Taming Your Dialogue Tags

As an editor and a writer of fiction, one of the biggest issues I see is authors who do not know how to write dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is that “he said,” “she replied” wording attached to the dialogue to clarify who says what. The problem is most beginning authors—and I was guilty of this myself in the past—tend to overdo them. For example, they might write:

“I want my teddy bear back!” she demanded loudly.

Dialogue tags serve only one purpose: to clarify who is speaking.
Dialogue tags serve only one purpose: to clarify who is speaking.

There’s no need for “loudly” here—how else would she say this if there is an exclamation mark at the end? There’s also no need for demanded. It’s obvious she’s making a demand by the words she spoke. Just “she said” is sufficient here, or in the context of the overall scene, perhaps “she replied.” It’s possible you might not even need a dialogue tag if only two people are in the scene and it’s clear who is speaking.

As a general rule, there are only three acceptable verbs for dialogue tags: said, replied, and asked. Some authors will tell you “said” is the only acceptable one, but I do think “said” starts to sound repetitive if it’s the only one you use.

But why only those three verbs? The purpose of a dialogue tag is to make it clear who says something. That is its only purpose. Most beginning authors, however, feel they need to tell us how people say something. That’s not at all necessary because it should be clear from the words spoken how something is said.

Here are two more examples:

  1. “I love you,” she whispered softly. No need for softly—can you whisper loudly? Whisper implies it’s said softly. But is whispered even necessary? Now and then, I might let it go, but I think “said” is sufficient again.
  2. “I’m going to kill you!” he exclaimed loudly. As with “whispered softly” the adverb is unnecessary. How else do you exclaim than loudly? But “exclaimed” isn’t needed either. The exclamation point already made it clear that the words were being exclaimed. Here “said” might not be the best choice since it sounds mild, so I would use “replied” if appropriate. More likely, such a dramatic sentence requires no tag. Or you can describe the action that follows. “Joe said, lunging forward with the knife,” or just “Joe lunged forward with the knife” as a sentence following what Joe said. It will be clear Joe said it.

These examples teach us two lessons: 1) As Stephen King says, “The adverb is not your friend,” so quit using adverbs to describe the verbs in your dialogue tags. 2) You only need “said,” “replied,” and “asked.” Now and then you can get away with another word, but use them very sparingly. Maybe one per the entire conversation, or better yet, the entire book.

Why is using simple dialogue tags so important? Because, as I said above, their only purpose is to clarify who said what. Using elaborate ones only distracts the reader and slows down the action. “He said” is two syllables. “He exclaimed” is three. “He exclaimed loudly” is five. Call me a minimalist, but every syllable counts in writing. You want your sentences to flow and sound musical. You also want to maintain fast pacing in an action scene where someone plans to kill someone else. All those extra syllables just slow down the action. It’s also true that less is more. “I love you” says everything. We don’t need: “I love you,” Mary proclaimed effusively. Hopefully, by the time Mary says these words, we will know Mary well enough to know how she would say them. And as I said, elaborate dialogue tags can distract the reader. Think what image “he ejaculated” puts in the reader’s mind. The reader just quit paying attention to your book because their thoughts went elsewhere.

One final word on dialogue tags. If you choose to use any other than “said,” “replied,” and “asked,” make sure they are words that imply speaking. I see a lot of authors use tags like “she smiled,” “he snorted,” “Mike laughed,” and “Janice beamed.” None of those are dialogue tags. Have you ever, while beaming at someone, had words magically come out of your mouth without speaking? No, I didn’t think so. If you feel it is important to tell us someone is beaming or snorting, tell us after the tag: “Amy said, beaming,” or “Frank replied, snorting.”

As an editor, I spend a lot of time cutting out unnecessary words. As an author, if you learn to tame your dialogue tags, you will be able to cut hundreds of words from your book, all of which are slowing down the reader. Your readers won’t thank you for it because they will never notice those words are missing, but they will be more likely to finish reading your book because the pacing will be better. In the long run, neither of you will regret the loss of a long word or a pesky adverb.


Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. For twelve years Tyler served as Vice President (2007-2008) and President (2008-2019) of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is also the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012) and the former book reviewer for Marquette Monthly (2008-2019). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.


Creating Author Events

Last Saturday, I stepped down after eleven years as president of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. During that time, I was involved in organizing more than a dozen conferences and meetings and a fair share of book-selling events.

I am always surprised by authors who are unwilling to be involved in book events to promote their books. While today a lot of publicity and marketing can be accomplished online, getting out to meet your public remains one of the best ways to sell books and get people interested.

That said, just because you decide to have an event doesn’t mean people will come to it. I’ve been at many a book signing at a bookstore where I spent more time being asked by patrons where to find a book (because they thought I worked there) than actually signing my own books for them.

Here are a few tips to make your author event a success.

When I released my book “Haunted Marquette,” I had an actor dress up as one of the ghosts I talked about.
  1. Have a program, not just a book signing. If you’re only signing books, people often figure they can always get a copy of the book later. The truth is that having a personally autographed book is not usually enough to get people to show up. People will be more inclined to come if you are giving a presentation. Schedule your book signing to have a presentation in the middle. For example, you could be at a bookstore from 12-2 and advertise that you will give a talk at 1 p.m. (Don’t just do a reading—people can read your book on their own.)
  2. Invite other authors. Nothing is worse than sitting at an event by yourself with no one to talk to, especially in a busy area where people will notice you are being ignored. So bring along another author friend, or two, or twenty. Then if no one shows up, you can enjoy the camaraderie and exchange writing and marketing tips during the down times. More importantly, you have your followers and your author friends have their followers, so the more authors there, the more people who will come, and then you can introduce your followers to your author friends and vice-versa, thus increasing your following.
  3. Promote the event. Never rely on the staff at a bookstore or any other venue to advertise your event for you. Hopefully, they will advertise it, but make sure you do so also. There are many ways to do this: Make posters and distribute them in the area. Make an event page on Facebook. Post to your Facebook page about your event. Do the same on Twitter or any other social media sites you use. Send out a press release to all the media. Pick up the phone and call a radio or TV station to ask for an interview. Ask your friends and family to spread the word—if nothing else, they can share your social media posts.
  4. Go large. The bigger and more exciting-sounding the event, the more people will come. For several years, I was involved in U.P. Author Day, which we advertised as the biggest author event in Upper Michigan. Every year we tried to get more authors to attend, and usually, we had about two dozen authors for the public to meet.
  5. Choose highly visible, high-traffic areas. Bookstores are wonderful places, but only people looking for books will go to them. A lot of people don’t know they need your book until they see it or meet you, so go where the people are. I’ve sold lots of books at art and craft shows. I’ve sold books at the county fair. I’ve had book signings in malls and coffee shops, and, of course, in libraries and museums. Some of these venues worked better than others, but don’t be afraid to experiment. If an event doesn’t succeed, move on. If it’s moderately successful, find ways to make it better for the next year.
  6. Be creative. I know you’re creative because you’ve written a book. You can be equally creative about designing your book event: be creative about decorating; come up with a theme; have a book drawing or a special game or quiz for people to play and win a free book; find friends to act out a scene from your book; promise a special surprise. Your only limit is your imagination.
  7. Always bring promotional material. A lot of people don’t buy my books at events but they ask me where they can get them. I always have brochures that list local places my books are for sale, and I always let people know my books are available online in paperback and ebook formats. Sometimes people are traveling or just don’t want to carry a bunch of books when they’re at an art show, but they are interested enough to buy your books later. Give them something to take with them so they remember later that they want to read your book.
Author friends Gretchen Preston, Donna Winters, and me at a book fair.

If you sit at home and decide to be shy, no one will see or learn about your book. If you’re out in public, even if no one buys your book at an event, you will meet people and plant the seed so that later, when they might need a gift for someone, they might think about your book.

Now get out there and plan your next author event. I hope you will tell me about your successes.


Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. For twelve years Tyler served as Vice President (2007-2008) and President (2008-2019) of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is also the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012) and the former book reviewer for Marquette Monthly (2008-2019). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.

My retirement as president of the UP Publishers and Authors Association cake – a wonderful surprise.

Benefits of Joining a Writing or Publishing Association

Next Saturday, I will not be writing a post because I will be attending the 22nd annual Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (UPPAA, www.uppaa.org) conference. As a result, I thought today I would write about the benefits of belonging to such an organization.

I first attended a UPPAA meeting in 2002. In 2007, I became Vice-President, and from 2008-2019, I have served as President. I will now be turning over the reins to a new president, Victor Volkman, owner of Loving Healing Press and the longtime webmaster for UPPAA.

Here I am pictured at one of the many events UPPAA has attended – this was the Waterpalooza event at the Lower Harbor in Marquette, MI a few years ago. I’m with my author friends Gretchen Preston (left) and Donna Winters (center)

Here are just half-a-dozen of the top benefits I’ve enjoyed from being a member of this organization:

  1. Networking: A lot of authors are shy, and I admit the first time I attended this conference, I was also shy, but I quickly learned that authors are among the friendliest and most interesting people you will ever meet. I have made numerous friends as a result of belonging to UPPAA. In fact, I’ve met well over 100 authors through our organization, most of whom live here in Upper Michigan and write about it like I do. John Kremer, the author of 1,001 Ways to Market Your Book, says networking is just another word for making friends and I have to agree with him.
  2. Beta Readers: By making friends with fellow authors, I’ve met authors I have been able to exchange drafts with of my books and short stories. We catch each other’s typos, let each other know where something works and where it doesn’t, and overall, become better writers by sharing our knowledge and keen eyes for detail.
  3. Knowledge: UPPAA’s main purpose is to educate its members on all aspects of writing, publishing, and book marketing. UPPAA holds a conference every year where we have experts come in to speak about various topics. Past experts have included Publishing Coach Patrick Snow, Self-Publishing Guru Dan Poynter, and the Book Shepherd Judith Briles. We have also had many sessions conducted by our own members who have educated us on what they have learned as writers and publishers. Every year, you can find sessions on a diverse number of topics; past topics have included children’s books, mystery novels, ebooks, audiobooks, book marketing, self-publishing 101, self-publishing vs. traditional publishing, working with literary agents, book reviews, novel writing, working with editors, how to be a freelance writer, poetry, and the list goes on and on.
  4. Getting Published: Many publishing and writing organizations have their own publications. UPPAA has the U.P. Reader. All members are welcome to submit their poetry, short stories, or essays to the U.P. Reader to get them published. This year’s third annual issue has eighteen different authors in it, including myself. Such publications are a great way to get readers who might only be familiar with one or two authors’ works to discover more authors in your organization.
  5. Participating in Author Events: Over the years, through UPPAA, I’ve attended and been involved in organizing several author events, including U.P. Author Day, where we’ve had more than twenty authors from the U.P. get together to sell their books to the public. Other times, groups of maybe three or four of us have gone to share a booth or two at a craft show or art fair or public event to help promote our work. By doing so, we share the costs and extend our reach to different venues where we might otherwise not have a presence.
  6. Giving Back: Through UPPAA, I’ve had the opportunity to give back by going to speak to students at high schools and colleges who are interested in writing. We also now have our Dandelion Cottage short story contest (www.dandelioncottage.org) open to middle and high school students to encourage them to write. We’ve even done fundraisers for local libraries and donated books to organizations. As an author and a member of a publishing or writing group, you can enjoy giving back in many ways.

Numerous other benefits exist when you join a publishing organization. Some of the larger organizations like IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association, www.ibpa-online.org) offer discounts on various book publishing and marketing services. At one point, I even received a special self-employment health insurance rate for belonging to SPAN (Small Publishers Association of North American), which has since become APSS (Association of Publishers for Special Sales http://community.bookapss.org/).

Publishing a book can be scary. It is less scary when you can meet other authors like you, share ideas with them, and feel you’re not alone. I highly encourage every author to join their local publishing organization and to get involved in it. To find out if there is a regional organization near you, visit the list at the IBPA website: https://www.ibpa-online.org/page/affiliates. You can also visit your local library, which may have information about smaller groups in your area, or just google writer groups or publishing groups along with the name of your city or state. Numerous author and writing groups also exist online at Facebook and social media sites. Now go out and find other authors and make friends with them.

And if you are already a member of a writing or publishing group, I would love to hear what benefits you have received.


Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books, including The Nomad Editor. Tyler is the current President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (www.uppaa.org), and the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.

Eliminating Prepositions: A Trick to Reduce Wordiness

Few things will confuse readers or make them want to quit reading your book more than wordy, hard-to-follow sentences. One of the biggest culprits of the wordy sentence is the prepositional phrase. Trying to avoid, reword, or limit prepositional phrases to one per sentence will result in much clearer communication with the reader.

Just what is a preposition? My seventh grade English teacher, Mr. Thurston, taught us that a preposition was anything a squirrel could be in relation to a woodpile. For example, a squirrel can be “on” a woodpile, “in” a woodpile, “behind” a woodpile, or “under” a woodpile. A squirrel can also be “of” a woodpile. After all, we’ve all heard of Anne of Green Gables so why not Mr. Squirrel of Woodpile Acres?

A preposition is anything a squirrel can be in relation to a woodpile.

Some other prepositions exist that don’t really fit the squirrel rule, like “during” and “to,” but most of the prepositions we use that cause trouble fit the squirrel rule.

The prepositional phrase is anything that comes after the preposition, such as “of Woodpile Acres” or “behind the woodpile” or “in the kitchen.”

However, I brought up “of” specifically because it is the worst culprit in making wordy sentences, and it’s also the easiest preposition to eliminate. Here are some examples of sentences that use “of”:

  • That is the crown of the king.
  • The manager of the business should learn to set the hours of the employees.
  • The citizens of Marquette enjoy the popularity of their roller derby.

All of these sentences can be rewritten to be easier to follow. The simple trick here is to remove the prepositional phrase by instead using possession—aka the apostrophe s. For example:

  • That is the king’s crown.
  • The business’ manager should learn to set the employees’ hours.
  • Marquette’s citizens enjoy their roller derby’s popularity.

Look at how much easier those sentences are to read. The second one went from fourteen words to ten, and honestly, we could reduce it even more to:

  • Managers should set employees’ hours.

Look at that—five words, and none of the meaning lost.

But “of” isn’t the only culprit. Prepositions are wonderful, but too many can spoil a sentence. They usually create a string of little words that just make a sentence very hard to follow. Here’s an example using some other prepositions that I bolded so it’s clear what they are.

  • I went to the store on the corner because I needed to get milk from a goat and I know that the farm in Greenville only sells its milk from goats at that store and that’s the only store that carries milk from goats.

I hope none of us would ever write a sentence like that, but I’ve seen it happen many times. Here’s how I’d reword it:

  • I went to the corner store for goat milk because that’s the only store that carries it.

Look at that—only one preposition in the entire sentence.

Or better yet, here’s one without any prepositions:

  • The corner store is the only one that carries goat milk so I went there.

You can see that in my rewrites I also eliminated a lot of other unnecessary words, including mention of the farm in Greenville, which really isn’t relevant to the main point. So prepositions aren’t the only culprits that create wordy sentences, but if you learn to reduce them, you will ultimately learn to reduce wordiness altogether.

Some of you might remember the late 1990s TV series Boston Common, a story about college students living in Boston. In one episode, one of the students had to take a big test the next day. She fell asleep and had a dream that for the test she would have to write an essay about what good communication is. In her dream, she wrote “Good communication is brevity.” In the morning when she got to class, it turned out the essay question was “What is good communication?” The only words she wrote in her entire essay were “Good communication is brevity.” She received an A.

In school, we were told to write four-page or five-hundred-word essays. Many of us wrote fluff, filling our papers with as many words as we could to meet the length goal. If you were one of those students, break that habit now. The purpose was never to write an essay to a certain length but to develop your thoughts enough to have something worth saying. No one wants to read a four-page essay on communication when they can read a four-word one. And no one wants to read a wordy, preposition-riddled sentence when they can read a short, concise, and easy-to-understand one.


Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books, including The Nomad Editor. Tyler is the current President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (www.uppaa.org), and the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.

How Reading Made Me a Better Writer

I am always amazed when I meet writers who tell me they don’t like to read. Unfortunately, their lack of reading is usually obvious when you try to read their books. I firmly believe reading is vital to being a good writer. I am also often asked who my favorite writers are, so I thought I’d provide a short list of some of my favorite writers and what I learned about writing from them.

L. Frank Baum believed nothing was more important than to please a child.

L. Frank Baum—You can keep Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and even Narnia. I’ve read and enjoyed them all, but for me, my first fantasy love was L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its sequels. Most people don’t realize Baum wrote fourteen Oz books and that dozens of sequels followed by other writers. Baum had the uncanny ability to make children believe they could go to Oz. It felt as if Oz was right here in our backyard in the United States, as evidenced by Dorothy in The Road to Oz getting lost while walking down a road in Kansas and ending up in the fantasy land. Baum also opened my mind to fantastic realms and probably was the first truly funny author I read in the sense that he had a lighthearted tone that made you know no matter how scary the Nome King and all his strange fellow comrades were, there was no way they would ever be able to conquer the Emerald City. If you pick only one book series to read to your children, pick the Oz books. They will make dreamers out of the young and make the middle-aged, like me, still young at heart. Every few years, I find myself going back and rereading the entire series once again.

Margaret Mitchell made the Civil War live again for millions of readers.

Margaret Mitchell—I credit seeing the film Gone With the Wind at a young age as creating my love for historical fiction. It taught me about how people in the past had gumption, and it was a huge influence on my writing of The Marquette Trilogy and creating the idea of “iron pioneers.” Beyond the film, the book is a powerful piece of writing that makes Scarlett’s Tara and Atlanta come to life. E. M. Forster said a good novel should be expansive, so that a world exists beyond its pages. That is the case with Gone With the Wind. When India accuses Ashley and Scarlett of cheating together on Melanie, we learn that all of Atlanta takes sides. Characters we never met who are second and third cousins to the Wilkes become involved beyond the pages of the book and we can hear them all gossiping just by the magic of the one sentence Mitchell devotes to it. Nor does detail ever escape Mitchell. The barbecue at Twelve Oaks takes up nearly a quarter of the novel’s 1000+ pages, yet never causes the reader’s attention to lag. When Scarlett comes home after trying to find a doctor for Melanie, Mitchell pauses to show how Scarlett notices the coolness as she enters the house after being out in the hot streets, and we are fully there with Scarlett experiencing her fear and frustration right down to her bodily exhaustion. Mitchell spent ten years writing her novel and it was all worth it. No one can convince me it is not one of the greatest novels ever written.

Dickens made readers laugh, cry, and see the flaws in their society.

Charles Dickens—Dickens taught me a lot, but I think his style is what most influenced me. I love his style in Bleak House especially. The opening lines of the novel, full of fragments, are perfect in describing the London setting. Like an early film noir, the novel has chapters that are intended to be mysterious and confuse the reader, alternated with Esther Summerson’s chapters of clarity. Dickens’ ability to use repetitive “ands” to build energy in scenes is unmatched especially when Mr. Jarndyce proposes to Esther. Few authors ever achieved such a balanced level of style that could be sarcastic, humorous, and also beautiful to the degree Dickens did.

Anthony Trollope made himself write a set number of words every day. The result: 40 novels still loved worldwide more than 130 years after his death by countless fans.

Anthony Trollope—I was reading Trollope’s Barsetshire novels when I began writing The Marquette Trilogy. I love Trollope for his plots, his ability to show us the depth of his characters, and his familiar, comfortable style, but what I learned most from Trollope was the power of writing intertextual novels. Most book series will carry the same characters through every novel. Trollope has new main characters for each of his novels, but he also introduces main characters from past novels into his new novels so that Barset feels like a real place full of people and stories going on simultaneously. I have learned to do the same in all my Marquette novels. For example, Robert O’Neill is a minor character in The Queen City and Superior Heritage, but the main character in The Only Thing That Lasts, and he later makes cameo appearances in Narrow Lives and The Best Place. Madeleine Henning disappears in Iron Pioneers when she is believed to be drowned. She never returns to Marquette and yet her presence lingers over The Queen City, Superior Heritage, Narrow Lives, and When Teddy Came to Town. Matthew Newman, the main character of When Teddy Came to Town, is with Madeleine when she drowns in Iron Pioneers, but he is only in that one scene, yet he reappears in Narrow Lives and The Best Place before having his own book. From Trollope I learned that there are always multiple stories going on simultaneously in the same place, and there are layers and layers of connections between people. Consequently, writing about one town, for me Marquette, is enough to last me a lifetime and fill shelves with books.

From Africa to Pellucidar to Mars and Venus, Burroughs made us expand our understanding of what adventure truly is.

Edgar Rice Burroughs—Burroughs may not be an author of the caliber of Dickens or Trollope, and yet, I learned how to write a fast-paced story with multiple plots from his twenty-four Tarzan novels. Although the Tarzan novels become repetitive, I never grew tired of being in the jungle because there was never an end to the excitement and that was because the pacing always kept me on the edge of my seat. Burroughs truly was a master at plotting an adventure story. I think many readers would be surprised by how effortlessly Tarzan of the Apes can capture their imaginations and keep them reading.

There are so many other wonderful authors I could discuss—Elizabeth Goudge, Louisa May Alcott, Nathaniel Hawthorne, J. M. Barrie, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne Tyler, etc.

To anyone who wants to write and doesn’t like to read, I can only say to keep reading because you haven’t yet found the right authors you can learn from. I have even learned from truly bad authors because they have taught me what not to do. Bottom line, if you want to be a writer, be a reader.


Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. Tyler is the current President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association (www.uppaa.org), and the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.

Subject-Pronoun Agreement: He/She vs. They

Many writers struggle with using pronouns properly.

As an editor, for years I was a stickler about using proper subject-pronoun agreement. That meant if the subject was singular, the pronoun should be also. For example, here’s a sentence that uses incorrect subject-pronoun agreement::

“An author should always use proper subject-pronoun agreement in their book.”

Why is that sentence incorrect? Because author is singular but “they” is plural.

Now, in the past, I would have rewritten that sentence one of two ways:

  • Authors should always use proper subject-pronoun agreement in their books.

This sentence is better because the subject has been made plural to match “their” and note that “book” has also been made plural since all those authors didn’t write one book together but many books.

The other option I would have used in the past is:

  • An author should always use proper subject-pronoun agreement in his or her book.

The problem with this sentence is that “his or her” sounds awkward. You could just pick one or the other, but then you might be accused of being sexist. For years while editing books, I would opt for one pronoun or the other. I would use “he” for a paragraph or example and then “she” in a later place in the book.

I felt it was grammatically correct to use “he or she” rather than “they” and it was. However, in recent years, opinions on this matter have changed and I have changed to.

None of us wish to be sexist, but most of us will agree that most people are male or female. However, with the rise of more sensitivity to gender issues and transgender people, many of whom prefer to be referred to as “they,” it became accepted to use “they” to refer to just one person without being gender-specific.

In recent years various publications began to opt for “they” instead of “he/she,” but I held down the “he/she” fort for a while. For me, the deciding factor happened a year ago when Dictionary.com, which I highly respect as the most user-friendly dictionary online, came out with an article saying that “they” was acceptable:

Today, I opt for they, and the authors I work with tend to prefer it anyway. It makes all our lives easier than using the awkward he/she.

Does that mean I never use “he/she”? In obvious cases, such as in a novel with a main character who is definitely male or female, I will use “he/she” to refer to that character. If I were writing about a specifically male or female organization, I might also opt for being gender specific. However, in a book using general examples, I will now use “they.”

That said, when possible, I will rewrite sentences to be plural.

Here are two final examples:

  • “The individual student should put down their pencil when they finish their test.”

That sentence I would leave as is since it feels the need to clarify individual student. (That said there’s no real reason to do so and the next example is better.)

However, whenever possible I would opt for a plural sentence still:

  • “Students should put down their pencils when they finish their tests.”

I admit I’m still not completely used to using “they” myself, but I agree that everyone deserves to be respected and no one deserves to be treated as a lesser person because of their gender or have their gender ignored in favor of another gender in language usage. Bottom line, “they” is here to stay, and if you ask a grammarian, they are likely to agree. (See what I did there?)


Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. Tyler is the current President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association, and the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.

Writing a Description for Your Book Cover

Most authors write their books but never consider what to put on the cover so people will know what the book is about until the last minute. Here are some tips for writing book cover text to get your readers interested in buying your book.

Typically, about 250-300 words will fit on the front inside flap of a dust jacket or on the back cover of a book. First let me warn you what not to do. I have seen some horribly written book descriptions, so it’s important to get this right because it will determine whether people buy your book or not.. Do not just quote a passage from the book that fills the entire space. A very short excerpt is okay, but never let an excerpt replace a description.

Remember that cover is a marketing piece so you want relatively short paragraphs that grab readers’ attention right away and make them feel they have to read the book. Also, the rules vary depending on whether you are writing a fiction or nonfiction book. I’ve broken it down for you below.

Nonfiction Descriptions

If the book is nonfiction, the text should address the problem readers may have and convince them that, by reading this book, they will be able to solve it. I typically write two short paragraphs about the book, beginning with a question or two, such as “Are you tired of feeling overwhelmed all the time?” to engage readers, and then I include a sentence like “In Get Your Life Back, you will learn how to:” followed by a series of bullet points such as:

  • Say “No” to things you really don’t want to do
  • Eliminate toxic people from your life once and for all
  • Find the courage to follow your passion

Typically, I’ll write about 6-8 of these bullets, depending on the space allotted and how long the paragraphs might be. It’s important to use verbs to start each line or “how” and “why” phrases. Often, you can just reword the chapter titles a bit to create the bullets, especially if it’s a business or self-help book.

If it’s a history book or something more academic in nature, I wouldn’t use the bullet points but just a few short, tight paragraphs that clarify what the book is about.

Following are a few examples of full back cover texts I’ve written for my own books:

Description for The Gothic Wanderer

The Gothic Wanderer Rises Eternal in Popular Literature

From the horrors of sixteenth century Italian castles to twenty-first century plagues, from the French Revolution to the liberation of Libya, Tyler R. Tichelaar takes readers on far more than a journey through literary history. The Gothic Wanderer is an exploration of man’s deepest fears, his efforts to rise above them for the last two centuries, and how he may be on the brink finally of succeeding.

Tichelaar examines the figure of the Gothic wanderer in such well-known Gothic novels as The Mysteries of Udolpho, Frankenstein, and Dracula, as well as lesser known works like Fanny Burney’s The Wanderer, Mary Shelley’s The Last Man, and Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Zanoni. He also finds surprising Gothic elements in classics like Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes. From Matthew Lewis’ The Monk to Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight, Tichelaar explores a literary tradition whose characters reflect our greatest fears and deepest hopes. Readers will find here the revelation that not only are we all Gothic wanderers—but we are so only by our own choosing.

The Gothic Wanderer shows us the importance of its title figure in helping us to see our own imperfections and our own sometimes contradictory yearnings to be both unique and yet a part of a society. The reader is in for an insightful treat.”

— Diana DeLuca, Ph.D. and author of Extraordinary Things

“Make no mistake about it, The Gothic Wanderer is an important, well researched and comprehensive treatise on some of the world’s finest literature.”

— Michael Willey, author of Ojisan Zanoni

Description for Haunted Marquette

Paranormal/History                                                                                         $19.95 U.S./Canada

Haunted Marquette deftly weaves history, urban legends, and unexplained phenomena into a kaleidoscope of ghostly hauntings that reveal a side of the Queen City most of us have never experienced but perhaps always feared was there.”

— Sonny Longtine, author of Murder in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula

Over Forty Tales of Ghosts and Paranormal Experiences

Founded as a harbor town to ship iron ore from the nearby mines, Marquette became known as the Queen City of the North for its thriving industries, beautiful buildings, and being the largest city in Upper Michigan. But is Marquette also the Queen of Lake Superior’s Haunted Cities?

Seventh-generation Marquette resident Tyler Tichelaar has spent years collecting tales of the many ghosts who haunt the cemeteries, churches, businesses, hotels, and homes of Marquette. Now, separating fact from fiction, he delves into the historical record to determine which stories may be true and which are just the fancies of frightened minds.

Read the chilling tales of:

  • The wicked nun who killed an orphan boy
  • The librarian mourning her sailor lover
  • The drowned sailors who climb out of Lake Superior at night
  • The glowing lantern of the decapitated train conductor
  • The mailman who gave his life for the U.S. mail
  • More ghostly ladies in floor-length white gowns than any haunted city should have

Haunted Marquette opens up a fourth dimension view of the Queen City’s past and reveals that much of it is still present.

Fiction Descriptions

While I would not quote an excerpt from a nonfiction book in the cover’s description, a novel is different. If you can find a short, effective passage, go ahead and use it.

Here are examples of cover descriptions for two of my novels, both of which begin with a quote from the novel, which I put in italics.

Description for Iron Pioneers: The Marquette Trilogy, Book One

Back in Boston, the thought of settling in a new land had seemed a romantic adventure to share with her new husband. Now, despite the lush green trees, and the sandy golden beaches, she began to fear what wild animals or unfriendly Indians might lurk in those woods, and she sensed the loneliness to come of being so far from her family.

When iron ore is discovered in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the 1840s, entrepreneur Gerald Henning and his beautiful socialite wife Clara travel from Boston to the little village of Marquette on the shores of Lake Superior. They and their companions, Irish and German immigrants, French Canadians, and fellow New Englanders dream of a great metropolis at the center of the iron ore industry. Despite blizzards and near starvation, devastating fires and financial hardships, these iron pioneers persevere until their wilderness village first becomes integral to the Union cause in the Civil War and then a prosperous modern city.

Meticulously researched, warmly written, and spanning half a century, Iron Pioneers is a testament to the spirit that forged America.

Description for Arthur’s Legacy: The Children of Arthur, Book One

He felt suddenly as if a siren’s song were calling to him from across the sea, from an enchanted land, an island kingdom named England. He had always pictured England as a magical fairy tale realm, ever since his childhood when he had first read the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

Magic existed in the thought of England’s green hills, in the names of Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and the Tower of London. It was one of the few lands still ruled by a monarch, perhaps a land where fairy tales might still come true. Maybe even a place where he might at last find a father.

All his life, Adam Morgan has sought his true identity and the father he never knew. When multiple coincidences lead him to England, he will not only find his father, but mutual love with a woman he can never have, and a family legacy he never imagined possible. Among England’s green hills and crumbling castles, Adam’s intuition awakens, and when a mysterious stranger appears with a tale of Britain’s past, Adam discovers forces may be at work to bring about the return of a king.

There is key information you want to clue the reader in to when writing the back cover description for a novel. For example:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What is the setting?
  • What is the situation the main character is in?
  • What is the main character’s goal or motivation?
  • What obstacles will the main character overcome in the novel?

Be careful not to give away too much. You can hint at what the character will learn or what the dangers might be, but don’t say much that goes beyond what happens in the first third of the novel.

Ultimately, whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, your goal with a description is not to be so detailed that you describe the entire book. You just want to give enough nuggets to entice the reader. You want them to believe they need your book to solve whatever their problem is or that your book, if fiction, will help them escape their problems for a little while.


Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. Tyler is the current President of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association, and the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.