Stop “Saying” Things — Rule #14 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever


I’m dissecting the article Hunting Down the Pleonasm, by Allen Guthrie, using it as a cattle prod to search for little nasties in my manuscript.  Yep, you can join in the fun, too.  Let’s take a looksee at topic #14

14: Use ‘said’ to carry dialogue. Sid Fleischman calls ‘said’, “the invisible word.” That’s not quite true (anyone who doubts this should track down a copy of Fletcher Flora’s Most Likely To Love), but it’s close enough. And don’t use adverbs as modifiers. Adverbs used in this way are ‘telling’ words (I told you rule 8 was rarely heeded!).

I’m going to partly agree here.  If you need to point out who said something, say:

“Mom went to the market,” Paul said

Now, to be clear… don’t spruce it up by saying “said hastily”, or “said sorrowfully” – That is what he is talking about with adverbs.  Use just plain old said and let the action around the word do the description for you.  Never add an “ly” word, and never say “he groaned” or “he snickered.” Use plain old said.

Now let’s talk about the “invisible word” thing. Said IS invisible, but only to an extent.  A recent editor I had challenged me to get rid of 90% of the word “said” in my manuscript. I exchanged it for actions instead of dialog tags.

Paul leaned over the counter. “Mom went to the market.”

See, there is no confusion as to who is speaking, and I got a little action in to.  The scene flows better.  I couldn’t believe the difference in my manuscript.

I just took a gander at my finished manuscript for “Fire in the Woods” and in 253 pages I only used the word “said” 133 times.  I scanned the first 32 pages, and most of those “saids” are in dialog or internal thought.

“You were supposed to stay home.”

“You said to stay home last night. I went out this morning.”

In those 32 pages, I had only used “said” as a dialog tag three times. (Yes, I am quite proud of that.)

If you are in the middle of a conversation, and you end every few sentences with “he said” or “she said” that little word is not going to be invisible anymore. It will drive your reader nuts.

I think I’ve suggested this exercise before, but I’ll do it again.  Challenge yourself.  Try to remove every “said” as a dialog tag.  You will need to leave a few, but if you can get rid of every occurrence possible and change it up with actions, your manuscript will be ten times stronger.

swish swivel squiggle

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27 responses to “Stop “Saying” Things — Rule #14 of 32 Simple Rules to the Writing the Best Novel Ever

  1. Great article Jennifer. I think it will be very helpful.

  2. That’s great advice Jenn. 🙂

  3. I just finished reading a novel where the author tagged almost EVERY line of dialogue with ‘said!’ By the time I was ready to throw it at a wall, and it was an ebook! … the really sad thing was it was a bloody great story.

  4. I agree 99.9 percent. 😉 There are times, though, when I find a tag like “whispered” works very well. For me at least, sometimes that’s less intrusive when I’m reading than some extra words designed to show instead of tell.

  5. Julie Catherine

    Great tip, Jennifer – I’m definitely going to check my “saids” and any “ly” words, thank you! 😀

  6. Thanks for the advice! I’ve learned to use it less, but now I want to go back and take a look at how many times I use it.

  7. I read an author of a short story a while back where every single line was, ‘he said,” “she said.” Made me crazy. Some will say when reading (to yourself) you don’t notice all the ‘saids’ but I DO.
    I have since cut out all ‘said’ tags.
    Thanks for the new dissection.

  8. I don’t use ‘said’ for every person speaking. I am, however, guilty of putting in other words as a dialogue tag. I must be ever vigilant. Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  9. I don’t notice “said”. When people say, she shouted, he cried, they exclaimed – I notice those.

  10. I read books all the time with he said, she said, and I don’t notice them. Then again, it’s not every sentence. I definitely agree that changing it up with some action is the way to go, even it it might increase your word count by a smidgeon.

  11. I will look at my saids! 🙂

  12. Thank you for the information. I have completed my novel and I must say, I have a ways to go because the editing process for such a long work takes time. I’m still a student and its hard to sit down and read over and over again. After my dissertation is done, I will make sure I get published. That is my goals. you have some really great resources here. .

    • I’m glad you find it helpful. 🙂

    • Hiya SouthernGal …Take a complete break from the novel. Let it sit in a ‘drawer’ for a week, month, whatever … how ever long it takes for you to forget about the tiny details, then take it out and read it with fresh eyes.
      This probably won’t make the editing go any faster, but you might enjoy it a bit more … good luck! – with your dissertation too.

      • I do the same. I wrote a short story or novella between drafts. It keeps the editing more fresh, and it is easier to find the errors. — But yes, it increases the editing time.