Last November I began to notice a lot of lists of colorful synonyms for the word “said” surfacing from the depths of the internet. Said-isms hurt, and not in a sexy way. As a point of style, expunging these words actually makes for stronger writing. While most conventional writing advice insists on strong verbs, said-isms are the exception to this rule.
Why they are universally dreaded:
- They’re distracting: Unusual words draw attention. People are going to notice when “said” is replaced by a word like “quibbled” or “ejaculated” (as in Edgar Allen Poe’s memorable “The amontillado!” ejaculated my friend–ouch). This shifts the focus away from what your characters are saying and onto the strange way in which it is said.
- They’re illogical: Attempts at creative dialogue tags often leads to constructions such as “Thank you,” Jill smiled. This is illogical because smiling is not a mode of speech. It is an action that can occur before, after, or while she is speaking, but it is separate from speaking and does not denote speech. By the same token laughing, nodding, and frowning aren’t appropriate tags.
- “Said” is the blue jeans of writing: The main reason why people try so hard to avoid the word “said” is fear of overuse. However, much like blue jeans “said” is neutral, rarely remarked upon, and matches almost everything. Unless it appears on every single line, it’s nearly impossible to wear this word out.
It is worth noting that there are acceptable substitutions for “said.” Most common among these are: asked, replied, shouted, and whispered. These words are common enough that they don’t draw too much attention, but also help tailor dialogue to specific situations to deal with the few places where “said” genuinely doesn’t fit, like “I hate you with the fiery passion of a thousand suns!” she said.
Writing like a boss: Not all dialogue needs tags. If it’s clear who’s speaking, you can leave your dialogue untagged. Dialogue can also be placed next to an action phrase to denote the speaker. Jill stirred her coffee. “No sugar for me, thank you.” (Note that the action and the dialogue are separated by a period and not a comma.)