Discussion: The Word “Said” in Writing

I was working on a collab story a few months ago, and I was told that when writing, I shouldn’t use any words besides “said” after a person talks because I should be showing rather than saying the way that they behave.  However, my whole life I have always been told to use words other than “said”, so that you can understand the way which the person is speaking.  So today, I wanted to have a discussion about whether you should use the word said, abstain from it, or fall somewhere in between.

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  • It’s easier to write your piece when you don’t have to stop and think about word choice
  • Some people say that using other words is “telling” and once you use said you can further elaborate with descriptions of how the character is behaving.  For example, you could say “I hate you” he said, his face contorting with the strength of the word, eyebrows knitting and eyes widening as the loud sound emitted from his mouth. and that would be way better than just saying “I hate you” he shouted.  Of course, you could use a combination of the two, but that’s besides the point.
  • More room for reader interpretation of your work.

Honestly, I don’t even believe bullet 2, and I am firmly in the Don’t Use Said camp, but that one person got me thinking and so I want to hear more of your opinions on the whole situation.

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  • When you use “said” you don’t know how the person is talking
  • It gets repetitive if you are always using said in places with lots of dialogue
  • “I’m running away” he moped or “I’m running away” he declared and “I’m running away”  he pondered… all have very different connotations and if you just use said how the heck is the reader going to know how the character is behaving.  I personally believe that using these words is showing not telling the personality of the character and the way he is behaving.
  • Descriptive vocab is AHMAZING and I personally adore it.

I’m trying to think of examples of books that I’ve read where the author only uses “said” or never uses it, and I can’t off of the top of my head, which tells me either everyone does the exact same thing, or it doesn’t even really matter.  I’m willing to bet that the large majority of authors do a combination of the two.

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Looking back through my ROUGH, ROUGH draft of the story I’m working on, I noticed that any time I used “said” I nearly always modified it with an adverb immediately afterwards.  I know that there’s a lot of theories on overuse of adverbs, but I feel like you can’t just use such a general word without modifying it for the context of the story.  Once there’s an adverb, it becomes so much more real and alive.  But that’s just me.

Let's Talk

Do you think “said” should be used in writing? Do adverbs make a piece better or worse? What is your opinion on the “show don’t tell” philosophy in relation to dialogue verbs? Did I miss any pros or cons? 

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Author: Joce

I read and I write about it. If I'm not online or with my nose in a book, I can probably be found at the basketball court.

23 thoughts on “Discussion: The Word “Said” in Writing”

  1. Personally, I prefer sticking to “said” because it’s the advice I was given as a developing writer in school. I will stray from my self-determined norm if I feel the moment warrants it, such as describing different volume levels. I believe J.K. Rowling uses “said” primarily in her Harry Potter series as well as Stephen King throughout his writing, so I’ve always acted under the advice of the professionals. However, I understand why you would choose to vary your dialogue tags. Great discussion post!

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  2. I’ve seen this advice a lot, and as an amateur writer, it just doesn’t work for me 100% of the time. “I hate you” is rarely “said” unless the character is very sleepy or a sociopath. Or a very sleepy sociopath. I think it’s all about balance. If something like this bothers me about a novel, that’s a clue that the writing is weak in general.

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    1. Haha yeah that’s very true, you only notice it if it’s bad. And I know what you mean about the sociopath thing, using said too much will make you sound like that

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  3. Personally, I think it’s okay to use ‘said’, but only in moderation. For me, I find using ‘said’ all the time is too repetitive, and plus, it doesn’t really show what the character is feeling/how they’re behaving, which makes dialogue quite dull in my opinion.

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  4. If you stick to the rule of only using ‘said’ in dialogue tags, you remove a layer of subtlety from your writing. Often characters do just say something, but they also shout or whisper or retort, and using these words is a quick way of conveying the tone of the speech without using three extra lines to describe facial contortions that convey the emotions involved. Such longer descriptions do have a place, but they slow down the pace of dialogue. The opposite is to use only a starting dialogue tag and follow it with pure speech that reads more like a screenplay than a novel. Once the reader knows who is talking, no reminder is needed, and the dialogue can convey all the sentiment by itself. I use that approach when two characters are engaged in a heated conversation. Sometimes, less is indeed more, and by omitting tags you avoid slowing down how the characters interact.

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    1. Oh I didn’t even think of using none at all! But yeah I agree that it can speed up the pace and be useful with flow once you establish which characters are speaking

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  5. I pretty much agree with you. I’ve heard the advice that you should just use “said,” but I think it’s extremely noticeable when someone literally only uses the word said. It starts to stick out. I like it as a base word, and then using other dialogue tags more judiciously. I also agree that someone people wouldn’t be able to stop themselves from constantly writing “said loudly” or “said angrily” or “said huffily” in which case you might as well go with “shouted.” I do like using more description like “said while raising his eyebrows,” but I think it’s possible to go overboard with that kind of scene-building, as well.

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  6. Yes, this is always a dilemma. One person will tell you not to overuse said but then another person will say it’s pointless to rack your brain thinking of and using other words when said is sufficient. So I try replacing said with something else only when flows easily and is relevant. Such as, if two people are gossiping I might say “she whispered” instead of “she said.” It’s frustrating though! Great topic!

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    1. Thanks!!! I find that not using said means that you have to use way less describing words to explain how the characters look/behave, but it can be SUPER difficult to come up with the right word! Thanks for commenting!

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  7. Sometimes ‘SAID’ is just the perfect word for the scene (e.g a very dull, sad scene in the perspective of a black-and-white thinker who is very confused and sad) SO IT’S ALLOWED just don’t use it too much? I mean what’s the point of having the word ‘SAID, art from banning it?

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  8. I love using variations because the way a character talks defines them as a character and using just ‘said’ the entire time is 1) boring and 2) not unique to each character

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  9. I agree with you! “Said” is too general of a word, I need descriptions and adverbs. One thing I realized that I can’t stand when reading any novel though, is when there is very little dialogue going on.. And in these books filled with dialogue I rarely notice authors using “said” that often.. . So I think you’re on to something.

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    1. Oh I just noticed you’re reading the glass castle.. One of my favorite memoirs! Hope to see a review because I’m always curious to see what people think about it. Also saw that you’re reading multiple books, which is one thing I definitely can’t do so cudos to you!

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  10. AGH YES. THE DILEMMA. I think in school we’re taught to use other words than said because they want us to be more creative in our word choice. But in fiction writing, I feel like we stay away from said because of that. Saying said too little isn’t good because it causes the reader to notice a lot of the different words that replace said. (Like I could say moped, shouted, wailed, muttered, and other words in the span of a few pages, but totally not use said.) But said slips in under our radar and doesn’t jolt us. However, using said TOO much can be a problem too. XD I personally think I use a little too many words that AREN’T said, because as I read my drafts, my eyes catch on the words that aren’t said haha. But it’s really up to preference! I think it’s important to have a balance (but with it tipping slightly towards said). LOVE this discussion, Joce!

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