Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Use "Said" or Die

I'm going to say it in a loud voice:  SAID IS AN INVISIBLE WORD.  PLEASE USE IT.

If you're a seasoned writer, you already know this.  But if you're newer to the game, or haven't dived into the arena of feedback and critique partners yet, then you need to hear it.

I'm not sure who to blame here, but my theory is that the propensity to scramble for words to use instead of said comes from a combination of misguided creative writing teachers and an author's quest for originality.  To the teachers, I say, "STOP IT."  To the urge for originality, I say, "DON'T PRACTICE BEING ORIGINAL ON A WORD NOBODY IS SUPPOSED TO NOTICE."

I recently edited several chapters for a client who seemed to feel it was his duty to avoid said at all costs.  It's not his fault--clearly he learned this somewhere along the way (and I sincerely hope I have helped him to unlearn it).  Within only a few chapters, I found the following words-that-aren't-said:

summoned (WTH?)

Those are all perfectly legitimate words, and some of them are rather juicy.  But words like this should be used sparingly or not at all, depending on your genre.  When I see words like this in a manuscript, my brain immediately screams, "Thesaurus Abuser!"  And it's probably true.  Thing is, we don't need to waste time coming up with substitutes for said, because WE DON'T NEED TO CALL ATTENTION TO THIS WORD AT ALL.

"But, Authoress!  Sometimes I really do need a word other than said!"

Of course you do.  And here are some that you can use with impunity:

ASK  (because characters do ask questions sometimes)

WHISPER  (if your character is truly whispering, then it's obviously okay to say so)

YELL/SHOUT (but again, only occasionally--it's much more effective to SHOW us that your character is yelling by the words he is speaking, rather than TELLING us)

The rest?  Use them the way you would use ghost peppers in your homemade chili.

As for the trusty Thesaurus?  DON'T USE IT TO LOOK FOR REPLACEMENTS FOR THE WORD SAID.  Not ever.  If you're thinking that hard about a dialogue tag, you're putting your energy into the wrong thing.

Just. Use. Said.

"The end", she piped merrily.


  1. Thank you for helping us novice writers in the proper etiquette and not over embellishing the word said with massive Thesaurus lookups. Your input has been a tremendous help to me as I continue to put my stories to paper. Again, thank you and as for this comment, enough said.

  2. Thanks again. Your stuff is helpful because it is delivered with the peppery humor. It's hard to listen to plain rules, but that is breathed writing!
    This one just made me laugh so hard. I critiqued a story last weekend on my critter network that had a new substitution for said every single line. I mean that's effort too! I didn't know there ARE so many substitutes. But to really bump it off each of them was followed by an adverb. Each. Now I'm not a published author and as long as I am not I will call myself a writerly novice as well - so I'm still and forever will be learning. But that was funny. I was so taken by it in the end I had no clue what the story was about lol
    On the contrary - summoned. Now there's a word. Maybe I could substitute that. I can summon a ghost, right? Or a demon? Or an agent?! Definitely an agent.:D

    1. Oh my goodness -- and this is why wine is very important whilst editing, right? ;)

  3. In my experience there's too much emphasis on sticking only with 'said'! Being slavish about that can make one's prose sound like a third grade reading book. ;)

    So I have to disagree a little bit and say that I think 50/50 is fine; half 'said' and half other speech tags. (As long as they're not oddball ones that sound unnatural like 'rejoined' or 'enthused', that is!)

    1. I think 50/50 is too high -- there is no reason for all those extra words. I think it's important to LISTEN to the cadence of our writing, so that when we know that an occasional "replied" works (or doesn't).

      Remember, too, that constantly saying "he said" "she said" "Franzblister said" isn't necessary, either. Dialogue tags need to be alternated with beats -- and with stand-alone lines of dialogue, too (no beat or tag).

    2. You're so right about the importance of listening for that cadence. Just the other day I had the experience of trying to explain to someone that the rhythm of their writing was a bit clunky, so they had several sentences that just didn't flow nicely. It's tricky to figure out how to help someone to develop a better ear when they don't quite seem able to hear what they're doing and get why it does or doesn't work, just as you said. Sometimes all I can think of is to recommend that they try reading a lot of authors who are well known for the elegance of their style, and hope that it'll help them to hear their own writing better; it never hurts, anyway!

    3. That sounds like good advice. I think this is one of those things that you can't exactly *teach*, like voice. It's elusive -- but once you've got it, you've got it. And doing a LOT of reading (of good authors, obviously), does make all the difference.

  4. Or, try to avoid attributions as much as possible. Instead of
    "But, Authoress!" said Joe, "sometimes I really do need a word other than said!"
    "Of course," said Authoress, "Here are some you can use."

    We could have an attribution-free version.
    "But, Authoress!" Joe shuffled his feet. "Sometimes I really do need a word other than said!"
    "Of course." Authoress arched an eyebrow. "Here are some you can use."

    Notice the second version forces the writer to add details.

    1. Oh I can REALLY see her arch that eyebrow. Sparks flying too.

    2. Take Three :)

      Joe shuffled his feet and looked uncomfortable.

      "But, Authoress," he said, "sometimes I really do need a word other than 'said'!"

      The Authoress arched an eyebrow and stared at him. Finally, she sighed and said, "If you must, here are some alternatives you can use . . ."

      (I totally think Authoress would sigh when she said this!)

    3. I actually don't do a very convincing eyebrow-arch! ;)

      Mark, you're right -- beats are very important in dialogue. But if we do ONLY beats, and never a tag (or simply a line of unfettered dialogue), the writing will sound clunky and overwritten. Beats need to be carefully placed and timed so that they create a pleasing cadence to our writing. :)

    4. This is a very good point -- it's about balance and variety. While assigning ratios is overanalyzing, of course, (you certainly wouldn't want to go through your writing and try to apply them!), I could modify what I said to a rough rule of thumb being that 50% of the time you can avoid using a speech tag altogether, just like Mark's example (by either describing what the person is doing, or simply leaving it off because it's clear from the context who's speaking). Then 25% of the time use 'said', and 25% of the time use some other speech tag.

      While it's very true that no one should be digging through the thesaurus for weird substitutes, I do think it's very important not to discourage anyone from regularly using perfectly normal alternatives to 'said', such as replied, continued, suggested, retorted, etc., as well as ones in the same category as whispered, such as grumbled and muttered. If it's something that comes naturally to you -- not something you had to look up, or make a conscious effort to incorporate! -- it should be fine to use it.

    5. You're right, LC -- especially when you say "comes naturally". And herein lies the problem, because too many writers are simply trying hard to NOT use said, and that isn't natural-sounding. And new or new-ish writers need to learn that said is invisible and perfectly acceptable before they move on to the slightly more advanced idea of "using what comes naturally".

      For instance, I'll be chugging along my merry way in a draft (well, okay, not really MERRY, since I hate drafting...), and suddenly the word "retorted" is perfectly right for a moment. Or the word "replied". But I feel certain in those moments because I'm already NOT overusing words like that, so when they get their little moments, it shines.

      I still think 25% is a bit high for *otherwords*, but that will vary depending on style and genre.

      (I could talk about writing all day. LOL)

    6. I was starting to sound a bit Gollum-ish at the end there... O__O

  5. "Love this post!" she said. :)

    1. "Thank you," she blithely uttered. :)

  6. Haha, the way you ended this post was completely perfect!

  7. I try not to use "said" at all! LOL! Seriously. I hate seeing "The grass is green," said Cleopatra before the asp bit her. I'd rather see - "The grass is green." Cleopatra reached for her pet asp and was surprised when it bit her. :)

    1. LOL

      True, true! But too many beats sound clunky, so you have to alternate to avoid that.

      "The grass is green," Cleopatra said.

      Anthony snorted. "You always say that, Cleo."

      "Well, it's true." She reached for her pet asp. "I think it's--GAH!"


      She stared at him, eyes glazed, mouth drooping, before falling silently in the grass.

      Anthony nudged her with his toe. "Damn."

  8. Holy smokes, Authoress! I didn't know we had a thesaurus club. Do I owe dues or anything? Are there t-shirts? Love this post.

    1. Thank you.

      No dues necessary. You are simply required to slap people who use ridiculous words. :)

  9. Love the image of ghost peppers in chili -
    Sometimes, instead of said, I show a person doing an action followed by the dialogue. Even that can be overused.
    I want to join the thesaurus club :D - I shared this article on Facebook. Guess I broke the cardinal rule by talking about it.