“Said is dead,” says one camp.
“Only use said,” says another.
So which rule should we follow?
The erroneous death of said
Some writers think said is dead because it’s overused, but if using a word a lot means we need to expunge it from our vocabularies, why are irregardless and misunderestimate still kicking?
As an editor I generally do tell my clients to stop using the same words over and over, but that doesn’t apply to every word, just the ones that draw attention to themselves. Said, like and and the, does not draw attention to itself; thus, there’s no reason to avoid it just because it’s a useful word.
The definition of said is to have uttered words. It’s that simple, and we all know it. Because we’re so familiar with the word and its meaning, said is almost invisible in text. It doesn’t really mean anything except that the line of dialogue you just read was uttered by a particular character. It’s the speaker’s identity that you register, not the word ‘said’. Unless you’re using it excessively in one single conversation, readers aren’t going to notice it.
Some writers also think that said is dead because readers prefer more descriptive language. Let’s face it: said doesn’t tell you anything except who the words came from. There’s no volume! There’s no emotion! There’s no variety! While these arguments have merit, replacing every instance of said with something else is not the answer. Words that need more time for interpretation than said slow down the writing because you have to register the meaning of the tag rather than just the identity of the speaker. Doing this every time a character speaks is going to make your writing seem clunky and slow down the pace so the writing isn’t immersive. Said is invisible, but other verbs are not. They stick out, readers notice them, and they get annoying.
Further, while you can find charts on Pinterest with 1001 words to use instead of said, only a handful of these are going to flow well in your writing. For starters, a lot of these words shouldn’t be used in dialogue tags anyway because words like sighed, laughed, coughed, sneezed, etc. don’t actually describe a way of speaking so they’re not fit for dialogue tags, but that’s a separate issue. The point is that words like intoned and stated say nothing more than the word ‘said’, but are a lot less invisible and your readers will be able to tell you only used those words because you think said is dead, not because you’re a master of word choice.
When to use said
Word choice … that’s what this all comes down to – choosing the best word to suit the needs of the scene.
If the context will tell the reader who is speaking and, if applicable, how they’re speaking, use said or do away with the tag entirely. You won’t need it. If the reader won’t know who is speaking but will either know how the words were uttered from the context or not need to know specifically how the words were uttered, said is perfectly fine to use. If, however, the reader will not know from the context how the words were uttered, you can use a word other than said, as long as that word actually provides extra information than said would and it’s a word that refers to a manner of speaking and not the various other things you can do with your mouth.
Said is neither dead nor alive. It’s a word. Choose the best words for the situation.
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