“Said bookisms”

August 20, 2009

Here’s an instant tip for improving every story you ever write.

At the end of your first draft, run a search on quotation marks (“). Somewhere near each quotation mark in your story, you’ll likely have placed a dialogue tag, like this:

“I’m almost out of ideas,” said John.

Here’s the tip. Every time that dialogue tag is something other than the word ‘said’, replace it with ‘said’ instead.

‘Said’ is a beautiful word. It’s like a good makeup – you can’t see it but it smooths away all the wrinkles anyway. Your reader now knows who is saying what, except they don’t really know that they know. This is because ‘said’ is an invisible word. Psychological studies show that when we read a story we gloss over ‘said’ without even realizing it. It’s a quiet, discreet word that doesn’t yank the reader violently out of the story.

A couple of others that are passable are ‘asked‘ and, very rarely, ‘shouted‘ or ‘whispered‘.

On the other hand, try these on for size:

“I’m almost out of ideas,” hollered John.

“I’m almost out of ideas,” shrieked John.

“I’m almost out of ideas,” commented John.

“I’m almost out of ideas,” hissed John.

“I’m almost out of ideas,” exclaimed John.

Without being too blunt, they’re all crap. Big, horrible, smelly horsecrap. Horsecrap with fat blue flies buzzing around it. The same goes for shouted, demanded, declared, murmured, inquired, queried, replied, implied, barked, laughed, and sneered and all such similar words. They reek of amateur writing and I think I’m speaking the truth when I say most editors, if bombarded with enough of them, will throw your story straight onto the rejection pile.

The actual term for such words is “said bookisms“, and we’re all guilty of them to some degree. Sometimes they slip out without us realizing it in the fervor of typing; sometimes we put them in intentionally because we feel like we’re using the word ‘said’ too much and we’ve forgotten that it’s actually invisible. Whatever the reason, don’t. Just… don’t.



One Response to ““Said bookisms””

  1. Steve said

    Good advice, Craig, but only if the writer’s aim is to be taken seriously. James Thurber has a hilarious little story called “The Night the Bed Fell” in which not a single person “says”. They “scream”, “shout”, “choke”, “bawl”, “yell” and “wail”, and the whole thing just wouldn’t have been the same if everyone had simply “said”.

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