mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)
mabfan

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.
Tags: roberts-rules, teaching, writing-advice
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