He Extrapolated

Myself and a small group of compadres were recently privileged enough to be allowed to read a good friend’s first efforts on the Writing Front. It was the Edinburgh Fringe and as we were recovering from a 2 – 5 (in the morning) comedy gig around the breakfast table he passed us a trio of short stories and asked what we thought of them.

This post isn’t about those stories per se. They were quirky, surrealist, at times touching, and certainly much, much better than any of my early works. But they also brought up an interesting point, one which I feel the urge to share with the mighty hive consciousness of the blogosphere this afternoon.

On a number of occasions whilst reading I paused to dispense my obviously mighty and incontrovertible wisdom. One of the foremost points mentioned was the use of words following his dialogue. He was, I declaimed, guilty of the common rookie mistake of seeking to use any word other than “said” to describe his speech. Hissed, whispered, spat, shouted, howled, you get my drift. This, I SAID, was all unnecessary since “said” is one of a small group of words in the English language which is in fact invisible. It can be used frequently and with great repetition and still not jar the reader from the flow of the story.

This caused a few raised eyebrows amongst the gathered amigos.

‘What about school?’ one of them asked/hissed/whispered/spat/shouted/howled/anythingbutsaid. I opened my mouth to reply, and closed it again as I realised that she was right. What about school? Cut to flashback scene, as I recall the teachers in Standard Grade English blithely telling us to spice up our writing by throwing every word in our imagination down onto the page in place of “said.” At that moment I realised who I had to blame for my condition.

I’m a recovering anti-saidite. I too, until very recently, was guilty of eschewing said word from my vocabulary. “You really need to stop doing that” was the message loud and clear from my editors. And so I did, slowly, painfully, eroding all unnecessarily descriptive items from around my dialogue. And it works. The writing is better, punchier, more compact. 9/10 times the context of someone’s speech will inform the reader how they’re saying something. You needn’t tell them.

However, the shock my advice garnered amongst my friends threw me into doubt. Was this elementary law not universally accepted? What strange world of writing-savages had my TARDIS plunged me into? I kept my eyes peeled after that and, sure enough, yesterday I came across this.

The author shall naturally remain nameless, all you need know is that he/she/it is currently in the NYTimes Bestseller list. Reading a brief extract of its work, my worst fears were confirmed. There were twelve instances of speech in the section I read, and here are the words that followed each one;











Said (hooray!)

Now some are less offensive to my newfound said-love than others. Replied and asked you can pretty much get away with (assuming the character is replying/asking of course!). But the overwhelming message from this bestseller was the same which my friends had reacted with.

“Your saids are lame, all the cool kids use big words!”

So who is right? Well first off, this is writing, so NOBODY is right. But who does the collective wisdom of the blogosphere favour? Are you a Said Loyalists or a AntiSaidite? For my part I’m going to hang tough with my cold turkey said, but I’ll keep my eye out from here on in. If I do start using the “other words” again at least I can point my editor to the friend who reminded me of our school indoctrination and go “Well that’s what she said!”



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11 responses to “He Extrapolated

  1. bijouannie

    Said, all the way. You’re right that it disappears. One of the things that will make me put a book down is if there are too many anti-said moments. Spat and hissed are my two favorites. I can imagine someone spitting as they speak (say it, don’t spray it…which is oddly exactly what I’d tell the author if I could), but can a person actually hiss and speak words at the same time? Somehow I don’t think so. Well SAID, Robbie.

  2. I used to be an anti-saidite, but I’ve been through the wringer for it too. Now I pare out as much as I can, although I still find the occasional “growled” in my drafts.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog fellow GUTGAA blogger 🙂

    • No problemo, glad to meet new people! Yup, relapse can be just round the corner, so many folks snarl in my fiction I should consider writing for canines. Still, I’m staying strong for all my fellow saiders out there!

  3. Don’t avoid “said,” but remember that there are other words out there. If the other words get their point across better, use them, but they often don’t. I prefer the words to stand for themselves unless I need a marker to show who this person is.


  4. c stuart hardwick

    Personally, I think “said” should be the default attribution, but question the advice ( often given even by some who I respect) to use it even for questions.

    I think a little variety is healthy, but as with the exclaimation point, a little goes a long way. I think that most any attribution will be invisible to the average reader (with no literary axe to grind) provided it is clear, appropriate, and rarely used. But when “said” becomes the exception, prose becomes a blizzard of distraction.

    I am reminded of school days and one particular professor who so over-promoted the documentation of computer programs that for many of her hapless students, the comments outnumbered the code by a wide margin. No. Don’t do that.

    The bigger point, I think, is not to overuse tags to begin with. I like garlic, but I don’t eat a plate of garlic.

    • I’d view “asked” and “replied” as basically on par with “said” as far as ease of interaction with the rest of the text goes. It seems to be a bit of a catch 22 – I’ve never really been jarred out of reading even poorly edited work – like some fanfics – by a proliferation of words that aren’t said, but now that it’s become a topic of debate I find myself actually checking for said in the first place, which is obviously just counter-productive!

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