Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Discover What You Need to Write Dialect that Shines True

by Cindy Sproles @CindyDevoted

Everyone is known for something, and me—well, it's my mountain dialect. I learned years ago that when you hail from the mountains of East Tennessee, folks are going to rag you about your accent. I decided to roll with it. 

The dialect makes me who I am, which is not such a bad thing. For me to translate that dialect into viable dialogue took a little practice. There were some things I had to come to grips with, like the cultural differences across the country. It was wrong to simply assume everyone understood the concept of going "across the gap"—something so second nature to me in both doing and speaking became a stumbling block for those above the Mason-Dixon.

As much as I love my mountain heritage and dialect, in order for it to come across as both understandable and realistic, I had to put the brakes on from time to time. Learning to write the dialogue and dialect that you speak requires thought. Follow these tips to help you pen amazing dialect in your dialogue.

Tips to Write Effective Dialect

1. Remember, everyone doesn't know your culture: Whether you are from the mountains of upper East Tennessee or the western United States, culture plays a heavy part in the dialect of the area. Just because you understand a particular phrase or unique word doesn't mean your readers will. For example: When I lived in a small town just outside of Charleston, S.C., I didn't understand the culture of those born and bred in the deep south. So, when a kind gentleman in our church asked if he could tote me home, I was taken back. Tote was a bag (I know, even in the mountains of Tennessee). It didn't make sense. What he was asking was could he drive me home. I'd never had anyone offer to "tote" me home before. All I could imagine was someone stuffing me into a brown paper bag, which certainly couldn't end well. Before you write geographically cultural phrases, think about:
  • 1) the importance of that word choice to the story 
  • 2) consider offering some insight to the reader with a follow-up phrase to help them clarify.

As an editor, I ran across a lady from upper Pennsylvania who described a bicycle in a very unique way. I ran it past four editor friends, none of whom had heard of the phrase. When I asked her to remove it or change it up, so the average reader understood, she hit the ceiling. To her, that was correct. Everyone should understand it, but that's not how things are. Be flexible with your cultural phrases and help clarify or offer a way to understand the sentences around the phrase.

2. Spellin' Ain't All It's Cut Out to Be: I can throw myself under the bus since I'm writing this post. As a writer of Appalachian Historical, dialect is everything to bring a certain realistic tone into the story. But you have to be wise. 

Editors wanted to leave off the ing in my mountain words, i.e., seein, hearin, tastin. And that was fine, but their editing minds sooo wanted the apostrophe at the end of the word. Seein', hearin', talkin', hurtin'. It didn't take long for them to realize all those little apostrophes grew insanely annoying, so they returned to my original way of writing the word—without the apostrophe. 

A second thing that came into play with this lazy way of talking was that if there was a more educated character in the scene, how did we allow them to talk? We let them use the ing on their words to denote a more educated person. Sounds easy. No, it meant the writer had to pay attention and craft the scenes appropriately, and when there is a dialogue between the two, know when to use the ing and when not.

3. Overuse of those lazy words: again, this goes back to being particular about what to use in dialect or not. Sometimes we opt to use lazy words in the dialogue, but in internal dialogue, we mix it up. This helps the reader fully understand the use of the dialect without running it into the ground. 

4. Don't allow your dialect and dialogue to make your characters stupid: At least not unless they are supposed to be. You can have an uneducated individual who carries on perfectly normal conversation. Just because they have a certain dialect or accent doesn't a stupid character make. Pay attention to the details and write reality, not stupidity. Some of my wisest characters have the deepest accents and unique phrases. Make their dialogue raise their personality, not lower it.

And with that, I share a fast story. A few years back, two women walked in discussing accents while in the restroom at a conference. Their accents were very mid-western, and apparently, to these two ladies, that was the perfect accent - unless it was British. There was a conferee there with a deep British accent; to these ladies, it was beautiful. Then there was that hillbilly who just sounded stupid (that hillbilly was me, and I was called by name). I'm proud of my mountain heritage, and after talking to a male faculty peer and asking him if my accent made me appear stupid, he was dumbfounded. "Your accent makes you approachable. And when you write your accent, phrases, and lingo, your readers feel like they're wrapped in a warm mountain blanket."

I don’t tell you this to draw sympathy, but to show you how dialect affects others. This proves the importance of writing your characters with the right dialect. Write it as you speak it. Don't force it. When you force it, your readers notice immediately. I find that writers often overwrite dialogue and dialect trying to drive home a point. Instead of driving home the point, they drive away the reader. 

Study dialogue and dialect. Pay attention to how folks speak. Do your homework. Nothing drives a reader away faster than bad dialogue. Craft your phrases carefully and if there is a word or phrase that stumps the reader—take it out.

Writing is a true craft, and each part is vital to the success of a good story. I can't say it enough—learn the craft, and your stories will sing. 

One last word of advice—never assume the restroom is empty.


Cindy K. Sproles is an author, speaker, and conference teacher. She is the cofounder of Christian Devotions Ministries and the executive editor for www.christiandevotions.us and www.inspireafire.com. Cindy is the lead managing editor for SonRise Devotionals and also Straight Street Books, both imprints of LPC/Iron Stream Media Publications. She is a mentor with Write Right and the director of the Asheville Christian Writers Conference held each February at the Billy Graham Training Center, the Cove, Asheville, NC. Cindy is a best selling, award winning novelist. Visit Cindy at www.cindysproles.com.

Featured Image: Photo by Ayla Verschueren on Unsplash


  1. Love this, Cindy! As a hick form the sticks of the Florida-Georgia line (before it was a smash band!) I've run into all kinds of false assumptions about my intelligence because of my accent and manner of speech on my way to becoming the bestselling author of 2 million books. All I can say is Ha! I'll be happy to tote you to the bank any day, sister!

    1. Lol! We is who we is! Thank you for the backup and I accept the tote.

  2. Great points. I have a British background and I am often called to “translate!”

    1. Then you see the importance. Glad this was helpful.

  3. What amazes me is the lack of common courtesy and the grandeur of the egos of those two writers. Shame of them.

  4. Ahhh, history. Though I will say, I had an eyeball pasted to the crack of the stall door to see who it was. The point is...to reflect our dialect beautifully in our work. I went to college with a guy who coined this phrase: people is basically stupid. Yes they is!" I still laugh over that. Truth is folks don't think, doesn't make it right but allows us to be tested for forgiveness. Ain't that right Ane?

  5. I love this article. Especially since my dialect is now a mashup of Northwest Ohio and South Carolina.

    And I couldn't finish a book because of the over use of apostrophes in the writing of those lazy words. It was a novel with a great story line of race relations and friendships between children in the early 1900s. The formatting hurt my brain and my eyes. I'm glad you're editor chose otherwise.

  6. Excellent advice, Cindy. This is a keeper. Thank you! :)