A few weeks ago, I hosted a good friend, author Robin Woods, on my blog. She provided us all with a very helpful, organized chart of synonyms for “said” and “walk.” Click HERE to read the post and download the cool chart.
For the most part, many people received the FREE guide with high levels of gratitude. In fact, it has been my most viewed post this year. But there were also a surprising number of naysayers and I feel the need to provide a rebuttal.
In all the informal and formal training I’ve had in the English language (heck, Spanish, too!), I have been taught to avoid word repetition. Hence, the writing exercises we love to hate: exercises with synonyms.
Of course there are exceptions—there always are, right? But in the past two decades, as my writing grew from something I was “good at” to my passionate pursuit and career, I’ve noticed that I appropriately edit out repeats in my writing or become annoyed as a reader when I spot word repetition.
One of the best writing teachers I ever had was my twelfth grade English teacher. Not only was he snarky and witty, but he was a damn good teacher. I remember a particular assignment for a book report. We had just finished reading C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce (an all-time favorite), and were told to write a two page, analytical paper. The length made it sound all too easy.
Upon bringing the first draft back to class, our teacher announced that we would be editing the paper—tearing it apart would have been a better description—in order to identify any words that had been trampled to death through the horrible habit of replication. Being an eighteen-year-old-know-it-all, I thought Please…this’ll be easy. I’m a good writer. But that morning, I was devastated to see my own red pen at war with the crisp white paper and black letters in my “awesome” essay.
We weren’t even allowed to repeat the same verb! You have an “is” already? Well then cross out the one in the next sentence, because it’s not allowed. Not only did we use more dynamic verbs, but we also learned how to rearrange sentence structure in order to improve the flow of our prose. Once a few peer editors, and myself, combed through my paper, it was stellar. I mean…one of the best papers I had ever written in high school. And the language wasn’t “flowery” by any means. It simply read well and expressed my thoughts more succinctly than I could have imagined.
That ingenious assignment made me a better writer and editor. But it also cursed me with an eye that now catches repetition and becomes easily irritated. And I know…we ALL are guilty of this writing crime and sometimes I’m just lazy and don’t care. However, when writing something that you want to be great, be careful with what you repeat.
I will sheepishly admit that my most repeated word is “was.” Ugh. Still trying to work on that one.
Recently, I read a good, short article on Create Space about such practices. Click HERE to read it. I think the example she gives is awesome.
So what exactly did those Negative Nellies say about my blog post on synonyms? Oh, you know, things like…
“It’s inadvisable to use synonyms for said.”
“Why would it be necessary to say it in another way if a character ‘said’ it?”
They even quoted Elmore Leonard (God rest his soul) at me: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character, the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. “
Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go, also has something to say about dialogue tags. He argues: “Especially avoid using adverbial qualifiers for dialogue tags; instead, stick to said for almost all of your tags.” (pg. 31)
And yeah, I get it. I really do.
But may I ask this: what if my character is about to face certain death if she is heard aloud? Wouldn’t the reader want to read this:
“I can’t do this without you, Geoffrey. You have to show me what to do,” she whispered as they crouched behind a couch, waiting for the sound of footsteps to dissolve.
“I can’t do this without you, Geoffrey. You have to show me what to do,” she said as they crouched behind a couch, waiting for the sound of footsteps to dissolve.
I don’t know…maybe I’m thinking too much like a screenwriter, eager to show my reader what is happening in every aspect that I can. I want you to know that my character is whispering—not just saying something—but whispering it. Or pleading something. Or replying to the question that was just asked. Maybe she’s even breathing a statement, indicating that she is so tired or anxious about something, she can barely speak.
This is NOT necessary in every case and can certainly deter from the story if overdone. But my argument is that using “said” every time should not be an absolute. There is creative freedom to be had by all of us crazy writers.
Personally, when I read fiction that draws me in, it typically doesn’t have “said” repeated often, and the writer uses feeling words that describe how something is being said. Everyone is different, but that’s what I like and what flows best—to me.
Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite books, Merlin, by Stephen R. Lawhead. Though “said” is used more often than not throughout the book’s conversations—in the proper way, of course—this passage contains other dialogue tags that are appropriate and do not deter from the story.
We rode on a pace or so, and then I reined up. “Pelleas, listen carefully to me now. You have found me and brought me back to the world of men, and I thank you for that. But it is in my mind that you will soon curse the day you begged my service. You will wish, perhaps, that you had never wasted a day in search for me.”
“Forgive me, my lord, but your own heart will prove traitor before I do,” he swore. And I knew he meant it with all that was in him.
“What I have to do will earn no man’s thanks,” I warned him. “It could be that before I am through I will be despised from one end of this island to the other, with every hand raised against me and those who stand with me.”
“Let others make their choice; I have made mine, my Lord Merlin.”
He was in earnest, and now that I knew he understood how hard it would be, I knew I could trust him with both our lives. “So be it,” I said. “May God reward your faith, my friend.”
See? Only ONE “said” in that and I think Lawhead’s writing is brilliant! Honestly, though, what kind of writer would I be if I weren’t willing to hear every side? I’m curious to know thoughts that you have about using synonyms for “said” and synonyms in general. Be nice, but speak your mind. Let’s have it!
Until next time…