We don’t need help in the Oh-My-God-I-Suck Department

In fifth grade, I attended the all-girls, private Catholic school I’d been in since kindergarten, with kids who had last names like Demoulas and Sterling (look them up). Sister Catherine, our esteemed leader, hated us all. But she disliked me less – or appeared to anyway – because I grasped English. I could diagram the fuck out of a sentence.

This was cool since the girls in my class were elitist snobs who knew I didn’t come from money. Having a somewhat friendly face around (even a nun) helps get you through the day, ya know?

In sixth grade, when my parents got divorced, I was enrolled in public school. I thought: HELLS, YEAH! Normal kids like me who will have ordinary, non-billionaire last names, also like me. (They were and they did.)

now_hiringBut those kids also figured I was just some snot who got tired of being surrounded by the same sex while her hormones went into overdrive. I must have ditched my rich pals in favor of a co-ed school so I could look down on the girls and steal the boys away, right? Seriously, in sixth grade, this shit is very real.

Anyway, making new friends in junior high sucks donkey balls. So I tried to suck up to Mrs. B, my new English teacher, hoping to spark a smile when she recognized my aptitude. It worked before …

Me: “Mrs. B, I looked at the next chapter last night and I saw we were going to be diagramming sentences. Can I help with that?” (I still smile and tear up when I see a proper diagram. Yes, I am that much of a geek.)

Mrs. B: “Becky, we’re not going to do diagrams. We’re skipping ahead.”

Me (crestfallen): “Why?”

Mrs.B: “Because it’s too complicated. Besides, no one needs to know how to diagram a sentence.”

We could spend the rest of this millennium talking about what that conversation means in the grand scheme of public education. Instead, stay with me for a sec.

I was bummed I wouldn’t have an opportunity to stand out in English. I had zero friends and having the teacher as an ally couldn’t hurt. (Desperate times call for desperate measures.) I was bummed I wouldn’t be able to do something I knew how to do well. When you go to a new school, you search for familiar shit anywhere you can find it.

BUT thirty years later, let me tell you, Mrs. B was right.

You don’t need to know how to diagram a sentence.

You also don’t need to know the definition of gerund, third-person omniscient, or denouement. I mean, if it’s your thing, if it turns you on to understand it all, I totally get it. I’m with you, actually. But the rest of the universe – writers and non-writers (the only two categories) – do not need to know this crap.

If you want to write, and an editor says your work bites because you change point of view or tenses too often, tell them to screw.

If you pour your heart and soul into something and an editor says, “You’re ruining your work with too many gerunds,” you could reply, “Pulling your head out of your ass might be fun.” (That might be the longest sentence I’ve ever penned. I’m blaming the fever. Plus, it’s funny.)

Generally speaking, writers are riddled with anxiety and self-doubt, but are compelled to write anyway. We can’t help it. We’re almost always desperate for validation, tired, overwhelmed and frustrated. We spend far too much time wondering if we’re talentless hacks wasting everyone’s time – including our own. We cry and hope, wait and pray.

We do not need help in the oh-my-God-I-suck department.

But more importantly, an editor succeeds when the writer he works with succeeds. So if an editor does not raise you up, stir your confidence, show you how to improve without crushing your spirit, walk away. (My policy for everything,by the way.)

For clarity, an editor should be firm. A good editor will even make you uncomfortable. Parting with precious words is difficult for every writer. But an editor should never make you feel like giving up. That’s just plain wrong.

So, no, you don’t need to know how to diagram a sentence à la sixth grade English. Leave the technical bullshit for the people who like technical bullshit. (Waves hand.) Meantime, just write.

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He said. She said. And they all lived happily ever after.

And at the beginning, the writer had dialogue, and it was awesome. It sucked me in like nothing I’ve read in ages. But as much as I loved the writing and banter, by the fifth or sixth response from character number one to character number two, I wanted to bleach my eyeballs.

“He would write his quote this way,” she scoffed.

“And I wanted to yell at him, loud and long,” she sneered.

“Because no one – no one – can scoff, sneer, gasp, grumble, hesitate, blurt or even cry words,” she snapped.

We don’t snap words either.

Here’s the deal:

When your characters speak, they say things. He said. She said. Sometimes, they whisper, mutter or ask. Anything else – any other, more colorful verb you mistakenly believe will enliven your dialogue – is a way of telling the reader instead of showing.


I’m so glad you asked. Two reasons.

First, colorful verbs distract the reader from what’s important, which is your fucking dialogue. Don’t mess with that.

hesaidshesaidSecond, it defies physics to scoff or gasp, etc., words. We can end a quote with “he said, scoffing.” or “she said, gasping.” or “she said, smiling” – you get the idea. But as writers, it is our job to SHOW the reader what we mean. We want our readers to see what we see. One of the best ways to do that is by describing facial expression and/or body language.

“I am not lazy,” she said, furrowing her brow. (anxious)

“You are too,” he said, clenching his fists. (angry)

“Not nearly as lazy as your sister,” she said, looking down her slender nose at him with distaste. (scoffing)

The point: Dig deeper.

If we meet somewhere and chat, your face is the first thing I see. It’s also the focal point. People connect via eye contact. We notice when her eyes widen, squint, focus inward or dart. We also watch her mouth. We see right away when she presses her lips, flashes teeth, frowns, smiles or purses her lips.

And let’s not forget the rest of the body. We see and make note of gestures as we talk. Writers can describe thousands of movements to show readers what the character feels or how he says something. All readers – all people – are body language experts.

Ninety-three percent of human communication is nonverbal. Think about it. We are regularly fed messages through body movement. What we sense as we interact dictates how we feel and how we act toward the other person.

Readers naturally apply this skill and recognize body language on the page. The way a gesture is described reminds them of how they use a similar movement when experiencing an emotion. It’s called shared experience, and it’s what powers the elusive empathy link between reader and character. Combine your rich dialogue with pieces of a character’s thoughts, and it’s pretty easy to convey a powerful moment.

But it’s not going to happen with Susan scoffing at the end of every quote, while Steve whimpers his replies. Add flavor with description.

When in doubt, pick up a book from your favorite author and look at how they end their dialogue. J.R.R. Tolkien, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Kurt Vonnegut, Victor Hugo, F. Scott Fitzgerald, for starters – all end quotes with said, say, or some variation referring to volume. Modern-day authors? George R.R. Martin, Anne Lamott, Tana French, Eoin Colfer, Pittacus Lore, Rick Riordan. Go look.

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Need help? Hit me up. I’m available for one-on-one writing guidance, consults and full edits.

Psst. Be sure to subscribe to the site in the upper right-hand corner. That way, I can send the sexiest, most liberating and inspiring tidbits of writing advice straight to your inbox.