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Robert's Rules of Writing #32: Say It Again, Sam

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Let me tell you a story.

A few years back, I was teaching my first science fiction writing workshop class at the Cambridge School of Weston. Students wrote short stories for the class, which the class then critiqued. In general, the stories were interesting and well-written, even if they weren't at a publishable level.

And then one day, a student whom I shall not name but simply refer to as E. submitted a humorous piece in which many of the teachers and students at the school, including myself, were featured as characters. The story was funny, but one problem existed throughout. E. never used the word "said" in the story. Almost every word of dialogue was accompanied by a tag such as "he expounded," "she pointed out," "he shouted," "she pontificated," etc.

Those might have not been the exact tags used, but it doesn't matter. The point is that E. avoided the word "said." So when it came time for me to give the final critique on the story, I gave E. and the class the standard advice that I always heard and that I always give about dialogue tags.

"Use the word 'said,'" I said. "It's the best word to use. It's invisible, so the reader's eye passes right over it. If you clog up the dialogue with all these other words, the story will suffer."

And then I found out why so many amateur and beginning writers replace the word "said" in their stories. Apparently, E. had had an English teacher back in elementary school or junior high who had told the class never to use "said." You heard me. Apparently, the word "said" was boring and should be avoided at all costs.

E. was a smart kid (and is still smart today). So I replied by saying the following, or something similar.

"E., no matter what your previous teacher told you, you know that I've published a bunch of science fiction stories, and so I have experience with editors. I'll tell you now that almost all of them will send back the story because you're using other words instead of the word 'said.' Now, I don't want to discourage your creativity, but if that argument doesn't work for you, try this one. You're smart enough to know that when it comes to writing assignments, you give the teacher what he wants. So for the remainder of this class, use the word 'said' in your stories. Once the class ends, feel free to do whatever you want."

By now, the theme of Masello's rule #32 should be obvious. He gives the same advice that I'm giving here. When writing dialogue tags, use the word 'said.'" There are some exceptions to this rule, of course, but we can get into that in the discussion if folks wish.

He said.


My middle school teacher told me the same thing and it took years to break that writing tic. I'm beta'ing someone's story now, never met this person, but I can tell she's not out of high school for several reasons, one of these being that she always says "he questioned" instead of "he asked."
Hm. The link didn't work for me.
MIT's whole site isn't working for me.
If "said" is really showing up too often, there are always ways to indicate the speaker without any sort of dialogue tags whatsoever. Action is a good one.

Jim's boss cleared her throat. "Aren't you suposed to be working right now?"

But yeah, for the most part, it's an invisible word.
What's really annoying is when, instead of the "questioned", "expounded", "pondered", etc. substitutions for "said", the writer uses actions instead. I kid you not, I have seen things as bad as:

"You're supposed to be working right now," he cleared his throat.
"Ow, that makes my eyes hurt," he rubbed his forehead.

To me, that's just cluelessness about the basic rules of the English language.

I'm surprised nobody has brought up the classic: "Look out," he ejaculated.
Damon Knight refers to this in Creating Short Fiction:

"Come in," he buttered his toast.
I always have a problem with that when I read it (or hear it as I used to listen to a lot of books on tape - boring jobs go much better with them) in P.G. Wodehouse stories especially.

They seem so proper and so light and then everyone starts ejaculating like they are in pornos and it just disturbs me.
I get really frustrated with that still today, especially when I see it in a context where people are being corrected. When you read a story with the comment, "You use the word 'said' too much, break it up with more interesting words, like 'commented,' 'sputtered,' 'laughed,' and 'grumbled,'" I want to weep. I remember you telling us that "said" is one of the few truly invisible words in the English language, and it's true. The only time it gets noticeable is when you attach it to every line of short dialogue.

"Is she really?" he said.
"Yeah," she said.
"That's amazing!" said Bill.
Sally said, "I know!"

But in situations like that, it's far better to just leave off the tags that to wind up with:

"Is she really?" he queried.
"Yeah," she confirmed.
"That's amazing!" exclaimed Bill.
Sally enthused, "I know!"
As dsknight noted above, it's often better to replace the tags with lines of action or even internalization. And sometimes words other than "said" will work in that context. For example:

"Is she really?" he asked.
She nodded, trying to contain her excitement. "Yeah."
"That's amazing!"
Well, if Bill was going to express his delight, she wasn't going to contain herself. She shouted, "I know!" and jumped up to embrace him.
And sometimes, you don't need the darn tags at all. In your example, it's pretty obvious who's saying that third line.
yeah. i was taught that when there's a longish bit of dialogue between two people, use tags for the first two lines and then maybe once or twice scattered in the middle so people don't have to backtrack if they lose their place.
There's a certain (published) writer who likes to use the dialog tag "murmured". It drives me crazy. If it were used once in a while, it would point out that a character was speaking very softly at that particular moment. However, this writer has this particular character murmur all the time. I don't think she ever "says" or "shouts" or anything else at all. The overuse of this word bothers me and takes away from the story.

That said, I think the use of different tags should be under a rule similar to what you proposed for adverbs: they should be used sparingly, and only when you want to point out that the character is speaking in a particular, important way. I as a reader become irritated by seeing "said" too much, as well.

It happens to me all the time that I become too aware of the mechanics of the writing, and lose focus on the story. I can cite all sorts of examples where the writing gets in the way for me. I liked the way you put it above, that "said" is invisible and the reader passes right over it. Is this the aspiration of good writing, that the reader should never notice the nuts and bolts?
I'm going over an old (yet unpublished) manuscript and I got people murmuring and exclaiming all over the place.

It will be awhile before I send that out again.
Please read my info page - obscenities are not allowed in my LJ.
Oops. Sorry.

People don't always read the profile pages, especially on LJ...

I'll delete the comment and thread when I have a moment.
Rowling was one of the writers I was thinking of when I said in the Roberts Rules #30 post, "The odd thing, though, is how often I see adverbs attacked as a sign of bad writing, and then the adverbs flow freely from writers who are considered good."
Interestingly, I just looked at a piece of fanfic I was writing (based on Bujold's Vorkosigan series), and realized I was hardly using said at all. But, somehow, it felt wrong if I tried to change it. So I went back to glance at _Young Miles_, which I have the eBook of here in the office. And I realized that she, in fact, writes in exactly that way. From the beginning of the book, we have instructed, called, offered, replied, commented, asked, persisted, explained, snarled, called, complained, added, purred, began, asked, and finally said.

And I really like her writing style. I think part of it is about using them deliberately. If using a different word for said actually changes your understanding of the reading, then you are simply adding precision, which is good. A word like "declaimed" changes the way you imagine the speech, and if it is accurate, is a good word to use. The problem comes in when 'said' would do just as well, and you choose to use something else instead.

I think this may be where English teachers are coming from, encouraging people to think more deeply about their words, and not just use 'said' as a default.
Sometimes substitutes for "said" do work, but I think they work best when the writer makes sure they're necessary.

If a writer's motivation is simply to make the prose "less boring," and then the writer deliberately goes through the story changing every use of the word "said" to something else...well, that doesn't work.

By the way, was E. in your class? I forget...
I don't think so; I don't remember the story you're talking about, although I remember a few using real names of people.

December 2016

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