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He Said; Said She

by Carol Peterson

When I became a writer, my fingers began to move across the keyboard. Every day for three months.

And then I had it. A book I had written all by myself. And it was good. And it was funny. And it was mine.

Okay, the truth: it was a 400-page middle grade novel from which you can conclude that it wasn’t that good. But it was funny and it was mine and it was the beginning of my love of writing and creating books.

As I’ve been thinking about my writing journey, I forced myself back into that place where I started 12 years ago. As I reminisced, I found something that made me smile.

Tucked away in a corner of my Word document files was a folder neatly titled “Words for Said.” My newbie writer self had created a list of words I could use instead of saying said. You know—those dialogue tags where one character says:

“Hey, Joe,” Bob said. “How are you?”

In my eagerness to write fabulous dialogue, I figured I needed amazing words to describe how my characters spoke. So I created “the list.” Here it is:

answered, announced, asserted, affirmed, argued, alleged, appealed, articulated, acknowledge, blurted, blasted, bellowed, brought up, chirped, clucked, claimed, cited, confessed, cried, cried out, cheered, contended, clarified, declared, disclosed, described, divulged, disputed, expressed, echoed, howled, hooted, inquired, insisted, imparted, mentioned, murmured, muttered, notified, pronounced, pointed out, pled, piped, proclaimed, professed, quipped, quoted, retorted, replied, revealed, remarked, recited, recounted, rumored, returned, responded, said, stated, spoke, swore, specified, stressed, shrieked, shouted, screeched, told, uttered, voiced, whispered, whooped, yammered, yelped

Did you notice they are in alphabetical order? In my actual list, they are also set out in tidy columns and separated by letters of the alphabet. I’m so utterly left-brained, I’m surprised they weren’t color coded.

But really—how many times will one of my characters “hoot” something to another character who will then “whoop” his response?

It didn’t take me long to realize my list was silly. By that time, I had revised my book to delete all the clucks, hoots, chirps and yammers.

Why? Because said is an invisible word to readers, it’s not boring. It’s comforting. Other words are simply distracting.

Before long however, I heard debates over whether a writer should say “he said” or “said he.” What? Now the order was important?

Not really. Consistency is more important. I could use “he said” or “said he” but should try not to use both. Keep it invisible by keeping it consistent. Now we were getting somewhere.

Ultimately my writing journey took me to a place where I prefer not using “said” at all. Rather, now I favor action tags to clue the reader into who is speaking.

For example: Bob extended his hand. “Hey, Joe. How are you?”

When I opened that “Words for Said” file, I cringed. Then I smiled at the realization of how far I’ve come as a writer; how much I’ve grown; how much I’ve learned. And that’s just looking at one single word and understanding how to use it.

The dictionary is filled with words. And the writing life is waiting to be filled with lessons learned. This could take a while!

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Carol Peterson is a writer with a heart for encouragement, sharing parables of faith on her blog FromCarol’sQuill and making learning fun in Fun with Finance and other teacher resource books.

2 comments on “He Said; Said She

  1. Sheila Odom Hollinghead
    March 21, 2012

    Great advice, Carol. Thanks so much for sharing!

  2. drivetwister
    March 29, 2012

    Really good article. I constantly find myself thinking “I shouldn’t say ‘(name) said’ this time, that’s what I said last time!”. I keep wanting to change it up to keep the story from sounding boring. But you’re right, I can never once remember a time when I thought “This story isn’t any good because they never break away from ‘he/she said!”. thanks for the advice!

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This entry was posted on March 21, 2012 by in Writing Tips and tagged , , .

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