Fiction editing: lessons from the dialogue read-aloud

I expected to have additional lessons from the back half of the first edit to share with you, but it turns out that by the time you’re that far into your piece, it’s really about applying everything you’ve already learned and picking up speed.

Instead, new lessons come this time from my first forays into the dialogue read-aloud.

Yet again, the learning curve has been a bit of a shock.  Yet again, I figured I would be quick about it, soaring through this new form of editing like a trumpeter swan.  After all, I’ve already edited the entire book once for major plot and character overhaul.  How hard could it be to read the thing out loud and fix a little grammar?

Hard.  Real Hard.  Like, I-am-less-a-swan-and-more-a-barnyard-chicken hard.

So, in the spirit of transparency and education…some further lessons.

Lesson thirteen: Fill out character sheets

I know.  I know I said in the last set of lessons that you would know your characters really well by the time you finish the first half of the first edit.  That their backstories would clarify, their body language would spring up, and their personalities would form.

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There’s always more to do.

Convincing characters are changeable people.  There will always be things to learn about them, new angles to consider, and relationships to cement.

So, it’s a good idea to refresh your knowledge of your main characters and their feelings about each other before heading into the dialogue read-aloud.  And the best way to do this is to fill out character sheets that both delve deep and limit your response space, so that you get more than a surface look at each character, but less than an essay-length expose.  The goal here is to make something you can reference quickly when you hit a piece of dialogue that sits oddly.

I recommend these sheets by Rebecca Sinclair.  I’ve found them wildly helpful, and a few of the questions to consider surprised me.

I also recommend filling them out and adding them to the binder in which your printed manuscript lives.

Lesson fourteen: Prep your manuscript

Because, yep, you have to print it.  Even if you’ve been editing on the computer up to this point, even if you super love trees, now is the time to hold your manuscript in your hands, feel its heft, and think about reducing that heft by probably another 10-15%.

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Printing also allows you to color-code your dialogue, so that you can read each of your main characters in turn, from start to finish, without interruption, living the book multiple times from each perspective.  First time through all the yellow, second time, all the pink, etc.

Lesson fifteen: Read your inner dialogue and descriptions, too

Depending on the point of view you use in your writing, you’ll also need to read aloud the descriptions and inner dialogue as you go.

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If you write from first person perspective, for example, all the inner dialogue must have a consistent voice that matches your point of view character, complicating, supporting, or opposing what they say to the people around them.

If you write from third person omniscient, then you have to be especially careful to match the right bits of inner dialogue to the right characters, making it clear whose head you are inside and when.

And if you write from a third person limited perspective, as I do, then you have to do some combination of the two, creating a consistent voice for the present point of view, and eliminating all moments when you accidentally stepped into another head.

You also have to consider your narration.  If you’re a distant narrator who provides an outside perspective onto the story, or a mood for the book, then that voice must also be consistent, as if it’s another set of dialogue.

If you’re an intimate narrator, as I am, then all the descriptions, narrative blocks, and scene-setting must come through the eyes of the point of view character and, again, be consistent.

It’s all about consistency.

Lesson sixteen: Be on the lookout for other fixes

In the process of reading dialogue and matching descriptions to character-reported events, you are almost certainly going to notice things you didn’t catch the first time through.  Right now I’m about six chapters into my first character read through, and I’ve already caught a chronological inconsistency and a major inaccuracy in my explanation of Magic.

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Taking the birds eye view on things also changes the topography of your book.

You start to see where scenes run thin and where they get bogged down.  While the bogs can quickly be drained, the sparseness is often due to lacking background or world-building.  So, be prepared to do some more development work to give the dialogue more punch, referencing deeper motives than you initially considered.

Lesson seventeen: Listen and breath

Listen to your words and the way they flow.  Is your dialogue sharp when it needs to be? Surprising? Unexpected? Smooth?

Are any sentences too long for one breath?


If you can’t say it, your character can’t either.  Cut it down.

And listen for your characters’ overall tendencies.  Do they have patterns you didn’t see before?  Temper followed by apology? Calm demeanor with occasional spikes of frustration? Fast-talking wit that stalls out once in a while?

Make sure what you do is unique, rhythmic, and evocative.



Historian, novelist, musician, and imagination professional.

2 thoughts on “Fiction editing: lessons from the dialogue read-aloud

  1. Sincere but seemingly silly question; as you read dialogue aloud, were you ever tempted to use different voices, tones, or accents? My thinking is to help differentiate characters from other characters, but also from yourself as narrator, and though I’m not eager to write a novel myself, I’m finding the process very interesting.

    • My tone definitely varies based on the character, as does my body language. But accents and voices are for the professionals. It was actually somewhat surprising–I wasn’t sure what to expect.

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