Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Do Not Write Accents Phonetically... Seriously, Just Don't

We all write different kinds of stories. Some of us write globe-trotting spy thrillers where secret agents play mind games with shadowy conspiracies. A few of us write about the horrors that lurk off the map, in the pine barrens, or dark, forgotten forests where neither sanity or cell phone service treads. And still others of us prefer whirlwind romances where perfect lovers find each other despite all odds.

No matter what you like to write, this piece of advice is for you. Stop writing your characters' accents phonetically. You're shooting yourself in the foot.

Madame... I have no goddamn clue what you just tried to communicate to me.

Why It's A Stupid Idea to Write Out an Accent

There may be some folks reading this piece who are already planning what they're going to say in the comment section below. However, let me ask you this. If you have a character speaking a foreign language, do you write out their literal words before translating them for your audience? Or do you just tell the audience what the character said?

Chances are good most of you just write the meaning of the dialogue, rather than writing out what someone said in French, or Spanish, or German, then translating it into English for the audience. And you do that for a very particular reason; because you know it's going to be a waste of time for your reader to read the dialogue in one language, then read the same dialogue in a different language. And if they don't speak the first language? Then it's an even bigger waste of time.

Phonetically writing out an accent works off the same principle.

Say it once, say it well.
We've all seen it, and some of us have done it. You have a character with a thick Scott's burr, perhaps. Or someone from South London. Maybe you've got a supporting character from Louisiana, or Texas. The way they speak is as much a part of their character as how they dress, or the skills they possess, and you want to make an impression on the audience with it.

The problem is that when you start writing out an accent, you're putting a hurdle in front of the reader. Because there are no rules for what a truncated word means, so what you write on the page may not be what your reader hears in their head. And there's always the risk your reader won't be able to parse the meaning. This will leave whole sections of your story as unintelligible gibberish which your reader will have to figure out through context.

That's a lot more work than just reading a book where the author conveys the information, and lets the reader keep up with the story.

Add Some Flair, But Be Less Literal

Characters shouldn't all sound the same, but there are better ways to bring across their speech patterns than by hoping your audience can sound out non-standard English. The easiest way, of course, is to simply tell your reader what a character's accent is. Whether it's a gentle Southern drawl, a thick Russian slur, or a clipped, public school accent, readers will get the picture without being bashed over the head with it. You can change up the speaker's word choice, the cadence of their speech, and the slang they use, too. All of this allows you to add unique character to someone, without forcing the reader to ponder over whether or not, "ach," is a real word, a slang term, a spelling error, or if they're just supposed to sound it out the way it's spelled.

Well, that's all for this week's Craft of Writing post. Hopefully it gave folks something to think about. If you'd like to support this blog, and keep my nose to the grindstone, why not drop by The Literary Mercenary's Patreon Page? All it takes is $1 a month to get yourself some sweet swag, and to keep me in business. Lastly, if you haven't followed me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter yet, well, why not start?


  1. I am inclined to disagree. Literally writing it out can be very effective, but you have to be sparing on who you use it for.

  2. Alan Dean Foster does a pretty good job with it. The guy ghost wrote Star Wars.


  4. Thank you so much for this article. I've spent years trying to tell writing peers why I refuse to review/edit a piece after seeing all dialogue is accents. For one, if you haven't heard the accent it is confusing but also it makes grammar edits near impossible because some accents slip in words that aren't commonly known. The only instance where I've seen accented dialogue work is if there's a consistent word or two. The only times I've seen dialogue is always accents is if the character is drunk or if it is from an alien language.