Just Say “Said”

I have a theory. I think writers see their work differently than their readers do. In fact it’s more than a theory. It’s a necessity.

How could we not see our work differently than our readers? After all, we put each and every little word into place, and then we tweak those words over and over until they’re just right. Whereas our readers are going to skim merrily along through those words, possible skipping right over some of them in search of something bigger: the story.

It’s equivalent to one person looking at the Empire State Building with his nose two inches away from the wall, while another person stands two or three blocks back and takes in the whole thing at once.

If you asked the two people their impressions of the work you could conceivably get two very different answers. The person with his face against the wall might say, “This thing is covered in dirt!” while the person standing further back was in awe of the beautiful design of the building. Conversely the person with his nose two inches from the wall might be in wonderment at the texture in the stone while the person three block back is screaming for help because the building is collapsing.

The person with their nose two inches from the wall is the writer. The person standing three blocks back is the reader.

Which is really the only explanation I can come up with for this nonsense.

In case you were too lazy to click the link, it points to a page full of “Words to Use Instead of Said.” The first sentence on the page is this:  “The word ‘said’ is overused in writing.”

Allow me to respond to this claim:

No. It. Is. NOT.

I know how it feels. You’ve written a scene, you look back over your dialogue and it’s all full of “said Bob” and “said Joe” over and over again until you want to pull your hair out. But trust me my friends, the solution is not to go to that list I linked to and fill your dialogue with more “interesting” attribution words.

Here’s the thing. Dialogue is supposed to be interesting on its own. If you need more interesting attributions than “said” to make it interesting chances are there’s something wrong with the dialogue itself.

Because here’s the magic of the word “said”. It’s mostly invisible. Oh, don’t get me wrong: you can see it. But the reader almost certainly won’t.

Don’t believe me? Then I challenge you to find me one reader who has ever stopped reading a book because the author used “said” too many times. It just doesn’t happen.

Instead readers’ eyes skip over “said” almost like they would skip over a punctuation mark. Contrariwise when you use another word, a more “interesting” word like “exclaimed” or “hissed” you draw attention to it.

And when the time does come to use those words, this is fine. They’re supposed to draw attention to themselves. But if you do as some authors (cough, Robert Ludlum, cough) and abandon “said” entirely, these other words will constantly clamour for the readers’ attention, never quite letting them settle down into the rhythm the dialogue should set for itself.

Again, there is a place for these other words, but, like description, they should be used like salt, in a small proportion to the flour of “said”.

To quote The Elements of Style, “Do not be tempted by a twenty-dollar word, when there is a ten-center handy.”

In other words, just say “said”.


10 responses to “Just Say “Said”

  1. Finally. Someone who gets it. It’s bad enough in fiction when an author insists on going to the thesaurus for a verb like “said.” It’s much worse in journalism when every quote becomes punched up with “added,” “posed,” “questioned,” or (my nemesis) “opined.”

  2. Timeless Teacher Stuff? No wonder so many beginning writers abuse the language if this teacher is representative.

  3. “I agree with you,” he expostulated.

  4. Amen! I’ve found that writers in groups/classes I’ve been in have almost had “said” phobias. Characters shouldn’t be exclaiming, whispering, babbling etc. all the time! Sometimes what’s said is just “said”

    Love your Empire State building analogy–will probably have to refer to it the next time a “said” discussion rears its ugly head.

  5. LOL. Can’t believe somebody actually made a page of words to use instead of “said.” I’ll admit that lately I’ve been playing around with dialogue and speech tags in my writing. No, I’m not using “coughed” or “snorted” or “verbally farted” or anything like that. Instead, I see if I can avoid “said” at all. Instead, I’ll put in action.

    Mark leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk. “I’ll get right on that.”

    Doesn’t need “said” or “sarcastically.” At least, I don’t think so. I’m trying to leave “said” off unless I absolutely need it. I’ll leave a bit of dialogue untagged if it’s obvious who said it or if it’s in a group and it doesn’t matter who said it. Whenever possible, I’d rather use a bit of action.

    • That’s just one of MANY such pages. Seriously.
      And you’re right. It’s fine to leave “said” off if you don’t need it. Dialogue between two characters can do without attribution for several lines, and linking the dialogue with other actions can add some variety as well as showing over telling.

  6. Well said. : )

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