Authentic Dialogue

“I love the way you fix up my quotes. You make me sound a lot smarter than I do in real life.”

Bob, a source I often interviewed when I worked as a newspaper reporter in Michigan, said that to me all the time. Every time, I’d flinch. “Bob!” I’d say through clenched teeth, “I am not fixing your quotes!”

That was true, mostly. It also kind of wasn’t.

I thought about Bob recently when a Gotham teacher asked me about the ethics of quote fixing, because regardless of whether you’re writing fiction, screenplays, or creative nonfiction, writing dialogue comes with pitfalls you want to avoid.

Author Roy Peter Clark, among other great tips for writing dialogue, has this to say:

Because of language prejudice on race and class, be careful with slang and dialect. [As] E.B. White advises, “Do not use dialect unless your ear is good…and you are a devoted student of the tongue you hope to reproduce.”

That said, the American language is a great treasure.  If everyone you quote sounds like you, your readers are in trouble.

In fiction and film, dialect can help make characters sound distinct, like they come from somewhere. If you attempt it, listen to Clark. Research the hell out of the language, and keep your ears wide open to the ways in which your dialect crosses the line separating accuracy and stereotyping.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, and you’re thinking, “Hey, we’ve got it easy; we’re not creating dialogue, just reconstructing/recording it,” you are adorable.

If you leave in someone’s filled pauses — the “um”s, and “ah”s, we all pepper our speech with — or the three times they said “right?” in a single sentence, you’ll find yourself accused of mocking the speaker. Then again, if you clean it up too much, you risk playing fast and loose with accuracy, you risk your credibility.

If you find yourself working overtime to make a source sound coherent, lose the quotation marks. Correct the grammar, rearrange the sentences. Paraphrase.

Basically, do what I did with Bob. He did sometimes mangle grammar, but he also had a folksy style that reminded me of Will Rogers. I deleted his frequent, “Errrr”s. When he said “they is” instead of “they are,” I corrected it with brackets—like so: “they [are]”—to let readers in on the edit.

I didn’t do it to make Bob “sound smarter.” I did for the same reason that writers read dialogue aloud and revise it, read it and revise it, til nobody sounds like you, except you. It’s what we do to ensure all the voices in our stories not only sound authentic, they are authentic.

Kelly Caldwell
Dean of Faculty

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