Use ‘said’ and ‘wrote’, the editor highlighted

Fiction writers are rightly advised to use said in dialogue and avoid redundancies or conspicuous synonyms: ‘You must,’ he insisted. ‘The hell I will!’ she shouted loudly. This sort of thing is likely to annoy readers and distract them from the story. It’s one of Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But “said” is far less intrusive than “grumbled”, “gasped”, “cautioned”, “lied”. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated” and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary.

Yet writers continue to riddle their stories with showy or gratuitous synonyms. It can give the impression that they’re trying too hard to enliven their text, without knowing the right and wrong ways to translate their passion for the material into something readers will appreciate, not wince at. If you’re going to thesaurify said, you’ll need a damn good reason.

Cartoon by Edward Steed for the New Yorker

Cartoon by Edward Steed for the New Yorker

Horror writer Ramsey Campbell had a good reason for his short story ‘Next Time You’ll Know Me’ (1988), which plays around with the ownership of ideas and the challenge of being original. Its narrator deliberately overwrites his account, studiously avoiding said in almost every report of speech in favour of overblown alternatives:

“You’re the apprentice here and don’t you forget it,” he proclaimed with a red face. “Don’t you go trying to be cleverer than the customer. He gets what he asks for, not what you think he wants. Who do you think you are?” he queried.

He was asking, so I told him. “I’m a writer,” I stated.

“And I’m the Oxford University Press.”

I laughed because I thought he meant me to. “No you aren’t,” I contradicted.

“That’s right,” he stressed, and stuck his red face up against mine.

ramsey campbell - waking nightmares - book coverElsewhere in the twelve-page story we find advise, affirm, applaud, warned, counselled, countermanded, deduced, rebuked, inquired, dismissed, asserted, entreated, interrogated, announced, clamoured, vociferated, denied, sued, acclaimed, directed, enunciated, relished, bleated, fathomed, predicted, prognosticated, heralded, prefaced, gainsaid, and nuncupated. Nuncupated!

It is virtually impossible to read the story and not be aware of this strategy. Given Campbell’s obvious competence and the story’s self-conscious theme and manifest irony, most readers would quickly get in on the joke. But in the introduction to Waking Nightmares (1992), a collection that features the story, Campbell reports an exception:

“Next Time You’ll Know Me” can be read as some kind of response to my being sent unsolicited manuscripts. It appeared in Douglas Winter’s Prime Evil, where one of those copy-editors whom writers abhor tried to change all the narrator’s said-bookisms into “said.”

From an editorial point of view this is an understandable impulse, but it should have gone no further. Automatically changing each synonym to said broke the cardinal rule of editing, what I’ve called the Typographic Oath: First, do no harm. It’s vital to understand an author’s intent before reflexively applying a rule. (Campbell sent me the style sheet he includes with his work nowadays. I imagine it saves on stetting.)

*

The aversion to said so common in novice fiction-writing is mirrored by the avoidance of wrote in academia, where dialogue becomes cited research and nothing is ever written if it can be stated, related, indicated, argued, asserted, affirmed, outlined, found, revealed, noted, believed, suggested, stressed, posited, proposed, contended, claimed, explained, maintained, highlighted, emphasised, or acknowledged.

This is less of a problem in non-fiction prose because readers don’t expect to lose themselves in a story; instead they follow arguments, consider evidence, and so on. Here, words like argued and claimed can add a useful or necessary nuance. Variety can lend style and finesse to an information-heavy text. But it can also make it overworked and stodgy, grating on readers and interfering with the points being made.

Care and judgement are needed, not mechanical use of argued this, highlighted that. Not everything can be highlighted, and not everything should be argued. Some word choices don’t even make sense: I see advocate creeping into unedited scholarly writing, not in the standard sense of supporting or recommending something, but as a fancyism for argue or claim: ‘The authors advocated that their research shows…’

State is particularly popular: the academic writing I see describes authors as stating things perhaps more often than any analogous verb. Yet state is stiff and stilted, connoting (if it’s not denoting) something expressed very formally, such as a declaration. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage says – yes, says! – that its files contain ‘little evidence’ of the use of state for say, but my files contain small mountains of it.

Some people might find said too informal, or suggestive of speech rather than writing unless the context shows otherwise (which it usually would). But I think said is OK here, and more natural than stated. The usage is normal in books and has long been so; the OED’s primary sense of say includes ‘in wider sense, used of an author or a book, with quoted words as object’.

google ngram viewer - the authors say, write, said, wrote

In fiction, said is your best friend. Pick up any novel by an accomplished writer and scan the dialogue: it’s said, said, said all the way, with the occasional asked for questions. Ramsey Campbell’s story, where alternatives were integral, is the exception. If you find yourself reading, as I did, a published story with murmured used unselfconsciously three times on one page, and again on the next, you begin to feel that the writer isn’t paying attention. So why should you?

[A version of this post appears in Offpress, newsletter of the Society of Editors (Queensland) Inc.]

52 Responses to Use ‘said’ and ‘wrote’, the editor highlighted

  1. catteau says:

    Why should one never use verbs other than “said?” Of course using a zillion alternate verbs can be overdone or redundant (as in “‘no you aren’t,'” I contradicted”), and using the same uncommon verb several times on the same page isn’t a great idea no matter what the verb refers to – but following every item in quotes with “she said” or “he said” would be pretty feeble as well.

    In academic writing, often “wrote” is not what is meant when someone says the authors assert, claim, indicate, argue, suggest, etc. Obviously they wrote it, it’s an article being discussed. But assert, claim, indicate, argue, and suggest are not the same as each other, and none is the same as wrote.

    Why should there be any blanket rules about this kind of thing?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Joy: Quite often no verb is needed at all. A long run of dialogue can take place with just an occasional helping hand for readers to keep track of which speaker is which.

      The ‘rule’ for fiction doesn’t apply in non-fiction, hence the dividing asterisk, but I thought it would be convenient to address both domains in one post. I agree with you about academic writing, as you can see in paragraphs 2 and 3 below the asterisk. The important thing is to be discerning and thoughtful in one’s use of verbs.

    • L.B. says:

      I agree; a little hint of the speaker’s mood never hurt anyone.
      “More peas?” he said, mumbling.
      “More peas?” he mumbled.

  2. I hate the use of ‘whispered’ when the character is at most speaking quietly–unless you’re hiding behind the sofa from Mad Jack Slaughter and need to communicate in utmost secrecy, you’re probably not going to use voiceless (in the sense of non-engagement of the vocal cords) speech.

  3. Rain, Rain says:

    Don’t forget the Tom Swift exception. “You put the wafer on your tongue,” Tom communicated. “We’ll have to parachute to safety!” he explained. “I cast my vote for independence!” Tom proudly stated.

  4. As much as I agree that nothing is better than “said,” I can’t go so far as to say one should never use another verb there. I’d go so far as to say that sometimes another verb is right for that spot even when it is used unironically. Sometimes it is more economical to throw some information and color into that verb rather than to stick that elsewhere in the scene. It’s not a common situation, but it’s one that could happen, and it would be a shame if the writer had Elmore Leonard screaming “never!” in their ear when it came up.

    That being said, back when I was an English teacher the other teachers were on a rampage against “said” and were circulating lists of increasingly awful alternatives, including a number of transitive verbs that just look sad and ill-used after a line of dialog. I protested, but nobody listened to me.

  5. I like said, but I like the nuances of other verbs too. Rules rules rules. So sick and tired of rules. :)

  6. kathrynguare says:

    I follow the general principle of “everything in moderation.” I think it is good to be aware that “said” should be the default verb for carrying dialogue, but sometimes “said” can be overused as well. Sometimes you don’t need a verb at all, and and sometimes a “grumbled” or “hissed” adds a little impact. Most important to me is to read the text aloud and see if it flows or stutters, sounds realistic or overblown. I would have preferred it if Elmore had said “avoid” rather than “never.”

  7. I think it’s a question of balance. Too many different and interesting verbs might be distracting, but too much repetition of “said” would get boring and annoying.

    I just picked up a novel I had read and enjoyed, looking for samples (because whichever way this author dealt with dialogue obviously worked for me and didn’t jar me). I found that there were some places where parts of the dialogue were allowed to go verbless; some places where she used “said” and also things like: retorted, cried – these are, I feel, verbs that don’t draw attention to themselves; but also what I saw happening a lot was that instead of the verb being to do with speaking, it was to do with what else was going on in the scene, which I feel – if done well – helps the reader keep up with where we are and what’s happening, and especially useful when there’s a long dialogue.

    (I say “if done well” because I’ve come across writers who seem to overdo that and bore me with stuff like “he helped himself to more potatoes” – which comes back to balance, I guess.)

    • deshipley says:

      I wholeheartedly agree. Too much of anything — be it “said” or an avoidance of “said” — will rub me the wrong way. (They say “said” is invisible, but when it’s everywhere, I can’t /not/ see it!) Writing that employs a thoughtful variety of ways to convey what’s happening will tend go down much more smoothly, with me, than anything based on a hard “NEVER” rule.

      • Exactly – when it’s everywhere, it’s not invisible at all, it’s in your face and annoying.

        I think this rule can be a useful guideline for a novice writer who is overdoing the flowery language, but like so many rules it’s important to know when to break it :)

  8. Rain, Rain says:

    intoned; called out; said; cried; said; went on; cried; said; said; said; said; said; cried; said; said; said; said; said; said; said; murmured; said; answered; said; said; told his face in the mirror; said; said; said; said; said…

    So Ulysses. Also I count a brace of “gasped,” and five “shouted.” But it’s a long book. (Joyce did not use “asseverated” in Ulysses but maybe it’s in Finnegan’s Wake?)

  9. John Cowan says:

    The rule against said-bookisms is second-order prescriptivism. The first-order rule is “Don’t repeat yourself”, and when writers go overboard not repeating themselves, a new rule “Do repeat yourself with the word said” is formed. The question was discussed at great length at Languagehat, with me pointing to what it is that people denounce when they denounce said-bookism (namely, any use of verbs other than said in dialogue tags), versus most of the other Hattics and Hat himself, saying that all it means is that you shouldn’t worry about repeating yourself with said.

  10. IMHO, first of all a writer should take the readership into consideration. Formal writing (legal, medical, business etc) should probably mostly stick to “said” and not get bogged down with stilted synonyms. However, less formal writing (novels, personal letters. emails, texts) and speech can get away with throwing in some replacements for “said.” If someone mumbled or shouted, I would use those words. If someone emphasized or lied about something, I would use those words. I think the trick is not to try too hard.

  11. Stan Carey says:

    Thanks for your thoughts on this. Elmore Leonard’s use of never is unfortunate, and I agree that it goes too far. There’s a tendency for rules that are more like strong suggestions to ossify into absolutes. Obviously said needn’t (and shouldn’t) always be used. But when a verb is necessary to identify the speaker it’s a good default.

    Everything in moderation

    Yes, including moderation. No one would suggest using full stops or sentence-initial capitals in moderation. I don’t mean to be facetious: those customs are a virtual imperative, whereas use of said is a mere guideline; but the advice about moderation risks becoming one of those rules that brings out the devil’s advocate in me. Some conventions are strong enough to override it to varying degrees, is what I’m getting at.

    When I suggested scanning the dialogue in a good novel, I was thinking non-experimental contemporary literature, not century-old modernism. Ulysses is a wonder and a treasure, but a typical work of fiction it ain’t. I’m surprised it uses said so regularly!

    I stressed wrote because it seems to be strangely shunned in the non-fiction writing I edit. The available set of terms – argued, highlighted and co. – are useful descriptive verbs, but they’re often used when someone isn’t really arguing or highlighting something at all. Sometimes you want a neutral option and wrote fits the bill well, yet is seldom chosen. There’s no good reason for this avoidance that I’m aware of, and I wonder if an old superstition or proscription has led to unconscious and counterproductive habit.

    John, thanks for the link to LH; I’d forgotten about that discussion.

  12. Word Jazz says:

    I remember reading explorer Sir Richard Burton’s narrative of his pilgrimage to Al-Medinah and Meccah (1855), and noting that he uses ‘ejaculate’ rather a lot for (presumably more expressive) reported speech. Even for non-fiction, however, that particular alternative is probably best left to the Victorians.

    • Old Gobbo says:

      which reminds me of an assertion reported (said?) to me to have been made by Capt.W.E.Johns, and drawn to my attention, alas, long after I had any interest in re-reading the corpus to find out if it was in Biggles flies North or West or South-West by East:
      “Great Scott! A sperm whale !” Biggles ejaculated.

      • You know, I am not a prude, and I’m in the medical field, but seriously? That word should be reserved for ONE purpose, and one purpose only. Although it could be reserved for many porpoises. Or whales. And while I’m at it, maybe we need to change the name of that whale (and what’s with Moby Dick?). How about, let’s just say, um, Mike? There’s a nice innocuous name.

      • And let’s turn him into an eel, while we’re at it.

  13. Fran says:

    I’m currently editing my novel and the word that’s disappearing most is ‘said’. The more fiction I read, the more I realise that in my own writing, dialogue and who’s saying it can be indicated in many other ways. On the other hand, I love Tom Swifties, and often use them in my English lessons to teach adverbs! They’re good fun.

  14. marc leavitt says:

    Stan:
    As a reporter, and fiction writer, I learned that the only important use of a verb after a quote, was to show who said it.

  15. Ralph Lavelle says:

    +1 for “fancyism”.

    When I was a kid, reading The Famous Five, or Secret Seven, every second piece of dialogue was accompanied by “exclaimed”.

    “Jolly hockey sticks!” exclaimed Julian.

    Words like exclaim taught me at a young age that English was a little bit diglossic, or at least there seemed to be an acceptable difference between written and spoken form. Certainly I never heard anyone use “exclaim” in verbal form.

    I don’t think we do ourselves any favours by being such wowsers (another great Ozzie term) about alternatives to “said”. It’s fun to play with words.

  16. wisewebwoman says:

    It’s the imagery that’s conjured in some of these novels that I object to, i.e. for “declared” I always see someone standing to attention with a bible saluting. Whispering from a far corner of a large is another, I add an old fashioned ear-horn to the listener. And on. Highly distracting. I tend to stick to “said” in my work and leave the reader without the mental contortions I feel compelled to perform. :)

    XO
    WWW

  17. Irene Taylor says:

    Miss Bath taught me in Grade 3. She insisted [smile] that we never use ‘said’ or ‘nice’, because this was the lazy way out, and there were so many better choices to make. Of course, she explained [smile] this in language that 7 – 8 year olds could understand, and never really put red lines through ‘said’ or ‘nice’ until the third use in the same…composition. Miss Bath also criticised [smile] the use of ‘and’ or ‘but’ at the start of a sentence, and absolutely forbade [smile] the writing (or, indeed, speaking) of ‘all of a sudden’ instead of ‘suddenly’. Her strictures were echoed [smile] by future teachers, until I met the enlightened one, whose name I have forgotten, who let these faux pas against elegant English prose pass, and instead introduced me to journalese. This also was seen as a bit of a no-no, because she wasn’t sure how the examiners in the NSW Leaving Certificate would react to the looseness and informality of my attempts. I decided to risk it anyway, hoping that said examiners would be charmed by the intimacy of my essays. I guess they were – because I got the best pass I could. Maturity, rather than lots of tertiary English language and literature courses, taught me that keeping it simple was probably the way to go, and that provided you know what rule you’re breaking (and the consequences thereof), you can be free to break ’em all: split infinitives with impunity, mislay apostrophes and lay low (instead of lying low) with the best of them. People have their own store of connotations, so Wisewebwoman’s salute at the sound of ‘declared’ is quite possibly someone else’s yawn…Writers have to realise that once their ‘child’ has been published, it has to stand on its own legs – like any other piece of art. The only sins, really, in literature, are expecting that readers will apprehend writing in exactly the way the author intended (if you’re after this, then choose your words carefully), explaining ‘what [you, the author] really meant’, and getting upset because someone misunderstood you. My irritation is stirred by misuse of language. I lose patience with people who make me work hard to decipher their communication – otherwise, go for it!

  18. Interesting advice for upcoming writers, but I feel I need to add a word of caution. As much as it becomes clumsy to avoid using the word “said” for each dialogue, it would not be recommended to use it all the time. Sometimes colour is required in a certain scenario. Sometimes it also becomes monotonous to see “he said” or “she said” all the time. Some safety measures maybe a dialogue less than ten words requires no explanation of who is speaking unless it was indicated in a harsh or lowered manner. It would become draining to see “said” after every short dialogue. The best suggestion is to focus on what you are writing about. If there was some arguement, remind the reader by adding something like “yelled” once or twice during the dialogue. If the scenario required a hushed tone of voice, remind the reader of the situation by using words like “whispered” but rarely. For book fan I appreciate descriptive writing, but sometimes no words are required and sometimes words are needed to bring the reader in. It can also be used to add humour when necessary. Using and not using the word “said” should be a choice of the writer. It should be something that feels right.
    e.g. I hid behind the couch. I saw Bobby come through the door and standing behind him was the killer.
    “Watch out, Bobby!” I said.
    or “Watch out, Bobby!” I screamed.
    The choice is yours….

  19. Stan Carey says:

    nunyabiz: Maybe Finnegans Wake would be more to your taste.

    Matt, Gobbo, bluebird: Funny how ejaculate(d) has become all but unusable outside of sexual contexts. In dialogue use it wouldn’t have raised eyebrows a few generations ago, but it’s beyond the pale now. There was an amusing exchange on Twitter about this yesterday too.

    Fran: That’s very true. And Tom Swifties deserve a post to themselves.

    Marc: Definitely, but of course the parameters change for different kinds of writing.

    Ralph: I don’t know when I first came up with fancyism (and I’m sure others have coined it independently) but I find it very handy when I’m editing! Exclaimed is one to avoid as much as possible, I think.

    WWW: Exactly. Instead of following the characters’ words and actions, the reader is liable to end up on fanciful flights that might have nothing to do with the story.

    Irene: Descriptive verbs are of course far more permissible, even required, with indirect speech, as you’ve used them here. My objection is to their unnecessary, inappropriate or distracting use with quoted material. Keeping it simple is good general advice. (I wrote briefly about nice a few years ago after seeing it criticised ironically in Northanger Abbey.)

    jlshipston: I agree broadly with that. As I said in the post, care and judgement are needed, and forgoing dialogue tags altogether is preferable if it’s sufficiently clear who’s saying what. When a verb is used to mark dialogue, said should not be the only option but it is the best default.

  20. I am extremely confused here. Your admonishment concerning other words instead of said goes against so many dialogues I’ve read and books I’ve read on writing. Do you recommend any books on fiction dialogue that goes more into depth. I need examples.Ahhh I’m confused. Ben

  21. Hugo says:

    Interesting… I remember doing this in creative writing tasks in primary school, and possibly even being taught that you should try to find synonyms for ‘said’. Back then, it never occurred to me that the choice of that synonym was adding extra information that didn’t actually originate with the character.

  22. I would have to mostly agree with this. The dialogue itself, if written well, should imply the tone and manner in which it was “spoke”.

  23. Chips Mackinolty says:

    Except for one brief mention @ marc leavitt, the place of “said” in journalism has been ignored. Certainly in Australia, in print journalism you would only use “said”. Any other descriptions of what was being said would be in the passive, eg:

    The Prime Minister claimed the deficit was the fault of the former Labor government, and demanded they pass the budget.

    “All the Opposition can do is whinge and carp,” he said.

    And, as it is clear who is doing the saying, you could probably drop the “he said” completely.

    For reasons I’ve never known, broadcast journalists use the present tense, “says” even when reporting the past. That is, the Prime Minister claims ….

    In either case, no place in straight news reporting for “opine”, let alone “ejaculate”.

  24. Stan Carey says:

    OK, here’s a page selected at random from the book I’m reading today, Joe R. Lansdale’s Mucho Mojo. Lansdale writes extremely well and has a terrific ear for dialogue. Our discussion here might prime you to be hyper-aware of the use of said, but when you’re reading the book in a normal way you scarcely notice them. Which is the point.

    The book has two main characters; when they’re the only ones talking, the dialogue tags are often forgone. This scene has four characters, so said is used more often, out of necessity:

  25. Debunker says:

    ‘I imagine that with the success of Fifty Shades, verbs like moaned, squealed, gasped, hissed and grunted are probably going to loom large in the popular fiction of the next decade,’ he sighed deeply.

    • astraya says:

      and ‘ejaculated’????
      Seriously, Google Ngrams shows that the high point of ‘ejaculated’ came in 1900, and it’s been drooping since then. On the other hand, the use of ‘ejaculate’ has been growing steadily since the middle of the 20th century. Of course, Ngrams doesn’t show which meanings of those words are being used.

      • Debunker says:

        Yes, my mother-in-law (a lovely woman whose English was normally correct and expressive) used to use it on occasion when she meant ‘gesticulated’. Her description of a man ejaculating wildly in the middle of a party must have confused and shocked quite a few people. :-)

  26. sarahmay500 says:

    I read out loud a lot (8yo son) and I’m often caught out by the verb for dialogue not matching the tone of voice I’ve read the line in. I don’t know if this is a sign of poor writing – that I should be able to tell the tone of voice from the speech itself, or whether its a case for more complex tags – if we read silently we may miss these mismatches, and of course we think of adult fiction as being written for silence – but is that a good thing really?

    • Reminds me of those reading sessions in junior primary school, where each student in turn has to go into a little room and read one-on-one to a teacher. I remember sometimes reading a line of dialogue only to discover that the next words were, “whispered Jane” (for example), at which point I would actually go back and re-read the relevant line in the specified manner. No doubt I got extra credit for this.

  27. Chips Mackinolty says:

    @ Sarah May

    Which is an argument for not using a verb at all to describe the tone of speech, except perhaps as an identifier for who has said it, ie “Joan said”.

    Take, for example, “Ding Dong the witch is dead!”. The exclamation mark says it all, we don’t need “they exalted”, “they sang”, “they yelled” etc etc. Speech/reported speech/fictionalised speech should, by definition, speak for itself, and really only needs modifiers outside Tim Swifties, which are plays on words rather than real world speech reportage.

    And yes, Sarah, reading to kids is the measure of it.

    If the content and tone of the reported speech is not enough, adding artificial signals to how something is to be said suggests it may not be worth saying at all.

  28. crawlyp24 says:

    Reblogged this on Crawly Land and commented:
    This came at the right time! I get annoyed by this saidism all the time and noticed it today when I was reading this terrible short story!!

  29. Agree, excellent advice for fiction-writing. On your comment about academic writing, do you think the appropriateness of ‘wrote’ differs between science & humanities disciplines? e.g. humanities researchers tend to quote authors in full (therefore “Smith wrote ‘…'” is more appropriate), whereas scientists are more likely to paraphrase authors, so saying ‘Smith argued…’ or ‘Smith found…’ might be better???

    • Stan Carey says:

      Thanks, Manu. Your point about different styles in science and humanity writing rings true. As you say, though, it’s a question of likelihood: a tendency or pattern rather than a rule. Much depends on context.

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