If I had to single out one hallmark of bad writing, it’s a tendency to sprinkle adverbs on otherwise decent prose, especially in passages of dialogue. It’s a habit that lots of romantic novelists and chick-lit writers have got into, and I hate it.

Copywriters aren’t immune from the disease. I often have to edit down work that has been overwritten in this way. These are two unedited phrases that recently landed on my desk.

No, I can’t inflict them on you. Just believe me that the writer made the fatal trick of trying to add an emotional gloss to the speakers’ words, and did it awkwardly. He  invested the dialogue with a lofty importance it doesn’t deserve. And it made me feel sick.

Good dialogue

I think the best way to get dialogue right is to apply the ‘shopping list’ test to it. In other words, is the dialogue carved out approprately to the situation?

This is the right way to do it:

“What else do we need from the supermarket?” John asked Mary.

“Peas.”

“Anything else?”

“Maybe some butter. Oh, and milk. We’ve nearly run out.”

“Okay. Peas. Butter. Milk. What about some chocolate cake?”

“Great idea. Stick that on the list too.”

Poor dialogue

This is the wrong way to do it.

“What else do we need from the supermarket?” John asked Mary, a gluttonous twinkle in his eye.

“Peas,” said Mary, salivating elegantly as she pondered those little, green orbs.

“Anything else?” responded John, with eager anticipation.

“Maybe some butter,” Mary riposted, knowing full well that dairy products could whip John into a frenzy. “Oh, and milk. We’ve nearly run out.”

“Okay. Peas. Butter. Milk.” John paused for dramatic effect, then added. “What about some chocolate cake?”

Mary licked her lips, savouring the chocolate that would soon rim them. “Great idea. Stick that on the list too.”

Oh hell. Now I’ve made myself laugh. I’ll come back to this one.

What do you think are the hallmarks of good dialogue?