Day #21 – Tread Lightly Using Dialect

By Dawn Frederick

In the interest of being forthright, I’m a Southerner by birth, spending the first 25 years of my life in that region.  Yes, the infamous accent moved to Minnesota (along with many books, a cat, two birds, and more in 2000),  but that’s it.  Nothing along the lines of the bad dialect I’ve read in many queries would match my upbringing.  Now to be fair, I didn’t grow up on a farm, nor did I grow up without running water or any electricity (yet another possible stereotype of being a Southerner).  Most of the people I know in Tennessee (and it’s a wide swath of friends and family) all carry Southern accents, but that’s as far as it goes. It’s rare you will never hear any person I know and/or most strangers speak like something out of a Mark Twain novel.

The sign of a not-ready-for-publishers manuscript, especially aimed for children or young adults, is the use of oddly spelled contractions and made-up words (to hint at an actual word/phrase being communicated).

There are many issues that arise from unsuccessfully “attempting” to imitate a dialect  in a novel.

1.  The story is hard to follow.  The overall plot becomes choppy.

2.  The reader loses interest.  I’m assuming you’d like readers to FINISH the book.  Yes?  Then the narrative needs to flow, so that readers stay engaged.

3.  For those who may hail from the region (where the dialect is “from”), it’s maddening and the equivalent of finger nails going down a chalk board.

It’s very unlikely that I’ll stay with any manuscript that abuses ANY dialect. My two cents:  if a writer is going to use dialect as a tool, it’s better to use sparingly, with a clear set of boundaries when the character(s) will speak in dialect, and plans of a good thorough edit by a third party after the book is completed.  Specifically BEFORE approaching agents or editors.

I’m in agreement with Grammar Girl and Charles Carson (her guest 7.18.08) who stated “if you’re going to write in dialect, make sure you know the rules of that dialect so you don’t insult your readers and be conscious of how nonstandard spelling and dialect might influence your readers’ opinions of your characters and of you as the writer.” 

This Southerner is giving a thumbs up.