Question:

When I write dialogue in text, do I need to separate each speakerspeech into its own paragraph, or can I leave it all on one line? 

People talking at a table

The short answer
When you’re writing or transcribing two (or more) people talking, you do need to write each speaker’s dialogue on its own line.

The details
This reader’s question included the following example of back-and-forth dialogue: “Are you listening to me, Jimmy?” “Yes, I am.” “Good. Now here is the job.” The exchange needs to be broken out, as we show below.

How to structure an exchange of dialogue

Dialogue, of course, is typically seen in works of fiction. Putting each person’s words on their own line makes it clear to readers who is saying what. The visual separation helps the conversation flow in the reader’s mind: 

“Are you listening to me, Jimmy?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Good. Now here is the job.”

In so doing, the writer can avoid having to restate the speaker at every turn.

Mistakes to avoid when you write dialogue

The most common mistake when including dialogue is to keep the quotes together. Readers are not expecting that layout, and it takes more time to figure out who is saying what:

“Are you listening to me, Jimmy?” “Yes, I am,” “Good. Now here is the job.” 

A second mistake is to include the speaker’s name on each line. Notice how much more cumbersome it is to read the following version of our example.

“Are you listening to me, Jimmy?” asked John.

“Yes, I am,” said Jimmy.

“Good. Now here is the job,” said John.

Every so often, it’s helpful to include the speaker’s name, or other information (e.g., that speaker’s thoughts), so that readers don’t lose track:

“Are you listening to me, Jimmy?”

“Yes, I am.” 

“Good. Now here is the job.” John paused as he considered his words. “First, I want you…” 

Including dialogue in academic work

In academic writing it’s sometimes appropriate to include dialogue. Common examples include transcribing an exchange between a researcher and a study participant, or between members of a focus group. 

In such cases, it is best to present the exchange as a script. This presentation meets the more rigorous standards required of academic reporting.

Here’s how it might look: 

Participant A: This experience really made me feel…

Participant B: I agree. For me it was…

Researcher: Did anyone else in the group feel this way?

Participant C: A little, although I also…

Our top three tips for presenting an exchange of dialogue as a script:

  1. Put a colon after each speaker’s name, followed by a single space. 
  2. Capitalize the first word of the text and any proper nouns. 
  3. Do not use quotation marks. They are redundant, as it is already obvious that you are presenting what that person said.  

We hope this post has helped you to write dialogue in all your projects that need it.

Do you have any burning questions about writing? It couldn’t be simpler to submit your question to Ask the Editor for some free, no-strings-attached professional advice! We love getting these questions from readers like you.

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