Dialectal spelling: why it's probably not helping your manuscript

Dialectal spelling in fiction (writing dialog with an accent)

By David G. Brown

Is dialectal spelling always a mistake? No, not at all. Anything can be done well. Representing accent in dialog is best mastered by writers who are intimately familiar with the dialect employed—either their own dialect, or perhaps their family's. Also, the story itself should call for it. When dialectal spelling is used to "spice up" a character, it very often falls flat.

In such cases, we frequently advise clients against using dialectal spelling. This is when you creatively spell words to represent a character's dialect or accent. For better narrative immersion, and to put the “sound” of the accent in readers’ imaginations, consider simply letting your readers know that a character has an accent, and then demonstrate their accent with word choice and syntax rather than spelling. There are a few reasons for this.

First, many dialectal spellings are actually super common pronunciations, so there’s no need to create a potential distraction for readers by altering how a word appears. For example, with dropped-g gerunds and participles—readers will "hear" these two sentences similarly: (1) No, I ain't going with you. (2) No, I ain't goin' with you. The second option presents a possible challenge in terms of consistency, and the reader's eye can catch on alternate spellings.

[Note that "ain't" is dialect (word choice), not dialectal spelling, as opposed to "d'ju wanna" for "do you want to".]

Second, English is quite far from phonetic. There are so many regional variations that you can’t rely on international readers to “get” your phonetic take on a particular pronunciation, at least not at a glance. As soon as readers stop to wonder how a line should be read, their immersion decreases.

Third, because there is a long history of writers employing dialectal spelling to predominantly characterize lower classes or racialized minorities, some readers simply dislike encountering it, which also impacts immersion.

Again, anything can be done well, but if you are a white writer attempting to make a character "sound black", for example, then you're not likely to win over many readers.

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