is wrong or inconsequential. You are a writer.
What works for one writer may not work for other writers and that’s okay
Every writer has a different method of writing. I know that because many of you tell me.
Some write every day (like me) and others do not.
Others wait for inspiration and some sit down and write regardless of how they feel (like me).
Some need a deadline to spur them on and others do not (like me—though a deadline does amp up my motivation).
Others spew out a quick rough draft and fix it later, while some write with more intention to produce a reasonably good first draft (my goal).
Time of Day
Some write in the morning (like me) and others at night or random times (I occasionally do that, too).
Next are those who strategize before they write (like me) versus those who figure it out as they go.
Many people call these two modes plotters and pantsers (writing by the seat of your pants), but I prefer the labels of outliners and discovery writers. They sound nicer.
Length of First Draft
Another consideration is writing long or writing short. That is, some writers write long first drafts and then edit them down. Others write shorter first drafts and then add to it. I’m neither. I have a target length in mind and aim to hit it.
The point is we all go about our writing differently.
I write every day in the morning, even if I don’t feel like it, work to produce a good first draft from an outline (be it written or in my head), write to hit a target length, and most don’t need deadlines. But that doesn’t mean you have to follow my example.
It simply means this is what works for me – in this season of my career. If this works for you, too, then great. But if it doesn’t, then figure out what does work and then follow it, adjusting as needed along the way.
There is no one correct way to write; we can all learn from each other’s processes. The only error is trying to force ourselves into a mold that doesn’t fit us.