By Amy Bennet
Lately I’ve heard the phrase, “Said is dead” offered as writing advice. I’ve even heard that people are paying money at professional writing conferences to be told this nonsense.
So I had to look up the source of this idea that the word “said” is somehow out of favor. Because the advice that’s been around for decades in science fiction and fantasy writing is that “said” should be, for the most part, the only word writers use in that role, and that “said-bookisms” (flowery words that replace “said,”) are for the most part to be avoided if you want to sound like a professional writer.
The “said is dead” movement got its roots in primary and secondary schools, as an attempt to widen students’ vocabularies and prepare them for standardized tests. Googling “said is dead” reveals lengthy and awkward vocabulary lists promising teachers that learning synonyms for “said” will make their students better writers. And the intentions are meant to be good (who doesn’t like a wide vocabulary?), but I think writers risk dismantling something crucial about the reading experience if the word “said” is replaced by a plethora of stagey words that sort of mean “said.”
I’ve edited manuscripts where the author has painstakingly varied the verbs in this way so that “said” rarely appears on the page. I expect characters will occasionally ask, blurt, shout, or any number of other bold verbs, when the story calls for it, and this can add depth to the language. But the unyielding and ill-advised idea that “said” is to be avoided at all costs creates messy and ineffective prose. The text takes on a sense of being a hothouse flower, something highly cultivated that wouldn’t survive in the real world.
Good writing creates a seamless emotional experience for the reader. Good writing does not sing out, “LOOK AT MY VOCABULARY!!!”
Because the point is to tell a story, yes? Highfalutin language might impress a third grade teacher, but language that begs for attention gets in the way of telling a story.
Put another way, if writers buy into the idea that they should only use showy words like “lilted” “gloated” “hissed” “pondered” and especially that old chestnut “ejaculated,” instead of “said,” what happens is that the reader is reminded that they are reading words. Reading fiction is an intensely internal experience that requires a suspension of disbelief in order to care about imaginary people and their problems. Any language that is not in direct service of immersing the reader should be recognized as a distraction.
And if you’re like most writers, you want readers who care about what happens next, readers who might miss their bus stop or read under their desk at work or stay up too late because the story was so good they couldn’t put it down. The word “said” is the writer’s ally in creating that experience.
Said is not dead. It’s not even resting. “Said” is a fantastic word that keeps the reader oriented; it’s one of the most useful and invisible words in the English language. Don’t let a misunderstood trend in elementary school teaching get in the way of good writing.
As a novel editor, Amy Bennet pays special attention to the most daunting aspects of stories: plot, character, and pacing, to ensure the best chances of success.