Say what?! Writing Pitfalls #2

I will begin the second installment in my creative writing advice series by saying that this is, perhaps, the most controversial entry you’ll read. That’s because, the “rules” discussed herein are somewhat counter-intuitive, and I’m not even entirely sure that I’m sold on them both yet myself.

What rules might I be talking about, you’re wondering?

Both relate to dialogue. The first rule is, be careful not to use verbs for speech that aren’t synonyms of “to say.” I’ll jump into some examples soon, so don’t worry if that’s unclear for now. The second rules is to use the word “said” as much as possible.

Now, for some examples of rule number one. All three of the following pieces of dialogue are from Ryan Logan’s The Princes of Panajin, whose review you can read here. In all of these examples, Logan misuses verbs by adding them to dialogue.

‘Any day now, Green,’ Radeth mocked.

Mocking is not a synonym for speaking. It is a behavior done to an indirect object.

‘Do not talk, Thanan,’ Kilian scolded firmly, cutting the boy off. ‘You will listen.’

Scolding is not a form of uttering words. You cannot scold some words at someone.

‘Ten years,’ Grimmach seethed, breaking the silence.

Again, one cannot seethe a string of words. In fact, seethe is intransitive and can’t even be done to a person in the way that mocking and scolding can.

I will grant that this rule is rather grammatically nit-picky. However, ever since it was first pointed out to me in a creative writing workshop, it has become a huge pet peeve. There really are only a handful of words that can be used interchangeably with “to say:” speak, utter, whisper, shout, et cetera. Any other verb you want to use needs to be fit in the sentence in a different way, like the following:

‘Any day now, Green,’ Radeth said in a mocking tone of voice.

Now, onto the more controversial rule of dialogue: use the word ‘said’ as much as possible. Honestly, when I first heard this rule years ago, I didn’t believe. ‘Said’ just sounds like such a boring word! How could it possibly be good writing advice to use it most of the time in lieu of more flavorful verbs.

Yet, time and again, in both the workshop I attended as well as in writing panels, online forums, and writing blogs, I keep seeing this rule being espoused. On some writing message board recently, I actually saw someone say something to the effect of, “You can always tell a newbie writer by two things: they rarely use the word ‘said,’ and they overuse adverbs.” Guilty as charged, on both counts.

And, hell, that many published authors can’t be wrong. So I am skeptically accepting the second rule of dialogue discussed here.

So, what do you say?

Teehee, see what I did there? 🙂

Do you agree or disagree with my two rules of dialogue? Are there other rules of dialogue to which you adhere?

Until next time,

xoxo Charlotte




    • Very valid point! And one which, I think, makes things even trickier haha. In my research for my next writing post, which will come out on Thursday of this week, I came across an article that essentially said, “try to follow this writing rule, but if you choose to break it, just make sure you break it well and with purpose.” I thought that was good advice for any kind of rule-breaking. In other words, don’t do it on accident or out of laziness — do it on purpose and in a way that achieves your writing goal.

      Thank you, Shazza, for stopping by! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • I’ve read similar (if not the exact same) advice about rule breaking in writing before as well. Very good advice, I’d say 🙂 The mark of a good writer is one that can break all the rules and still make for a good and easy read 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Precisely! Ultimately, I think rules are in place because they’re a good default, especially for beginners. But they’re ultimately there to help craft the best narrative possible, and if that can be done in alternative ways that break said rules, then awesome!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Oh my, the boy doth protest! This totally negates the advice I’ve read in other places that claim using verbs in lieu of said is precisely what SHOULD be done. As a result, in my manuscript (where things like “he said mockingly” appear frequently), I’ve been systematically changing examples like the one above to more verby descriptors. Now I’m being told this is wrong! I hate things! Things suck! They seem especially more bleak because I’m hungover, but if this is indeed true then I’ll need to revert everything back to what it was. Grrrrrrr…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, things do suck! You and I have since talked about this privately, but I’ll state publicly here that I am still somewhat reluctant to embrace these dialogue rules. As you and I have discussed, apparently the nexus for these rules is that the dialogue itself should be able to stand on its own in order to flow more naturally for the reader. To be fair, when I think on it some more, I can see the point that too much emphasis on verbs may rip the reader out of the scene.

      Alas, my inclination is always to use colorful verbs and loads of adverbs. So I really need to work on this. 😦

      Liked by 3 people

      • It is a massive grey area all of this because I agree with the sentiment of verbs pulling the reader out of the scene (potentially at least), but my argument there is that it’s rather a presumptuous premise. How does one person or even a group of people know for a fact that is definitely the effect it’ll have on EVERY reader? It’s never had that effect on me. The mistake these rule distributors make is in thinking that everyone thinks the way they do when the likelihood is that very few do. Especially John and Jane.Q.Public who don’t analyse the absolute crap out of everything and just want to read a good story.

        This is all very much a case of who you, the writer, wants to impress I think. There again, we also have to consider what hurdles we must jump over to impress the publishers too. Do they think like the literary Nazis (I’d wager not if imperfect stories from a literary standpoint are out there becoming bestsellers) or do they look for a damned good story aesthetically speaking that will likely sell in abundance? Methinks the latter. So perhaps the rules on this occasion are leaning more towards being detrimental for a budding author who craves success in sales.

        I think we’ve examined and cross-examined the back bone out of this sucker! 😂 God, I love WordPress!

        Liked by 3 people

  2. See, I would have written “Radeth said mockingly” – tone of voice being inferred… No need to state the tone in this case. That aside, I think both of these ‘rules’ are crap. There needs to be a good balance. If you utilize the word “said” with every set of quotation marks you sound repetitive or unimaginative. There needs to be a flow to the conversation, and a flow to the writing. There needs to be room for imaginative reading as well.

    That being said, using verbs like “mocked” and “scolded” actually don’t strike me as wrong – because they are doing that action while they are speaking. This makes the tone of voice clear to the reader and helps them visualize the character in action. I don’t believe this needs to occur with every bit of speech though – again there needs to be balance. However, if the character is in action at the time of speech and what they are saying does not indicate the action in itself, then it is perfectly okay to use it in the description in place of “said.”

    Let’s be honest here – the quotations in and of themselves indicate speech – do they not? There are many times I don’t use any descriptors after a quotation because it is perfectly clear who said what and that they were speaking.

    Rules be damned! haha… but to wrap up: Said is perfectly acceptable and should not be replaced by pompous words that come across as overdone or trying to hard (yes that can be the sign of an amateur trying too hard), but at the same time using only said or overusing said is also amateurish in my mind. Write what comes across as natural / not forced. Write for a flow and a desired effect… Write so that it makes sense in it’s context as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Hey here’s an idea for you to write about – Imaginative Reading. How and when to you set the scene and when do you let descriptors fall to the way side to allow for the reader’s imagination to take over? Does that make sense? So many writers either don’t describe enough at times… But more often it is writers over describing every little detail which makes for boring, drawn out stories when they could pare down the descriptors and allow for the story to speak for itself.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Ah yeah, I remember this one from taking creative writing in college. What kills me about this is that we are told as children in writing class to break this rule. I remember being in elementary/middle school and being given a GIANT list of words to use instead of “said.” Then in college the professor told us to forget all of that. Talk about confusing.

    I think the idea of using said is honestly because the human mind kind of skips over that part anyway. The dialogue is the focus of the sentence, not HOW the dialogue was delivered. Said seems simple and empty but ultimately it is that because we don’t realistically stop to pay attention to it. Dialogue that uses those “strong verbs” distracts from the dialogue itself. Ideally, a strong piece of dialogue should communicate “mocking” or “seething” with strong language (by which I mean effective language, not profanity, of course) within the sentence itself, so that you can utilize your first point – show, don’t tell.

    A tip that was conveyed to me in college that might help with the whole not using said thing – once the participants in a conversation have been established, it can be very effective to stop using “he said, she said” and to just have the conversation flow. Example –

    “I went to the grocery store today,” Eric said. He placed the heavy grocery bags on the kitchen counter and indicated one in particular to his wife, Kristi. “Picked up some apples, I know you like those.”

    Kristi furrowed her brow. “Those apples are red. I like green apples, Eric.”

    “Oh.” Eric sighed and set about putting the groceries away. He removed a box of cake mix from the closest bag and stood still for a few moments, turning the box over in his hands.

    Kristi stepped over to Eric and placed her hand on his shoulder. “Are you okay? You seem distracted.”

    “What? Yeah, I’m fine, it’s – everything’s fine.”

    – So my intent there is that by the time the conversation is really going, you’re not even using “said” anymore, you’re just describing what’s happening and letting the conversation flow naturally. I only used said once, but didn’t use verbs that aren’t said either, so I guess that could technically satisfy both camps? Now if Eric and Kristi’s daughter Abigail jumps in, it’ll be appropriate to include some saids again to re-establish who is speaking.

    TL;DR – said is preferred because the dialogue connectors are throwaway lines anyway. The reader is focused on the dialogue, so your focus should be on creating effective dialogue rather than the words used to establish who is speaking it. Hope that helps!

    Liked by 3 people

    • You hit the nail right on the head, Ian! After hitting publish on this post, I went back and did more research to really understand the “why” behind this rule. As you say, it flies in the fact of the “don’t repeat words” rule that we learn as children! The articles I came across emphasize exactly the point you make here: that ‘said’ is essentially the word form of a punctuation mark, much like a comma or semi-colon. The mind glosses over it (which is why I never notice it being repeated, while I easily pick up on other words being repeated). Using a word other than said would jerk the reader out of the scene, rather than allowing them to stay in the dialogue.

      I really love the resolution you propose here: establish who is speaking, then step back and just let them speak! (Until it’s necessary to re-establish who is speaking, of course).

      Thank you for your enlightening and helpful contributions, Ian!

      Liked by 1 person

    • I like your method, Jeff! It reminds me of my preferred way to settle the “he said/she said” debate: leaving dialogue to stand on its own, but placing it next to an action. For example:

      Charlotte crossed her arms. “Jeff, you should use my rule.”

      “I refuse.” Jeff sighed and rolled his eyes. “My way is better.”

      I will certainly be checking out the Stephen King link you sent. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Rule breaker here. I think it depends on your reader. Some readers are grammar nazis and using “scolded” will bother them, while other readers are more creative and will invite the visual sense of the description. I can’t remember EVER stopping mid-read and being upset that a writer used “scolded” instead of “said.” But I can remember being bored by dialogue that used “said” at every turn. I think there are too many people writers are trying to please. Do you write for your editor? For the agent? For the publisher? You write for the reader. I also think some of it may depend on your genre too. Different genre are written differently to appeal to different audiences, so how can there be ONE solid rule. If it works, it works. Otherwise Dr. Seuss would be nothing more than a nonsense-talking hack, right? “Great discussion!” she exclaimed.

    Liked by 3 people

    • While I may disagree with you about following this rule or not, I absolutely agree that ultimately it comes down to who you’re writing for. If a writer is going to self-publish, then really all they should cater to is the readers they are hoping to attract, and conventions may differ based on genre. If, on the other hand, someone is hoping to land a specific agent or a specific publishing house, then they would need to follow the rules that said agent or publisher desires.

      I really love the active discussion this post has spawned! This is exactly the sort of lively discussion I was hoping for. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I recently had a manuscript returned to me by my editor with a similar note about only using ‘said’ or ‘asked’ for the same reason Robert pointed out. She said that the content, punctuation or the dialogue itself should indicate tone. She even told me to remove ‘shouted’ too. Basically ‘said’ is invisible on the page anything else draws attention to itself and distracts from the actual dialogue.

    I’ve heard this said in workshops and by other authors, so i’m going to trust them on this point and fix all those dialogue tags.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is interesting that even ‘shouted’ was a no go for your editor. Although grammatically and logically correct, it does make sense though that ‘shouting’ draws me as a reader away from the dialogue, whereas ‘said’ is just so ordinary as to be glossed over easily.

      I think my biggest pitfall when it comes to dialogue tags is relying on adverbs to convey manner of speech, rather than creating stronger dialogue to do that.

      Liked by 1 person

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