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Website of author and professional editor Rachelle M. N. Shaw. Find information about her books, her editing services, and her blog, From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing.

From Mind to Paper: On Writing and Editing

From Mind to Paper is a blog for writers, editors, and those interested in the English language. It covers a multitude of writing topics, from punctuation and grammar to plot development, character development, and world building. In addition to in-depth articles about various writing topics, this blog also has a number of series posts, which are currently being transformed into a nonfiction series on writing.

The Editing Agenda: Tackling Tags

Rachelle M. N. Shaw

While I’ve made several posts in the past about dialogue, today it’s time to tackle tags. During my experience as an editor, I’ve corrected a ridiculous number of tags. In fact, they’re probably the biggest issue I run into—apart from maybe commas. What makes them such a struggle for writers? Honestly, I think the methodology has a lot to do with it. When many of us write, my included, we tend to get the story down on paper as quickly as possible and worry about the structure later. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, eventually we have to the editing stage. So what better time to hunt down the little boogers and spruce them up? This article will focus on the ins and outs of tags: what works as a tag, what doesn’t, and why diversity in tags can sometimes be a downfall.

Tag, You’re It!

The general purpose of a tag is to describe who is speaking and to indict tone of the dialogue.

Some tags may be very simple: “Put the water on to boil,” said Tommy.

Others may be more elaborate: “Why would you do this?” she asked in a strangled voice.

They can even be coupled with an action: “Of course,” he said, waving goodbye.

But all tags are used to further clarify the dialogue within the given context. Oftentimes, they are a way of depicting emotions as well as what is being said. But BE CAREFUL about using tags to convey emotion, especially if you’re relying on adverbs to do so. Usually, a much better way of illustrating these emotions is to use characters’ body language, facial expressions, and even the words themselves. While including some emotion in a tag’s description is okay, too much falls dangerously into the telling category. The best way to avoid this is to ask yourself, “Can this be shown better through the character’s actions or by others’ responses?” If the answer is yes, your tag probably could use some tweaking.

Example A (adverbial tag): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked impatiently.

Example B (alternative): “Are you going anywhere with this?” Jane asked, crossing her arms and pursing her lips.

While Example A definitely conveys Jane’s emotions and signifies that she is the one asking a question, it definitely lies more in the realm of telling. There’s no clear image of what the character is doing to show that she’s impatient, and it doesn’t engage the reader. Example B fulfills the function of a tag, and it does a much better job of showing how Jane feels without stating anything directly.

Not It!

A tag isn’t a linked reaction the dialogue. This concept can be tricky, because a lot of actions sound like they could be tags—but they aren’t. For instance:

“Well, of course I didn’t!” Joanie giggled.

Giggling, while an action often associated with what someone has said, is a reaction to the dialogue being spoken, not a description of the tone used or a simple signpost for who said the line; therefore, it’s NOT a tag. Here are a few other actions often mistakenly used as tags:

  • Coughed
  • Laughed
  • Hissed
  • Nodded
  • Smiled
  • Sighed

The best way to catch these pesky creatures is to make use of the search and find feature on your word processor. It can home in on all those non-tags (sometimes referred to as bookisms) for you in a matter of seconds. Once you’ve found all the subpar tags, get to work revising and tweaking them until you have a solid base sprinkled with appropriate actions to convey emotions. Your readers will thank you for it.

Keep It Simple

There’s still some debate over this technique, but I think editors and publishers as a whole have come to the consensus that when it comes to dialogue tags, keeping it simple is best. That doesn’t mean you can’t have some diversity in your tags or pepper them with action where necessary—in fact, using action with tags is a necessity to avoiding a phenomenon called talking heads—but tags are one place where variation isn’t necessarily a good thing.

The word said is one of the best markers you can use in dialogue. It serves the primary function of dialogue, to depict who is speaking, and accompanying actions can be used to further enhance the scene by conveying emotion and even tone of the dialogue. While it may feel like using “said” multiple times in a scene would be tiresome to the reader, quite the opposite is true. Readers treat the word like a signpost: it directs them without interrupting the flow of the narration, and that makes for a smoother reading.

If you want some extra tips on using tags, I highly recommend checking out this article by Writer’s Digest. They give excellent examples and go even more in-depth about showing vs. telling when it comes to dialogue and tags.