To Attribute or Not to Attribute

I want to share a little secret with you. Along with a healthy obsession with science and the Cosmos, if there’s one thing Carl Sagan was passionate about it was his Baloney Detector kit. But if it was two things, it was beta reading his friend’s manuscripts and discovering they didn’t know what the bleep they were doing when it came to attribution.*

What is attribution? The most common way we see this done in writing is with said. There are other ways to do it: replied, growled, retorted, hollered, yelled, screamed, etc. etc. etc.

And there are plenty of ways not to do it. So for the sake of all the beta readers, editors, agents, peeps out there who want to stab their eyes out rather than read wrong attribution one more time, I present to you.

attribution jae scribbles

I think the best way to do this is using examples. And since Man of Steel is coming out this month, we’ll do it Supes style. Ready, set, up, up and away!


Once upon a time there was a man named Clark Kent, and he had a secret. “I’ve just let my good pal Carl Sagan beta read my manuscript, and boy did he have a lot of feedback”, Clark said.


The correct way to attribute this would be: “…boy did he have a lot of feedback,” Clark said. When putting within quotes a sentence that is followed by attribution that would normally end in a period, replace that period with a comma within the quotes and stick the attribution on the outside of the quotes.

“That is correct,” he said.

“But you haven’t identified who said it,” I added.

“I thought that much was obvious. It’s me Clark,” he continued.

Get the point?

But don’t use a comma if it isn’t attribution following. Like so:

“Know what song I really hate? That Five For Fighting Superman song. It makes me sound like a cry-baby wimp,” Superman crushed the CD. <–more on this below, but use a period in this situation where the comma was.


But what about question marks, exclamation points, ellipses and em dashes? How do we attribute them?

“Good question,” said Clark. “Fooled you! That statement wasn’t actually a question, but sometimes writers accidentally write it with a question mark.”

“Then how do you do it?” I asked.

“Exactly like you just did. Well done!”

Question marks and exclamation marks alike remain inside the quotes, just like a comma would. There’s no need for any of this stuff:

“But what about this?”, he asked, adding another comma for good measure.

“You don’t need a comma after the quotes. It’s wrong!” I cried.


This one I’ve seen a lot more lately all over the place, and I must protest. Please, please, please don’t do this anymore. You’ll make all your peeps super happy and agents won’t auto-reject you anymore (Note: This only works if this was the only reason they were auto-rejecting you.)

Superman wanted to catch a flick, so he flew over to the theater and hovered just outside of it. Using his x-ray vision and super hearing, he just watched the movie outside. “It’s not like there are any laws against this,” he hovered close to the wall.


See what happened here? Sometimes I think writers are trying to marry action with dialogue that should never be joined together like that in the first place. You can’t hover your speech. And action is NOT attribution, unless it includes something that you can do with the mouth, like gasping, laughing, yelling, etc.

But it can get tricksy. There are things you can do with your mouth that don’t work to attribution either, such as:

“This is a really interesting post,” she smiled. <–Okay, but it’s not really a smile that did the work of the words. Even if you’re saying it while smiling, it’s better to write it in that way. It could be: she said, smiling. Or maybe she was laughing, so you can just go straight to: she laughed. But more often than not, it’s better to leave the attribution simple and save the action for later.


Sometimes we attribute when it’s not even necessary. And sometimes we over-attribute. If it’s perfectly clear who is doing the talking, save yourself the extra words and don’t attribute. What do I mean?

Superman punched Zod in the face. “How do you like them apples now? Huh, Zod?”

No said necessary when it’s coupled together on the same line. Plus you have Supes saying Zod’s name, which makes it even clearer it isn’t Zod speaking. And if it’s just the two of them in this scene, it’s even more obvious.

Let’s say you’ve been doing a back and forth between characters.

“Gee, Mr. Kent, I don’t know how to take photos,” Jimmy said.

Clark clenched his fists. “But you’re the newspaper’s photographer. That is your job isn’t it?”

Jimmy looked down at his shoes, a tear trickling down his cheek. “I just needed a job.”

Sometimes you need attribution, but when you’ve established a pattern, especially coupled with action, you can leave the attribution off. And you should.

But one more thing. Don’t do stuff like this:

“I don’t know, is red and blue too ostentatious?” Superman asked. He looked at Lois. “I mean, Batman does all black and he looks so cool,” he continued. <–You’ve attributed twice in the same sentence. We already know it’s Supes talking. No need to clutter it up with more attribution.

Or this:

“Are you kidding?” Lois stood, knocking her chair over.

“Is it too ostentacious?”

Superman looked out the window. Red and blue were his colors—his own kind of awesome.

Did the ostentatious line belong to Supes or Lois? If it’s Lois’ line, it should be a part of the same paragraph. If it’s Supes’ it should be with his paragraph. Otherwise it’s confusing. While it’s true that with more lines we might be able to infer whose line it was, but why not make it easier on your readers in the first place?


When attribution comes at the end, if it’s a pronoun, it will ALWAYS be lower case. So do this:

“Truth, justice, and the American way,” he said.

Not this:

“I’m thinking of starting a Justice League,” He explained.


Okay, now hopefully we can all go forth and rid our manuscripts of attribution error. That’s one small step in editing, one giant leap toward a publishing contract!

Does wrong attribution bother you? Or are you an attribution culprit? Learn anything new? Anything I forgot that you would like to add?

*Note: Okay, maybe that’s not 100% accurate. Who knows whether or not Carl had time to beta-read. But you can bet if he did, he’d be pissed about bad attribution.

One last note. I didn’t know how I felt about Man of Steel, being highly disappointed by Superman Returns, but after I saw this trailer, my doubts faded. I can’t wait for it to come out. Unfortunately I’ll be out of town on premiere weekend (in San Fran where they charge 3 arms and 7 legs for a movie), so I’ll be a little later getting to watching it. đŸ˜¦ (This trailer almost made me cry. Almost.) Let’s do ourselves a favor and keep our fingers crossed this is the Superman movie we’ve been waiting for.