Please check out my most recent article, recently featured in NINK, the newsletter of Novelists Inc.

I can still remember a marketing debrief from my early days at Harlequin, when the folks on the ninth floor discovered to their surprise that a romance novel with a toddler pictured alongside the heroine and hero on the cover had outsold most of the other books offered that quarter. Babies, it turned out, helped sell books.

These days, it’s a given that certain genres in popular fiction can benefit enormously from the inclusion of child characters, as they offer wonderful opportunities for creating subtext, irony and humor, and, of course, can do much to help reveal the character of the protagonists. And that’s why it’s so important to get these young characters to come across the page as authentically as possible—as fully realized people, rather than the cutesy, over-the-top stereotypes I’ve sometimes encountered.

Many authors are lucky enough to have a natural ear for dialogue, including knowing instinctively how young children speak. But even though they may be parents, some writers rely on memory that may be faulty or, worse yet, assume they can just make up how toddlers acquire and express language. But with a speech-language pathologist daughter to whom I’ve turned to authenticate children’s dialogue many times during my editing career, I’ve learned that language development is not random, and in fact usually follows a very predictable pattern. Understanding that pattern can be a terrific help in generating children’s dialogue that sounds accurate and natural.

Sound and Vocabulary Development

Let’s say Jessica and Mark are taking 18-month-old Amy to the zoo. The dialogue might go something like this:

“Look, Amy! Can you see the monkey?” Mark pointed to a tree branch at the top corner of the enclosure.

“Up, dada! Up!”

Mark obligingly hoisted the toddler onto his shoulders for a better view.

“Montey!” she shouted. “OOO! AHH!”

“Yes, it’s a monkey! He’s saying, ‘OOO-OOO AHH-AHH!’”

Amy’s dialogue is consistent with developmental milestones for her age. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Toddlers can understand many more words than they can say. At 16 months, a toddler may understand 100-200 words but may say fewer than 50.
  • The first categories of words they will use are usually content words like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. And those nouns will be concrete, like dog, rather than abstract, like joy.
  • First words are usually not more than two syllables in length.
  • For sentences, a good rule of thumb is: two-word sentences for two-year-olds, three-word sentences for three-year-olds, four- or more word sentences for four-year-olds.

Amy is now about three and a half years old, and her dad, Mark, is totally stressed out because the babysitter didn’t show up. (Jessica is no longer on the scene, having disappeared under very mysterious circumstances!)

“Okay, kiddo, you’re going to stay with Grandma today,” Mark told his daughter as he bundled her awkwardly into her car seat.

“Daddy go to work?”

“Yup, Daddy’s going to work, and Daddy is late, and you’re going to Grandma’s.”

“No! I go to work too! I go with Daddy! No Grandma’s!”

Amy’s grammar and sentence structure has become a lot more sophisticated in a relatively short time frame. Some of this is due to a child’s ability to begin using auxiliary verbs, regular past tense forms, and some progressives and adverbs, which certainly makes writing dialogue a lot easier and more interesting.

Here are some grammar and sentence structure factors to keep in mind for a two- to three-year-old character:

  • Transitioning to longer word combinations may actually have some toddlers using three- and four-word combinations by twenty-four months: they may combine two two-word phrases, so that “baby eat” + “eat cookie” becomes “baby eat cookie,” or they will add information to shorter sentences that they already say, so they might add “big” to “eat cookie” to come up with “eat big cookie.”
  • They will also combine words to describe how objects or actions are located in space: “push me” at the playground or “doggie house” to describe where they stashed their baby sister’s blankie.
  • Because they are beginning to pretend in new ways, such as giving toys a voice, or acting out events they have heard of but never experienced (like being on a pirate ship), sentences become richer and more imaginative.
  • Irregular past tenses will continue to up the cuteness factor of toddlers’ speech sometimes all the way into their fifth or even sixth year: my four-year-old grandson told me proudly that he “writed with a cursor on the computer.” When his same-aged cousin was corrected for saying “I standed on the ladder,” he, still mixing up regular and irregular past tense, typical for children this age, altered his sentence to, “Okay. I stooded on the ladder.” This little guy understood his language needed to show something that had already happened, but despite this, children in preschool or even at early school age don’t have the same ability as adults to understand and describe time. Concrete markers, such as “two sleeps” or “one Paw Patrol” are much better understood and expressed than “three weeks ago,” “in the summer,” or “in half an hour.” Similarly, young children express time differently than adults. “Tomorrow’s tomorrow is more likely to be uttered by a child getting ready to start school than “two days from now.”

Theory of Mind

Mark and Amy, now four and a half, are out shopping for a birthday present for her best friend.

“Okay, Amy, what should get Lily for her birthday?”

“Slime. When I was at her house, we played with slime, and Lily really loves it! But I thought it was gross. For my birthday, I want new paint.”

I’ve found that one of the essential areas of child development that trips up writers relates to what psychologists term “theory of mind.” This is simply defined as the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and knowledge—to ourselves and others. And the above piece of Amy’s dialogue demonstrates that she can now do this.

In fact, as children move toward the age of four, they continue to develop a deeper understanding of what goes on in their and others’ minds. They come to understand that people talk and act on the basis of the way they think the world is, even when their thoughts do not reflect reality. As a result, at this age, your child characters can now begin to lie, trick and joke with others—all of which makes them better able to communicate about individual experiences and a lot more fun to write!

When you are writing young children’s dialogue, don’t be tempted to jump the gun and create conversations out of step with the child’s typical stage of development. Spend some time with a child the age you want to portray, or take yourself off to the playground, sit down on a bench, and just listen to how kids speak and interact. It will be a win-win for your adult characters…as well as your readers!

Handy References


At the recent Novelists’ Inc conference in St. Pete Beach, Florida, Mary Theresa Hussey and I offered a panel discussion on the role of freelance editors in the publishing process.  The notes below are an adaptation of the points made in our discussion.

Where Do Editors Come In?

NINC 2017

Mary-Theresa Hussey

Good Stories Well Told


Marsha Zinberg

The Write Touch


Types of Editors and Services:


Be aware that there is no one set definition for the terms listed below, and authors and editors can blend them together, particularly during the past few years, as traditional and independent publishers change duties, or cross borders and countries. Ask for clarification about the roles and make sure your expectations and your editor’s are similar.

Concept/Consulting Editor – works on early stages of proposal or series to work out potential flaws in editorial or marketing concerns.

Developmental/Content Editor – does a deep dive into the manuscript, looking at structure, language, plot, characterization.

Line Editor – focuses on grammar, language, sentence structure, repetition, etc.

Copy Editor – does a final polish with a grammatical eye.

Beta Reader – first reader. Can focus on one aspect, or overall feel or reader appeal.

Proofreading – final check of spelling/grammar/missing words and so on.

Manuscript Critique/Editorial Assessment – often a lighter developmental edit.

Bible Creation: Many editors have experience in creating bibles (detailed outlines of characters, plots, themes, arcs, setting, family ties), over 4/6/8/16 books. Depending on needs, it can be high level or detailed.

Additionally, editors can assist a group of authors to coordinate the bible. Sometimes an outside voice can help negotiations on the handling of continuing characters and plots and makes sure that the continuity works across the breadth of the series.

Editors can also work on post-bibles. Do you remember all your minor characters? What season the book is set in? Where your characters went overseas? An editor can help organize this for you.

Story Creation:

Are you working on an idea in a new world and need some early feedback? Can your duke actually inherit the title? Can your heroine work as a riveter in the 1940s? Will your family tree work? Was that a state at the time? After you’ve come up with the initial concept, bouncing an idea off an editor can help refine your themes, explore possibilities and give suggestions on how to make your “crazy” idea work!

Are you doing a cozy mystery series? What is unique about your idea? What will make your series stand out? What can you do to incorporate that information?

Marketing ideas:

Editors have varying experience in marketing, but most with a background in traditional publishing have developed some marketing expertise that you can tap into!

Marketing-related services include the writing of back cover copy, taglines, and title development.

Some editors can also perform brand evaluations– looking at reviews on Goodreads, Amazon, B&N to pull out key and consistent phrases; looking at Amazon for metadata and presentation; offering feedback on website appearance, themes, colors; determining if there’s consistent presentation across website and covers and books; and helping to work out the unified vision of your brand;

Your editor may also be able to offer marketing advice–discussing career goals, competitive authors, talking through the benefits of traditional vs. self-publishing; advising on release schedules, and offering feedback on art and logos.

Do Your Homework:


  • Find the editor who works well with your goals and style
  • Check experience, references, recommendations
  • Ask for a sample edit of a couple of pages (most are willing to do this)
  • Many editors have a contract you can use to clarify responsibilities
  • Are there opportunities to talk/before after the edit?
  • Are the time frame, costs and expectations clear?

The Actual Edit:


  • Indicate areas you want specific feedback on
  • Ensure you are agreed on the end result
  • Some editors will question, some will fix—make sure you know what you’re getting (this can also shift according to the stage of the edit)
  • Agree on the process: will you get the marked-up manuscript, a revision letter, a memo, notes, a conversation, or a combination of these?


Recommendations from agents and fellow authors

Check out dedications/acknowledgements/Amazon info in books by favorite authors

Social Media: Twitter/Conferences/Websites

Some websites: (not in any particular order)

EFA –Editorial Freelancers Association

Publishers Marketplace –


Independent Editors Group

Association of Freelance Editors, Proofreaders, Indexers –


Society for Editors and Proofreaders –

New York Book Editors –


Recommended Resources

The whole word was watching last weekend when Justin Johanssen really stepped in it.

The best friend, and best man of James Matthews, Pippa Middleton’s new husband, delivered an off-color, tasteless and offensive speech at the almost-royal wedding that was likely intended to be funny. But apparently, his banter was not well-received. The upper-crust crowd at the Middleton’s mansion in Bucklebury, Berkshire, sat in grim-faced silence as Justin reeled off quips that went from bad to worse the longer he dominated the microphone.

If a best man’s speech is in your future this year, it might be helpful for a refresher on what’s expected of you.

First, if you have been chosen to serve as someone’s best man at an upcoming wedding, that’s because someone considers you to be the BEST person for the job.  And with honour comes responsibility.

Just be thankful we’ve come a way since the good ol’ days. Back then, the original duty of a “best man” was to serve as armed backup for the groom, in case he had to resort to kidnapping his intended bride away from disapproving parents. The “best” part of that title refers to his skill with a sword, should the need arise. You wouldn’t want the “just okay” member of your weapon-wielding posse accompanying you when you set out to steal yourself a wife, would you?

The best man would stand guard next to the groom right up through the exchange of vows–and later, outside the newlyweds’ bedroom door– just in case anyone should decide to attack, or a skittish bride should try to make a run for it.

Huns, Goths and Visigoths are said to have taken so many brides by force that they kept a cache of weapons stored beneath the floorboards of churches for convenience.

So, nowadays, no swordsmanship or weaponry skills required. But you do have the duty to have the groom’s back on his special day. That said, certain obligations you’re expected to fulfill are just common sense.  No need to tell you to show up on time, be of good cheer, be helpful, serve as a go-fer if necessary, keep the rings safe, calm a jittery groom, etc.

But when it comes to delivering your best man’s speech, or toasting the happy couple, it’s deceptively easy not to measure up to your duties if you disregard some obvious pitfalls:

  1. Best to avoid mentioning exes- -especially if you’ve had a previous relationship with the bride…or the groom!
  2. This is not YOUR day. So try not to upstage the groom—or anyone else in the wedding party.
  3. Remember, this is not a “guys-night-out” type of audience, so not the venue to insult/demean/bad-mouth the groom.  Johannsen’s quip about “buttock-clenching” during the first dance was rather lewd for an audience of society guests.
  4. Resist the urge to respond to hecklers argumentatively. It won’t end well!
  5. Many people are not naturally funny, so don’t try to be a comedian if you’re not one.  Johannsen’s honeymoon joke about “going to Bangor for two weeks” was crude, and in bad taste. Sincerity trumps subjective humor  and questionable taste every time.
  6. Not the time to speak negatively about the bride, or the future in-laws. Yes, there is some debate about whether Johanssen ACTUALLY compared Pippa to the groom’s pet spaniel, Raffa. But really, why go there at all?  Pippa was a beautiful bride, and every bride in the universe works hard to look her best on the most important day of her life, so why ruin it, even if only in jest?
  7. Someone has put their trust in you: the groom may have told you things in private he does not wish to share with everyone he knows best in the world! Keep his confidences! And watch your language!  Johanssen’s implications about gay bars and “lads’ nights out” could have been dispensed with.
  8. Even though you have a close relationship with the bride and groom, resist the urge to pepper your speech with inside jokes. The remaining 99% of the audience, who are not in the know, will not appreciate this.
  9. Avoid giving advice in areas in which you have no expertise: if you’re single, no sage words about “handling” a spouse; if you’re not a parent, no lessons on how to raise a child!
  10. Rehearse! Rehearse! Rehearse! No winging it. You have been entrusted with an honour. You’ll be thankful if you can acquit yourself honorably by preparing a speech or toast that you can deliver confidently and sincerely.

Oh, and one for the road.  You know this already.   Don’t drink too much before you deliver that speech, not to relax, not because you’re sure you know it well enough.  NOT FOR ANY REASON. Save the shots for later, once your formal duties have been performed! Then you can have one for the road! (But then you can’t drive!!)

Though Johanssen might be maintaining a stiff upper lip about the reaction to his speech, which received global negative press, his bad taste and bad judgement will not soon be forgotten.  Don’t pull a Justin Johanssen if you’re delivering a best man’s speech.  Put your best foot forward instead!

If you have your own cringe-worthy examples of inappropriate best man behavior—word or deed—that you’d like to share, we’d love to hear them!