Wednesday, January 7, 2009


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What do you think about bookisms?

I encourage my authors to avoid them, to use neutral dialogue tags such as “said” and “asked” because they’re invisible. I also advise them to try to construct dialogue that’s strong and clear enough not to need many tags. A neutral tag about every fourth line in a long stretch of dialogue should be enough for the most forgetful reader to keep up with who’s saying what.

I tell my author that bookisms such as “blurted,” “admitted,” or “announced” can be helpful, but only when they want to add a nuance that the dialogue can’t provide. So I don’t ban bookisms. I merely encourage moderation.

However, what do you do, fellow editors, when an author wants to use a bookism as “continued” or “started” as a tag? I don’t hesitate to strike every “she smirked” or “he smiled” I encounter when someone tries to slip one in as a tag . That’s a no-brainer because I’ve never heard anyone smile even a word, much less a sentence.

But what do you say to an author who indicates that a speaker is continuing a story by using the bookism “she continued”? Or informs the reader that a character is beginning to speak by saying “she started”?

Advice, please. I’d like to broaden my world.

Shelley Thrasher
Shelley has a PhD in English and specializes in editing novels written by women. You can check out her editing skills by reading one of the many novels she has edited for Bold Strokes Books during the past four years.

She also likes to compose poetry and is currently involved in writing her second novel. Some of her poetry and prose is available at


  1. I believe there's a perfectly valid time and place to use every bookism. Yes, even "he ejaculated". It just gets trickier the more unusual the bookism is. And bookisms lose their potency when overused.

    Like, "she smiled" is generally inaccurate and impossible, yes. But let's say that it's dark and the speaking character isn't visible, and she sounds drippingly pleased, and her voice is being audibly contorted by a great big smile? I'd say that "she smiled" is acceptable. It sounds less clumsy than my explaination, to my ear. It implies rather than explains. But I'm sure some people would twitch violently and reach for the red pen anyway.

    Personally, I don't see anything wrong with a "muttered" or "sighed" every five or six tags. One of my characters is a cranky guy and "said" just doesn't cut it sometimes. So, I support the general use of "said", but it's not the Only Acceptable Tag Ever.

    As for "she continued". Hmm ... I'll wait for editoral comment on my own work. I tend to use "continued" to avoid yet another small physical action tag. Lesser of two rough-drafting evils.

  2. Started or continued both seem redundant to me.

    If the sentence is something like "She started to say her piece, but wisely shut her mouth instead," that would work.

    Morgan Mandel

  3. I'm with you--I think "said" should be used at least 85% of the time. Everything else is just awkward and unnecessary. Plus it turns into a crutch. When you don't allow yourself to use much of anything but "said" I think you dialogue gets stronger to compensate.

  4. Expect more on this topic in the future. It's a hot one and we like debates!


  5. Personally, I feel that if the writing is good, the "bookisms" aren't required. The reader should feel a sense of whether or not a character is enthusiastically replying, blurting, or growling.

    If the writing is poor, then the bookisms can help the reader through the story without a struggle to interpret emotions.

    I do think there is a place in the world for "continued" because when there are multiple characters and the dialogue is broken up between action text, it can be confusing.

    However, if every line is dialogue and is followed by an id of speaker, I'm going to get my hackles up ... and my red pencil out!

    Now I have to blog about this, too (shakes fist at sky).

  6. Hi Shelley - I really enjoyed this post. When I first started writing creative nonfiction, I was the green student guilty of bookism abuse. Like you said, they should be used in moderation to tone and nuance.

    However, my grandfather might disagree with you on one point. Whenever he called me, he always said, "I can hear you smile."

  7. "I had to blog about it. You can read my ranting at" she wrote hurriedly.

  8. Using those descriptive dialogue tags is in my opinion weak writing. The same as using a plethora of adverbs.

    As to the question of a character smiling while they talk. That can easily happen by doing: "This is such a lovely frock." Lisa smiled and turned to the ogre. "Don't you agree?"

  9. Moderation and variety are key. If we all used only "said," then we'd all write like Robert Parker. Boring!

  10. I'm with you LJ. I have always hated blanket, set in cement rules.

    Said, said said??? Sorry. Can't abide that. Dead boring.

    Redundant? Depends.

    I will even go out on a limb here and say- YES as a writer I DO use adverbs (occasionally) AND adjectives. (SHOCK!) This school of bare bones is getting far too skeletal for me. It's all a bit fad-ish anyway. Climb back in history and you'll be swimming in those adverbs and adjectives, perhaps even if you jet ski into the future- who knows?

  11. I tend to agree that bookisms should be left to an absolute minimum. If you can't get the point across in both description and dialogue, then bookisms will just stand out like a sore thumb. Reading several books on writing from well-established authors, they say the same thing- don't use them.

    One of my favorite and simplest books that covers this topic is Elmore Leonard's book, "10 Rules of Writing." He says, Rule 4- "Never use an adverb to modify the verb 'said'...

    "Great advice," I said.

  12. Whenever I'm tempted to use a bookism or an adverb, I take that as an indication that the dialogue isn't strong enough or I haven't set it up properly. I believe characters should speak for themselves.

    As a reader, I find bookisms and adverb tags irritating because they often seem like author intrusion and remind me that I'm reading writing instead of listening to the speech of a character.

    Two things will make me toss a book. The first is show-off bookisms that are dropped in just to tell the reader that the author has a big vocabulary. The second is when I encounter "whispered," "shouted," "screamed," etc at the end of an utterance after I've already decided for myself something different. I don't want to be told the character was screaming when she was whispering in my head.


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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