The writing tip that ruined me: Just use ‘said’

he said she saidOnce more into the breach! Let’s face our snootiest fault-finders! Let’s brave their cutting remarks, their prickly barbs, their scorching criticisms! Ouch! Gird your literary loins!

They warn, “An unreasonable aversion to the word ‘said’ is a sure sign of an amateur.”
“Fancy synonyms just distract from your dialog,” they declare.
“The word ‘said’ is so inconspicuous, it’s like a punctuation mark,” they opine. “You cannot overuse it.”
“And using an adverb to enhance your dialog is an unforgivable sin,” they snidely decree.
“You can’t ‘chuckle’ out a phrase,” they guffaw.

OK, I get it. Expert advice says that writers should just use the word ‘said,’ or use nothing at all. Here. And here. And in many ways it’s liberating to have permission to overuse a word that is so easy to overuse. But I think that a more moderate approach is needed. In my opinion, there are many alternatives to ‘said,’ that, if used correctly, help add some color and specificity to a passage. And they’re also unobtrusive enough that most readers won’t consciously notice them. Words like state, demand, bark, warn, and scoff all have their place (usually in close proximity to a quotation mark).

I get the fact that a line like: ‘“Get on the floor,” he demanded’ is a bit redundant. I understand the idea that if your dialog properly pops off the page, then it doesn’t need to be cluttered with extra attributions or descriptions. But I’m not Cormac McCarthy. I think I’ll choose to shoot for some middle ground, if leaning a bit toward the ‘less is more’ line of thought.

And as I’ve thought about it, I agree with the critics who say that substituting ‘said’ with a action verb can get a bit awkward, and sometimes physically impossible. Sentences like:
“They’re coming,” he grimaced.
“You can’t wear white after Labor Day,” she laughed.
“I’ll be right there,” he grunted.

It’s hard to grimace, laugh, or grunt while talking. These lines probably work better reordered:
He grimaced. “They’re coming.”
She laughed. “You can’t wear white after Labor Day.”
He grunted. “I’ll be right there.”

9 thoughts on “The writing tip that ruined me: Just use ‘said’

  1. Hey, James, I’ve grimaced, grunted, and laughed while talking. Never mind that it frequently led to a coughing spell ~ it can be done! I agree that simpler is most often better, but one can swing too far into the simple and neglect the effective use of the descriptive and colorful. Both have their place. Constructive criticism is useful. Snooty fault-finding belongs [most appropriately] in the trash 🙂

    • Ha! Yes, I definitely think you can go too far into simplifying/honing your prose, until the style starts to supplant the story. That’s what I think of someone like Cormac McCarthy. He’s obviously a genius, but his style is so razor-sharp, sometimes I have to read a paragraph twice just to feel like I got the gist of what’s going on. Maybe the reader needs a few descriptive, colorful words thrown in as fluff to help give their brain some breathing room!

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