Writing and the Word "Said" Part 1

"Should I use `replied' in my novel?" she said, not asked.

I've read several books on how to write fiction, and been to many writing conferences, and there is one piece of advice that seems to be unquestioningly believed and repeated:

Don't use any word for "said" other than "said." That means never use questioned, replied, exclaimed and so on.

The belief is that using these other words is distracting, pretentious, and a sign of amateur writing.

At the same conferences, and sometimes in the same talk, people will advise to use unusual ways of describing people. Use a less familiar word, like "grimy" rather than just "dirty" all the time.

These two pieces of advice are, at least at first glance, contradictory. Why is it okay to use unusual ways of describing in one context but not another?

It's further complicated by the fact that there is no empirical evidence that I've ever been able to find that they are right.

In the meantime, I just read reviews of the audio version of Scalzi's Redshirts and it's almost hilarious how many people complain that--I'm not kidding-- he uses "said" too much! Take a look for yourself; it's pretty striking.

Interestingly, the reviews for the print and kindle editions don't complain about this as much (though some do.)

Is "exclaimed" really that bad?

I have an ambition to run a study to find out. I'm just waiting for an interested student (when that study is done I'll post Part 2).

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Janet said…
I like the use of some synonyms for "said." Just sayin.
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Neal Leblanc said…
Like many things, I think the "rule" here is to prevent what many an amateur writer has done, which is break out the thesaurus during a conversation between characters (such that nobody said anything, but there a lot of intoning, exclaiming, growling, etc.). Mind you, a dialogue-heavy section can look pretty repetitive, but that's often a matter of pacing.

So, I suspect, this is a "general case" rule for new writers, whereas more experienced writers know when to "break" the rule. Because sometimes, a weary character will sigh, an upset over may growl or yell, etc. -- and not saying so actually detracts from the scene for the reader.

Then again, I've not written anything not work out school related in more than a decade, so my opinions may not be the most useful.
John Akers said…
That's interesting - I'm writing a fiction book as well and I hadn't read anything saying you should always use "said." I think you have to use other words like "asked," "laughed," "muttered," sometimes to communicate the way in which the person is talking. Otherwise you're omitting useful information that helps draw the reader into the scene. I think a much bigger problem is writers using weak verbs and trying to bolster them with adverbs. For example, saying "...he exclaimed," or "...he muttered," is better than "...he said loudly," or "...he said quietly."

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