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When the Emperor is Naked, Tell Him

May 14, 2016 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified May 15, 2016

We all know the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, how unscrupulous con men defraud the emperor and his subjects by pretending to be weavers who know how to weave cloth that’s not only beautiful but can be used to reveal how stupid or unfit for his or her position a person might be: the person unfit for his position is unable to see the material and the clothing made from it.

The faux weavers swindle the king and his courtiers by taking gold and materials and yet failing to make any new garments. They pretend to weave all night, but because no one wants to point out that they see nothing, everyone who supposedly sees the garments being woven lies and reports how beautiful they are.

Even the king pretends to see the garments. Consequently, he parades through the streets of the kingdom naked, afraid to admit that he’s unfit for his position.

In fact, until a child points out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything, all the people pretend that they see the emperor’s new clothes.


I want to use this tendency to avoid pointing out the obvious—for whatever reasons—as a message for writers.

If you’re a member of a writing or critique group or you’re a critique partner with a writer, don’t let anything, least of all embarrassment, keep you from telling another writer that a particular work isn’t ready to be published or submitted to agent or publisher. Don’t be afraid to point out flaws or plot problems or clunky constructions. Don’t be afraid to admit that you found yourself lost by—and not in—the writer’s words.

Don’t try to be so nice about not hurting a fellow writer’s feelings that you allow him or her to walk around like a naked emperor.

If you have connections with writers, tell them when there are problems with their stories. No, you don’t have to be cruel. And, no, you don’t have to point out a missed comma here or extra spacing between sentences there—not unless that’s what you’ve agreed to help with.

But do tell writers when their stories don’t go anywhere. Tell them when their characters are boring. Tell writers when dialogue doesn’t work, when scenes are less scene than summary, when the pace runs so slowly that the characters seem to be moving in reverse.

Share the same kind of information—if you’re in the position to do so—that you’d like shared with you.

Many new writers don’t know what they don’t know—why not help them out when you can?

My sister and I developed signals for those times when we got spinach or something gross stuck in our teeth but weren’t in a position to say that the spinach was there. We used simple gestures to point toward a tooth. When the problem was even more delicate—something caught in the nose—we’d tap one nostril or the other, with no one being the wiser.

Don’t you want to be told you have something in your teeth or your nose before you get your picture taken or before you’re introduced to someone important? I know I don’t want something hanging out that shouldn’t be. And I trust my sister to let me know about potential problems.

I trust editors or critique partners or members of a writing group to do the same for my writing projects.


Writers who publish before a novel is ready are on my mind this week because I spent some time checking out new novels at Amazon.

One of the Facebook groups I belong to allows authors to promote their books. After reading a few pages from about a dozen books chosen at random, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged at the state of self-published books and bummed out on behalf of most of the writers whose books I’d checked out.

Almost all of the first dozen or so books I checked out weren’t ready for an audience. And I’m not being picky because I’m an editor; I can overlook errors and typos and evaluate as a reader. It’s that the books, almost without exception, were bad (not a word I throw around carelessly). And I was reading the opening pages, which are often the ones given the most attention by the writer.

Six or seven of the books started the same way, with a first-person narrator telling all about him- or herself before introducing a flashback—no sense of the current setting or current events. The books were so similar in tone and style and wording that I wondered if I’d clicked on the same link multiple times.

I hadn’t.

A story opening that sounds like the opening of half a dozen other stories checked at random isn’t necessarily a problem of grand proportions. But when I find different writers writing in different genres starting their stories the same way in such a small sample of books, I wonder why the writers aren’t being more creative. A story’s first page is an invitation to what should be a unique adventure—why make it sound like every other book being released?

Several books featured the use of every verb except said as a dialogue tag in the early pages. I read the full excerpt for one book just searching for the dialogue tags. Almost every one was different.

While it’s true that some genres allow for a greater variety of dialogue tags than other genres encourage (we’ve looked at dialogue tags many times here at The Editor’s Blog), the variety and choices for those tags told me that the writer probably didn’t understand the purpose for dialogue tags.

In one book the author augmented each dialogue tag with an explanation of what the character was doing while he or she spoke—she said as she ran to the door, he said as he opened the mail, he asked as he rubbed his scar. The repetition—the repeated repetition of as he or as she—should have been quickly noticed and corrected.

A couple of stories used a dialogue tag with every line of dialogue. Every single one. He or she says can get old quite quickly.

A few of the stories repeated names in dialogue well beyond what would be necessary. One or two began with explanations about a character’s background, but with little to interest a reader new to the story world and characters. A few were too straightforward with dialogue, with questions asked and answered fully, with no artistry.

I wasn’t looking for problems when I started checking out the books. It’s just that out of a dozen or more self-published books, only one seemed to be clear of obvious and repeated mistakes or problems or weaknesses.

Couldn’t someone have pointed out these problem areas before the books were released to the public?

If you’re part of a writing group or are an accountability partner for another writer, don’t be shy about speaking up. Writers may be counting on you to point out glaring problems. If you don’t speak up, they might assume that their own worries are out of place. That is, they might have wanted to mention a problem but if you didn’t see the same problem, they might have thought they were mistaken. And no one wants to look foolish in front of others.

But better to ask questions of other writers than put out books with big honking errors and weaknesses. (I’m not talking about typos here.)

Now, you may be sticking your own neck out to offer a critique or suggestions, but I’m suggesting that you speak up if you’re in a position to do so, not as a stranger ragging on another writer just to annoy him. And I’m definitely not suggesting that you shame a writer by writing a nasty review to try to teach him something in a public venue. I am suggesting that you offer your observations before a book goes to print.

The situation is different if you don’t have a relationship of trust with other writers, if you’re a stranger simply trying to help out a fellow writer. But even such situations can be finessed.

And no, I’m not saying that you have to play edit policeman for every other writer. But you know when someone trusts you, when a writer could use your help. Learn how to share observations in a constructive way with those writers. Don’t let the emperors in your life walk around naked.


When You’re the Emperor

Part two of my message has to do with the writer doing his or her own homework regarding writing in general and the elements of fiction in particular.

You can’t rely only on others—you’ve got to learn what makes good writing good.

Learn how to write dialogue, how to develop characters, how to plot.

Learn how to hook readers with a story’s opening and with chapter endings.

Learn multiple ways of achieving effects and using the different fiction elements.

Don’t allow yourself to be the emperor fooled by others (I’m thinking particularly of reviewers here) who tell you the story looks great when there are holes all over the place.

Your friends and family may tell you your book is fantastic, but they may be telling you that to spare your feelings.

They may not know how to tell you what’s wrong and therefore feel they shouldn’t say anything. They simply may want to support you.

But that doesn’t mean you should trust their evaluations.

Some of those same books I checked out had thirty or forty or even fifty five-star reviews. For almost every one of those books, such a rating would be beyond exaggeration.

If you’re the emperor, the writer, make sure that you don’t necessarily believe all the praise that others heap upon your books, especially a first book. If you’ve never written any fiction before, never studied the craft, and never bothered to get any insight or help from editors or other writers and you whipped out a novel in a month and put it up for sale, it’s likely that those five-star reviews from friends and family are simply support ratings. They might make you feel good, but they don’t represent reality. You know this to be true when other reviewers point out the weaknesses in your books.

Sure, you may be a fiction savant, able to write a novel quickly and without flaw, without practice or training, but that’s unlikely.

However, if you’ve put in time to learn and practice the craft, those five-star ratings may be completely apropos. If that’s the case, I applaud you.

But if you’re a new writer and/or a writer who knows little about how to construct a piece of long fiction, be skeptical about exaggerated praise.

Don’t rush to publish. Study both the rules of writing and the fiction elements. Give yourself an education or take classes. At least read up on the craft.

Don’t let your books—and by extension, yourself—be caught naked or only partially dressed. Learn what makes good fiction so that you can identify it, and its absence, in your own work.

Find yourself a critique group or partner, other writers who will hold you accountable for your work. Let writers and mentors speak into your writing life. Allow yourself to be a student, to be in a position to learn. And when you’re ready, allow yourself to develop into a teacher or mentor for others.

This doesn’t mean that you won’t still need a critique partner. It just means that at some point, you won’t only be accepting help, you’ll be giving it.


Reaching Out

If you know a beginning writer or one who needs help, suggest resources. Websites, books, and writing programs (local and online) are great resources for writers. Share links and info for those you found useful.

If you’re that beginning writer or you need help with specific writing areas, start looking for the knowledge you need. It is available. If you don’t know where to start, try writing or fiction classes for beginners at a local college. Try books on craft. Join an online critique group.

I’m sure many of you already encourage other writers; that’s one reason why I wonder how so many can fall through the cracks, how they can publish without knowing even the basics about fiction or even grammar.

Almost all writers share their knowledge or experiences with other writers—so why do some writers still not see that there’s more to writing a piece of long fiction than plopping words on a page? I’m writing this because it was disheartening to see the same kinds of mistakes made again and again. Disheartening too to see others ignore major story weaknesses as if they didn’t exist, telling the author that a book is worthy of five stars when it still needs major work.

I love that writers can self-publish; the industry is so different for writers trying to get their books into the marketplace today. But publishing doesn’t magically confer a badge of worthiness or merit on a story. A reviewer declaring a book to be a great one doesn’t mean that it is great. When such praise is unearned, that’s like telling the naked emperor how beautiful his clothes are.

Information is available on every side. If you’re in a position to share your knowledge, I hope you share it. If you’re still looking for knowledge, I can assure you that it’s out there. Keep looking.

When circumstances allow for it, I hope you help the naked emperor find some worthy clothes.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: Beginning Writers, Self-Publishing

50 Responses to “When the Emperor is Naked, Tell Him”

  1. ytdee says:

    Good advise

  2. Could you, please, suggest an online critique group?

    Thanks in advance.

  3. Logan Grey says:

    I recently struggled with a critique for one of the partners in my group. I wanted to cheer for their protagonist but the way she was written there was nothing about the character that made me want to. In fact I felt the main characters actions were unrealistic not to mention downright boring! I wasn’t sure how to say this to the author. In fact I almost didn’t say it at all but I realized that I would want this person to be honest with me. After I gave my honest opinion, I felt better.

    • Logan, it’s sometimes difficult to balance our desire to help with our impulse to not hurt someone’s feelings. But like you, I’d want to know. And a writer in a critique group is there to get an honest critique. I’m glad you were able to share with the writer.

  4. You said it, Beth!

    Getting honest pre-pub critiques from readers/peers who know your genre is super important.

    Giving and receiving peer critiques in a beneficial way is as much a learned skill/art as the actual writing. I finally figured out that my work improved a lot more from trying to understand the other guy’s criticism (valid or not) than from defending my manuscripts to the death. 😀

    I wish everyone felt that way. I stop offering suggestions to a fellow writer if I get a combative reaction to a gently stated criticism. Don’t need the aggravation.

    • Linda, learning to critique well benefits other writers but we also get a benefit. I learned so very much about writing and editing when I had to figure out what was wrong with a passage of text that I knew had problems and then had to figure out how to tell another writer about the weakness as well as figure out suggestions that would correct the problem without creating more problems.

      I know that some critiques focus on only some issues, but working in a critique group really helped push me toward editing.

  5. I agree completely.

    There’s a group on a critique website that asks writers to specify what they want out of critique, the choices being “commercial” (willing to make changes that could help make a work likelier to sell), “artistic” (basically a “this is my art” approach, resistant to change for the sake of sales), “balanced” (willing to make some changes for the sake of sales), and “undecided” (just is glad to have finished something). I think knowing this, along with the level of critique desired, ahead of time helps avoid a lot of confusion and/or hurt feelings.

    You mentioned how family sometimes won’t give honest critique because of worrying about hurt feelings. Sometimes, critique partners end up becoming very close, and this same concern could come into play… but ultimately, wouldn’t you rather hear it from someone who cares about you? I think we worry about distancing people, though.

    (Also, there’s a typo – *their own worries.)

    • Monika, knowing what the writer is looking for ahead of time is a great way to manage the critique process. And it’s probably especially good for new writers who fear what the process will be like. One good thing about working in a critique group is that you get used to hearing the opinions of others concerning your work—that can prepare you for critics. But it also should help you learn to share constructively with other writers. At its best, a critique group should also have writers wanting to write better, wanting to know different ways of constructing sentences or of creating effects. When another writer suggests that a section of text doesn’t work, that should prompt the writer to figure out what works better as well as figuring out why the original didn’t work. If we learn from what doesn’t work, out subsequent writing projects should be stronger from the start.

      Thanks for the heads-up on the typo.

  6. Great post, Beth!

    You note attitudes and issues that have been presented on many writing and editing blogs, in hopes of slowing the rush to publish incomplete, error-ridden, and poorly executed books. One would wish your excellent advice didn’t need/have to be repeated, and yet it must, as writers continue to confuse ease of publishing with permission to produce lower quality material.

    The quality line that is consistently ignored produces books that are unrefined, underdeveloped, and difficult to read. Reviews are rarely representative of the work–or if they are, it is worrisome that readers would embrace such poorly produced material.

    Have our collective expectations lowered? Has our collective reading ability lowered? Has our acceptance of poor writing and storytelling become the new norm?

    I believe in the passion that lives in every writer. I believe in the writers who remain true to their passion and refuse to publish, no matter how easily that could be accomplished, until their story is the best it can be.

    The people who write a story, but have not pursued knowledge to bolster writing skills, have not pursued editing, and have not accepted honest appraisals of their work…are not writers or authors. These are people more interested in fulfilling an ego objective, a validation–not producing a story that engages and influences hearts and minds.

    This may sound harsh, but there are standards in any form of literature, and these standards do not restrict excellence or how that excellence is attained. In other words, whether the book is YA or True Crime or a Graphic Novel, it consists of an engaging story, highly supportive visualization, emotive dialogue, and a structure that fully supports and forwards the story at all levels.

    Thanks, Beth, for bringing these concerns to the forefront again. Your advice is spot on!

    Maria D’Marco

    • Maria, I like to encourage writers, knowing that any piece of text can be improved and that any writer can improve. But seeing so many poorly written stories back to back, stories that had been published, I admit I was discouraged. No single one of us can reach everyone, but maybe if each of us encourages writers to slow down before they publish, more writers will discover that there’s more to writing long fiction than they anticipated.

      I don’t want to squelch any writer’s enthusiasm, but I also don’t want them embarrassed. There’s so much information out there for the taking—how do we let writers know that it’s there?

      I don’t know if our expectations have lowered. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far toward the encouragement side (those ubiquitous participation trophies) and too far from the how-to side.

      I know that not all writers write for the same purpose. Some write simply for fun or for the challenge. Some write several books as preparation and training for writing the one important book. Some discover that they’re good at writing and want to run with that knowledge. Some want to make money.

      I would never discourage a writer from writing no matter what lies behind his or her desire to write, but I will discourage a writer from publishing too soon. Sometimes the story isn’t ready. Sometimes the writer isn’t ready.

      This issue always has me wondering why only writers try to bring their work to the public before the work is ready. Surgeons are willing to train for years. The same is true for engineers and pilots and painters and ballplayers. Why are writers so eager to skip steps and put their writing out there? Maybe because since we all know how to write and have read books all our lives, we assume that writing fiction is easy.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

      • First, ya gotta teach ’em to read, Robert Penn Warren would say.
        By that he meant understand the story fully, at least as well as the writer did.
        Hardly anyone understands, for instance, that as Aristotle said, what gives a story unity is not as the masses believe that it is about one person but about one action. These people usually have read the wrong stories and have never read a true literary analysis of a great story.
        It takes a lot of work to write a bad story.

  7. Dave says:

    Great post Beth, I hope my book was not on your hit list. This Indie stuff is tough. But you are right. I’d rather have a few honest close friends tell me to keep working on the story, than, perhaps international embarrassment.

    • Dave, there was no hit list, I promise. :-) I understand that you’re teasing, but I don’t want anyone to think that I go around bashing indie writers. But I also don’t want writers to remain blind to writing weaknesses. If we don’t say anything, writers may only eventually stumble into the realization that there’s more to writing than having a good plot idea. If we can at least raise the topic, I think (I hope) that more writers will catch on sooner.

      Like you, I’d much rather have a few trusted friends tell me that something’s wrong before I show my writing to the world.

      So . . . Should I go looking for your books on Amazon? :-)

  8. Jennifer says:

    Amen sister! To add to your suggestions, writing contests are an excellent resource for professional, unbiased feedback. I just received a harsh review from a contest on a story my CP and critique group told me was good.

    • Jennifer, you make another good point—that we might need to branch out and away from a group if we’ve been with them so long that they no longer tell us what we need to know.

      There could be many reasons for the different responses to your story—the contest reviewer might have been mistaken—but we definitely want honesty.

      Did you ultimately agree with the feedback from the contest? That is, was the feedback valid?

  9. This article seems to have struck a nerve. But how do you reach the writers who aren’t members of a writing or critique group? How do you reach writers who don’t check out websites or read the craft books?

    It’s not easy to write a novel, but it is easy for writers to improve their skills, at least it’s easier with help from others and the determination of the writer. Writers just need to remind themselves that there’s probably something they don’t know, especially if they’re new to the field.

    And while not all writers approach the writing of a book for the same reasons—some simply want the experience or the challenge—if you’re planning to publish, there are minimum standards that should be met.

    Great comments, everyone.

  10. Beth, you are so good and so generous and honest that only fools wouldn’t take your emails to heart and look up something on your site every day.
    As for critique groups, here’s what was established long ago–beginning with John Crowe Ransom.
    First, the word is more important than you or me or all of us together.
    Three types of critique groups exist: the ego strokers, where everything read is just great–send it off; the far outers, where the writer is trying to write like Joyce or Flannery O’Connor or [you name it] and only the writer has any idea of what the hell’s the thing’s about; and the attackers, who go right to the problems in the piece. No time is waste on what is good in the piece–except in extraordinary work. The best response is total silence.
    A conscientious, honest critique group meets at least once a week. Manuscripts are presented only when the writer feels everyone will say it’s ready to send around. Manuscripts are read aloud by a reader. No copy is presented ahead of time. This means the writer must write well enough so the listeners with their admittedly fallible ears can understand what happens in the story and at least begin to see what action gives the story unity. The manuscripts are read anonymously. The writer is not permitted to read his story. Neither is he permitted to speak during the critique. If the story can’t stand on its feet, it can’t be propped up. (The writer can’t go around the world trying to explain his story.) If there are at least four or more in the group, most of the problems will be dealt with during the critique and the writer can ignore at his peril what he deems wrong with what they say.
    Forget using an online critique group. As fallible as the ear is, nothing beats it as an acid test. Find a local group or start one of your own.

    • Frank, as always, thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience.

      I have a bit of a different take on critique groups, at least regarding their purposes. I think they can be useful to writers who write for a variety of reasons, not only for those who are trying to publish. So many writers simply want to improve their writing, want to see if they can follow through and write a book, that the completion of the story is the goal. I don’t think that these writers are necessarily looking for the critique experience that some other writers are looking for. That is, I think that there should be critique groups that fit the needs of all writers, and I don’t imagine that every group would be constructed or run the same way.

      That said, the purpose of the group is to help the writer improve a story and likely their own skills as well.

      I belonged to a couple of critique groups that truly existed to help writers improve their writing and their stories. In both we made sure that everyone got a chance to participate and that everyone was constructive. Learning to critique was as much a part of the group’s purpose as was offering critique. I know that at least one of the groups is still going strong almost 15 years later. Finding a group that’s interested in helping writers is great advice.

      I love your reminder that the writer can’t go around the world to explain his story to every reader. Once writers get that, they understand that they have to make the writing clear. That’s one of writing’s light-bulb moments.

      I’m no longer a member of a formal critique group because I simply don’t have the time. I do have a small group of friends that I met online that functions as a sounding board.

      I have a question for you regarding reading aloud—what about reading aloud do you find more beneficial than reading from hard copy? I don’t like audio books and I don’t like being read to—the reader always reads too slowly, and I don’t get the same experience that I’d get from reading the story myself. With being read to being so different from reading to oneself, how do you compare the experiences? That is, how do you evaluate a section of text when hearing it when that’s not the usual way you read a book? The different reading format makes a big difference.

      • Thanks, Beth.

        I, too, don’t like audio books. I need to hold the book in my hand and be able to underline, mark up, comment on, carry on the conversation with the writer that reading truly is.

        Reading aloud, whether it’s my work, someone’s piece in the workshop, or editing a working writer, does a lot of things. Just as it’s wrong to read poetry silently, it being the sound and sense of poetry that make it so beautiful, reading fiction silently does the writing an injustice–in several ways.

        As for reading my stuff aloud, whether it’s email or the highest form I know of, I find that it slows the reading to the points that 1) I discover absent words that my mind otherwise fills in; 2) I hear infelicitous words, phrases, clauses, etc. that I wouldn’t if reading silently; and 3) I find things that just don’t work. (If I’ve done my job, the last three words of that sentence will carry the emphasis I hear.)

        Reading proteges’ work aloud in the workshop, likewise accomplishes several if not many things in addition to the things cited above. Reading a person’s work to them makes the person realize she/he can’t control how others will read her/his words, that the reader’s inflection, for one thing, is not the way the writer would read it. Writers are forced to hear their stuff, many times to their embarrassment. I read the words just as they are on the page.

        Everyone in the group has to become like little children and turn off the noise in their adult head and get into the fictive dream the way a child does when read a story. People find it difficult to get back to that childish stage but I must say that most are able after some time to do amazingly well at it. I was told by a great writer and editor that I was the best listener he’d ever had; my proteges’ amaze me at how well they can listen. Those that can’t, don’t last.

        Reading a piece aloud is the hardest test of its worth, the acid test.

        During the critiquing period the writer may find some are confused, some can’t even understand what happened in the story or what the story is really about. The discussion aims to recreate in critical (literary) terms what the writer created. The writer has to weigh what people say and reject any of it at the writer’s peril. Sure some dumb stuff is often said, but maybe it stirs thought about something else in the piece. If the listeners can discover the controlling image for the piece–if there is one, even one not fully realized–they can express how it contains the essence in an image of what the one, universal action of the story is, and all the parts fall together, some maybe even falling outside and not belonging in the piece.

        The best reaction to a story is stunned silence. That happened once in thirty-five years.

        When I edit a working writer’s piece, if I don’t read it aloud, I miss things. I read it aloud the first time through and then at least a second time after I think the editing is done. I am being paid well. I can’t afford to screw up. And the writer may have spent ten or more years writing the book; who am I to spend just a few days on it? It takes tremendous energy of the psyche, not just the mind (nous) but the soul. I must become first the writer, then each of the characters whose mind the narrator takes me into. (Jorge Luis Borges said that no man was ever more souls than Shakespeare.) I must understand the full character even of those whose minds I don’t get into. Every character wants different things.

        Prayer, sex, loving my neighbor, reading, and writing are the sacred acts of Man. The last of these is the greatest and the most lasting.

        I apologize for carrying on so long but that’ll teach you to ask. LOL

        • I’m glad I asked and glad you answered. Thanks so much for your insights.

          You know that I was nodding my head at this—And the writer may have spent ten or more years writing the book; who am I to spend just a few days on it? What a great way to look at editing and critiquing. Like you, I don’t want to miss anything. When I’m editing, I want to make sure I consider every issue. My edits definitely take a bit of time; but the writer and the work deserve it.

  11. Jona says:

    Your article is profound. It grabbed me and I read each word, to the end. I wrote my first book and stumbled upon a group. The group pointed out my errors, but my writing was far from perfect. It helped tremendously that the group did a crit of my work because as a first time writer, I understood my flaws. An editor later reviewed my book. After the first edit however, I had the nagging feeling that he didn’t give it as much attention as he could’ve. After my brother pointed out that my book was bland, the editor did a reedit. I too, read more books and worked harder on strengthening my writing. I felt betrayed by the editor because editing costs are expensive. I feel that editors need to apply their minds and give your writing the attention it deserves, especially if you’re paying for the service. This might explain why I found your article is so important.

    • Jona, I’m glad the article struck a nerve. As you and Frank both pointed out, a story deserves time and attention, and that means from writer and editor and proofreader and all the others who work with it.

  12. My great hope is that the writers who need this article have friends who will gently share it with them. I did a manuscript evaluation for a writer who kept telling me editing was not in the budget; I gave the author pages of specific feedback (with examples from the manuscript), but when the book pubbed, the first pages were not just bad, they were painful to read. And it’s a shame because a really good story is buried there somewhere.

    • Most people want just to have something published. Few want to be writers.

      • Frank, I think the same thing happens with kids and teens who want to be singers or ball players—they want to be the thing but often don’t consider the cost. Years of training and practice go into perfecting any craft or sport or artistic endeavor. Writing seems easy because we’re so familiar with it. We read and write daily, and we’ve been doing both since we were kids. I think that’s probably why some think that writing a novel must be simple.

    • Candace, I wonder why the writer didn’t follow up with the feedback you provided. I can understand a writer not having money for an edit, yet once he or she had specific guidance, I can’t see why the guidance wasn’t explored. If you ask a knowledgeable person how to do something, it’s a good idea to at least try some of the suggestions.

  13. When I have a critique, I tell the person I want to know what’s not right, what’s not working. This is great advice, Beth. Thanks so much for sharing this. I’ve shared this on social media.

    • Victoria Marie, I hope your first readers also share some of what does work. There’s no point in changing what works really well if you don’t have to.

      As always, thanks so much for sharing with your contacts.

  14. Phl Huston says:

    “Find a local group or start one of your own.”

    Sage advice. I have discovered a number of local groups are social lonely hearts nerds of commonality back patting and how’s that home schooling going for you excuses to bother the staff on a Sunday afternoon at La Madeline. The trouble becomes,as you say, in finding people who want, or are able, to offer advice without abuse. Community colleges are often a good place to start. I found a retired SMU creative writing professor teaching around the corner and a class full of novices who could read. Gotta start somewhere.

    • You’re so right. Gotta start somewhere. Community colleges or continuing ed classes are one place to start. Ya never know. And there must be a reader-leader who keeps people on track discussing only matters of craft. The group should build up a core of shared reading, primarily short stories because they can be broken down and discussed in a relatively short period.

      • Phil Huston says:

        That, and you might find a set of like minded people (not inferring back patters) who may be willing to meet elsewhere to discuss more than aunt Mae’s memoire of deep fried rabbit and potato pancakes in with a heaping side order of Jesus in a tent full of charismatic revivalists in the Ozarks before electricity. Which was entertaining until chapter four was chapter one again down the road a piece.

    • Phil, a retired creative writing professor sounds like a great writing or critique group facilitator. I bet he (or she) loves doing it too.

      I would definitely suggest leaving a group whose members are abusive. Leave a group that doesn’t help you grow. But maybe the whole group feels the same way, and the group could be retooled after some honest dialogue about what the members really want.

      Yet I can understand if some writers don’t want to go to that trouble. Some just want to dive in and improve a story and their skills. They may not be interested in trying to “fix” the group. That is, they might just want to be there to do the work, not design the group. Those folks would do better to find a group that already works well.

  15. Hi Beth,

    I am from India, and it is a timely article and an eye-opener for Indian publishing industry. Every Indian author who seems to think they are bestsellers by delivering below par product should definitely read this article to know that they are one among the many naked emperors who are demeaning the art of fiction. Thanks Beth once again for such a wonderful post.

  16. Steve Lowe says:

    Hi Beth,

    What a coincidence! On the same day (Saturday 14th) you and I both wrote posts, to different writing forums, but using precisely the same simile: ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’! Well how darn spooky :-)

    But I fear that is where the parallel ends, as while you go on (above)to defend a series of controversial modern ‘writing rules’ (while simultaneously attacking authors who have self-published), on the *other* forum, I do the diametrically opposite. In fact, my own use of the above simile is to describe what I see as the misguided (one might even suggest: arbitrary, un-evidenced & unhelpful) modern ‘writing rules’ pushed by the publishing ‘establishment’. In my case, it is that modern publishing establishment which I compare to the ‘Emperor’ who is wearing no clothes (and is in danger of deluding themselves and everyone else) rather than aspiring authors. My comments actually begin from May 7th & you can find the link here:

    Actually, I felt I should reply, here, as you specifically mentioned the use of ‘dialogue-tags’ by those self-published authors you criticized. Which is a subject that’s not only close to my heart, but one which you and I have had long, polite & constructive discussions about on this very forum. And to save duplication of arguments, I’ll simply point to the link to that thread from last year: comments

    My comments begin on March 26th. But in particular, on April 11th, I published the results of a survey which I carried out on a random, representative sample of modern best-selling novels (all published in the last two decades) by established authors. The results not only give the lie to that modern ‘writing rule’ which states that aspiring authors should: “Only use ‘said’ as a dialogue-tag”, but they demonstrate that those self-published authors who you criticize, above, are merely following in the footsteps (and, hopefully, the success) of the (vast) majority of the modern best-selling *published* authors on the shelves of our bookstores & libraries.

    Of course, Beth, if you honestly felt so strongly that the “Only use ‘said’ as a dialogue-tag” rule was correct, and that those self-published authors you criticize were wrong to ignore it, then I hope you are going to have the courage of your convictions and also write to the best-selling authors in my survey-results (and their publishers/ agents/editors) to point-out to them that they are making the same mistake, and that they are no good as writers, and that they probably shouldn’t be in print.

    I mean: the American legal system is based on the principle of ‘justice for all’. Indeed, the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta (which we celebrated last year) reminded us that it was the American Bar Association which erected the memorial at Runnymede where King John agreed to the demands which included: “To none shall we sell, deny or delay right or justice.”

    Which kind of embodies the principle (in any civilized society) that ‘Nobody is above the Law’! As such, I think it entirely reasonable that any laws or rules ought to be (indeed, must be) applied *equally* to all. And so, in the context of writing fiction, any ‘writing-rules’ which apply (or not!) to established, published, best-selling authors, ought to apply equally (or equally not!) to all the rest of us, too!

    Ladies & gentleman of the jury, I rest my case for the defense :-)


    • Steve, I smiled when I read of our coincidental writing about the naked emperor.

      While there are definitely best practices for writing, there are always exceptions. And you’ve been around this blog long enough to know that I say that again and again. (I’m thinking of putting something like there are exceptions to every rule and every bit of advice in my masthead.) The Magic of Fiction even contains an entire chapter on exceptions.

      I certainly don’t think that said is the only dialogue tag that can be used. But as I’ve gone to pains to say, some words simply don’t work as dialogue tags. You can’t kiss words, you can’t pucker words, you can’t whistle or laugh or smile words. You can’t twitter or husk words. Maybe you haven’t seen some of the odd verbs used for dialogue tags, but they’re out there.

      And some dialogue tags aren’t accepted in some genres, at least not as a general practice. On the other hand, some genres expect and encourage a variety of creative tags.

      Some words used in dialogue tags interrupt the fiction, inserting the author into the scene. (In some stories it’s clear that the viewpoint character isn’t the one reporting that another character retorted or responded or replied. The ten-year-old first-person narrator isn’t likely to say that his buddy retorted.)

      Some tags do the work that the dialogue itself should be doing. And when the dialogue and not the tag does the work, the scene can be so much more dramatic or powerful.

      Some stories do use creative tags. Some use only a few and some use a lot. Some writers don’t trust themselves enough to let the dialogue and word order convey meaning or emotion. Some writers simply don’t know that it’s not necessary to vary the words of dialogue tags with each tag. But as I’ve said before, dialogue tags should be—like the period at the end of the sentence or the capital letter at the beginning—nearly invisible. They are markers, not boldly underlined elements of the sentence.

      And still, there are exceptions. Sometimes dialogue tags may play a bigger role. The writer and editor need to be attuned to the style, the characters, the genre, the plot, and anything else that can influence word choice.

      As for attacking authors who have self-published, I didn’t attack any author and I encourage anyone who wants to self-publish to do so. But I’m certainly not going to encourage writers to be mediocre and to ignore writing practices that will have more readers enjoying their work. I’m not going to smile and nod at poor writing practices. While I encourage writers to try anything (another tagline for the blog), that doesn’t mean that anything is always going to work. Sometimes rules and recommendations are the best options. Sometimes what we try is not the right choice and we need to try something else.

      If you’re writing for an audience that reads English, you’d better write in English. If you’re writing for children, you need to choose a topic that appeals to children. No one would argue against those kinds of restrictions. Following rules or best practices or the kinds of recommendations that have proven themselves through the work of hundreds of writers is a good thing, not a restrictive straitjacket.

      Yes, there are allowances. Yes, sometimes a rule isn’t really a rule. Yes, when a rule is a rule, sometimes shattering the rule makes for wonderfully extravagant or elegant or fabulously marvelous writing. But encouraging writers to ignore what works and what has been proven to work isn’t helpful. Helping writers explore options is more useful than telling them to toss out recommendations.

      I make allowances for the use of dialogue tags other than said and have said so many times. Do you make allowances for your stance that anything goes? That is, do you ever encourage a writer to rein in their use of unusual or varied tags, knowing that a restricted use of dialogue tags might better serve a particular piece of writing? Exceptions work both ways.

      • Steve Lowe says:

        Hi Beth,

        Yes, it was such a coincidence I still have trouble believing that either of us hadn’t paraphrased the other. Which one that might be I wouldn’t care to hazard a guess… But on a general point, I do strongly feel that the modern publishing ‘establishment’ cannot truly be living up to its own billing of: ‘Desperately searching for the next big thing!’. As I said in the ‘Writers on the Storm’ discussion: “How can they be when they erect a series of arbitrary ‘rules’ to prevent the rest of us from writing like ‘the current big thing’?” Which was in relation to the specific ‘don’t (ever) do’ rules being discussed there, but also applies to the other ‘rules’ in general.

        The thing is, my (very brief and in-exhaustive) survey of last year (I can supply a more extensive one if that would help :-) confirmed what I suspected for some time: that modern, published,
        best-selling authors of many different genres ignore the “only use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag’ rule”. So why is it (as Phil mentioned) that the ‘said rule’ is being pushed everywhere, when that clearly does not accord with what appears in the best-sellers which the public buy and (presumably) want to read? That’s precisely my point.

        You say, above: “But encouraging writers to ignore what works and what has been proven to work isn’t helpful.” (I guess here you were addressing me.) Yet I’m afraid I must resort to the simile of the naked emperor(s) again, here, and point out that it is the *publishing establishment* who are the ones “…encouraging writers to ignore what works, and what has been proven to work…” by (as Phil says) “pushing the ‘said’ rule everywhere”, when you have to look hard to find a modern best-selling novelist who sticks to that rule completely, or even half the time.

        Yet my last editorial consultant deleted (it’s okay, it was only on a copied Word file, not the original) absolutely every one of my dialogue tags, replacing them with ‘said’, for the first 50 pages. And when I challenged her on it, she allowed no exceptions to that rule.
        Yet my use of dialogue tags rarely extends beyond the simple, everyday tags that describe perfectly normal forms of speech, such as: ‘asked’, ‘replied’, ‘shouted’, ‘whispered’. So go figure…

        I also recently read Howard Mittelmark & Sandra Newman’s: ‘How *not* to write a novel’, where they humorously dealt with such ‘rules’. However, their attitude was to poke fun at, and ridicule, any debut novelist using *anything* other than ‘said’. And the complaints they had about aspiring authors’ use of variations on ‘said’ centred around such form as: ‘expostulated’ & ‘interlocuted’ etc. as if those crop up all the time in works submitted to agents. Yet I don’t know anyone who would write like that, simply for the effect of showing the extent of their vocabulary.

        And then there are several other rules which conflict with this one:

        ‘Don’t use repetitive words’. If you only *ever* use ‘said’, it’s not only unimaginative & non-descriptive, but (despite what editors may claim to the contrary) I certainly *do* notice it in the text, and I *will* eventually tire of seeing it (and give up on the author as lacking any creativity/imagination/descriptive ability etc.)

        ‘Always use a stronger verb instead of including an adverb’. Why on earth is it that we are urged to use ‘stronger verbs’ for absolutely *every other* human activity *except* dialogue? Dialogue is just another human activity like any other, and a ‘stronger’ dialogue-tag mostly only adds to the image the author is trying to create.

        ‘Omit unnecessary words’ (Strunk.) A single, well chosen dialogue-tag can describe so much more to the reader about the speaker’s thoughts, mood, expression, activity etc. than any amount of ancillary exposition which might be necessitated to partner the otherwise used non-descript ‘said’.

        Beth, you say that rules work both ways, however as Phil & I seem to have concluded: On this particular ‘rule’ (as well as many others) not only is it like a bus crammed full of agents & editorial consultants currently being driven pretty much in one direction only by the publishing ‘establishment’, but I hate to say that it also seems to be heading the wrong way down a one-way-street, with most modern best-selling authors flashing their headlights, honking their horns and waving out of their windows as a warning… yet *still* it shows no sign of slowing or turning round! (There, now how was that for a simile to go along with all those naked publishing emperors :-)

        As for ‘rules’, I think George Orwell once issued a list of writing rules. Apparently, the first one was: “Never use a metaphor, simile or other cliché…” So I guess he wouldn’t have approved of either you or I then, Beth… But then, having said that, the final rule was to break all the other rules… (Now *that’s* my kind of rule :-)


  17. I bet you also prefer descriptive dictionaries to prescriptive ones.

  18. Phil Huston says:

    I’ve weighed in on this before. Scene setting, body language, positioning. I got busted by an editor for following the “said” rule too much, while it is being pushed everywhere. Elmore Leonard pushed it and offered by way of example a character in one of his books who wrote romance novels built out of rape and adverbs. There has to be a happy medium, particularly in such a visual culture, to show a character, how they are when they speak without turning them into cardboard Joe Friday “Just the facts, ma’am” talking heads and going over the top striving for egregiously mellifluous dialogue tags every time a character opens their mouth.

    “Said” just don’t cut it all the time, and “Take that you silly girl,” he snarkled a half laugh half howl through a sinister, dark, booming and echo-ey cold saliva laden outburst is too much. Isn’t it?

    • Hey, Phil, if you’re not going to use “he snarkled a half laugh half howl through a sinister, dark, booming and echo-ey cold saliva laden outburst” yourself, can I?

      Your happy medium concept applies to this whole conversation. Eliminating all adverbs and forms of “to be” and getting extreme (in either direction) about dialogue tags, and restricting the critique group to whatever membership, purpose, and methodology suit the opiner, and pitting indies vs. “real” writers, etc., etc.–Bah! Humbug!

      There’s a legitimate place in some critique group for every writer. If you’re bored by little old memoirists and back-patters, don’t join a group of them. If you get repetititive motion stress from rolling your eyes at self-important Literary Writers, ditto.

      Look for people in the same track as you, far enough ahead to give you quality advice, but not so far ahead that they consider you a worthless waste of their time. And don’t look down your nose at the ones wasting YOUR time. It’s all relative.

      It’s tough to find a compatible group in low-population areas that might not have a critical mass, so to speak, of writers. That’s where online sharing can be helpful, especially between writers who already know and respect each other’s work.

      Reading aloud has pros and cons. If read by the writer, the delivery can mask deficiencies in the naked text. If read by someone else, it might help reveal flaws or might be butchered by their lousy reading skills.

      This is a fun discussion, anyhow.

      • Linda, have you found a place to use “he snarkled a half laugh half howl through a sinister, dark, booming and echo-ey cold saliva laden outburst”? Snarkled is a great word.

        It can be tough finding a group that you fit into. Not everyone is at the same place in their writing; they may not even be on the same trajectory. As with any group, adjustments are being made all the time. But as a writer, we do want advice from others with more experience. At the same time, as members of a group, we need to do our part to share advice with others. (Yep, exactly what you said.)

        I’ve only had good experiences with critique groups; I wish the same for all writers.

        And yes, a good discussion. I like that we have multiple opinions; how dull it be otherwise.

    • Phil, there is balance. And each story needs to find its own balance. Because the elements are never the same from book to book, what works in terms of any one element for book A won’t work the same for book B. Because the other elements create a different environment, even something as simple as dialogue tags have to be tweaked from one story to the next.

      And that’s part of the art. Still, we know from experience that some options work better than others.

  19. This is a great conversation, gang. I’ll be back, but I’ve got a deadline to meet.

  20. Steve Lowe says:

    Well now, Mr. Armstrong Green asks: “I bet you also prefer descriptive dictionaries to prescriptive ones?”

    My answer to that would be: In the sense that ‘description’ involves classifying objects in a non-judgemental way, whereas ‘prescription’ is a synonym for ‘tyranny’ or ‘despotism’, a big ‘Hell yeah!’ I do.

    The point is not only that (as Phil points out) ‘creative-writers’ (of *all* people) ought to be free to express themselves in their work using *all* of the available tools which the English language affords us (with none of them being ‘proscribed’). It is also that there ought to be a ‘happy medium’, where those who only want to use ‘said’ as a dialogue should be free to do so… but then, by the same token, those who think it more artistic, creative, ‘descriptive’, informative, dramatic (feel free to add any other adjective associated with writing a fictional work) etc. ought to enjoy the same freedom (plus there ought to be room for a mixture of the two).

    And if it can be demonstrated (as many try to do) that the most successful writers in the world today write in a certain way, then what kind of lunacy is it for the publishing establishment to ‘proscribe’ that style for those seeking to emulate the most successfully practitioners in their chosen field. In no other art-form are ingénues ordered *not* to strive to copy their idols.


    • Steve, you did say it here—my apologies for missing it: It is also that there ought to be a ‘happy medium’, where those who only want to use ‘said’ as a dialogue should be free to do so… but then, by the same token, those who think it more artistic, creative, ‘descriptive’, informative, dramatic (feel free to add any other adjective associated with writing a fictional work) etc. ought to enjoy the same freedom (plus there ought to be room for a mixture of the two).

      I think that this covers all the options.