Friday, December 10, 2010

Things That Drive an Editor Crazy Revisited

This was originally posted by Dani Greer on January 12, 2010. We repeat it because of its timeless content.

Resident editor Maryann Miller recently wrote about things that drive an editor crazy. She mentioned dialogue tags and the overuse of unnecessary words to explain a character's conversation. I had to laugh while reading a mystery novel today that, in the course of fifty pages, only used the tag "said" once. Here are some examples that were used:

she answered
she explained
she asked
she read
she questioned
she stated
she quizzed
she requested
she inquired
she exclaimed
she replied
she interjected
she rallied
she spoke up
she frowned
she added
she stated
she commented
she shuddered
she inferred
she mused
she purred
she advised
she argued
she wailed
she pouted
she shrugged
she shouted
she implored
she clarified
she rallied
she begged

Often she said these things in adverbial ways like distractedly, honestly, reluctantly, calmly, flatly, proudly, and even jokingly.

That's just our female romantic lead - the hero was just as amazing as he supposed, surmised, rationalized, declared, sneered, sputtered, and grunted his way through the conversations. What really intrigued me about the dialogue though, is that the author, being a skillful enough writer, weaved the tags in such a way that they were often imperceptible. The only word that really jumped in my face was "quipped", and it wasn't used as often as in prior novels, having been replaced by emphasizing, noting, sighing, chuckling, countering, and exclaiming.

I wonder if the author has a contest going with the editor to see how infrequently the word "said" can be used? So far, the author is winning, and since there is another in the series due out this year, the editor hasn't yet been committed to an asylum. ;) We'll keep you apprised if that happens... she laughed (wickedly).


  1. Argh -- 'said' is invisible. All those other words make the reader stop to decide if the dialogue really 'matches'. If you're so afraid of 'said' try using beats instead.

    I actually saw, "'I'm sorry,' he apologized" in a book the other day.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  2. This was a good post to rerun, that's for sure. I notice funny dialogue tags and get pulled right out of a story when there are too many, or they're odd (like "she giggled").

  3. This always seems to be a hot topic. It's true that 'said' is invisible, but sometimes, I think, other dialogue tags serve a purpose. I'm not advocating going overboard, but a few, sprinkled hither and yon, can add another layer to the conversation just the same way as descibing body language fills in the picture.

  4. And the conclusion is that you prefer "said", is it? Just asking to make sure I got the point. Then I'll try to do it right in my so-called novel (in progress). Sometimes you need some kind of tag to make it clear in a long dialog who's saying what >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  5. My all time favorite, from a 30's era novel: "Say the word, Chief," he husked.

    Husked? Isn't that what cornhuskers do? I'm waiting for the chance to write a sentence like this one: "Here's the kernel of the problem," he husked.

  6. I think this is when it helps to read something out loud so you can hear how silly or redundant some of those tags sound.

  7. Some writers seem to think that they need to use as many different words as possible in order to be considered legitimate. In music, painting, and writing, less is sometimes more.

  8. While it's true that, on occasion, a "he said" or "she said" is necessary to identify the speaker, there are often other ways to let the reader know who's talking. Let's consider a few examples:

    "Just where do you think you're going, Edwin Thomas?"
    "C'mon, Mom, you don't need to keep tabs on me anymore. I'm all grown up, or haven't you noticed the bald spot on the back of my head."

    Dakota dried the last of the dishes. She folded the terrycloth towel and laid it across the drainer. Forcing a smile, she turned around. "May I warm you some dinner, Daniel? Or did you eat out?"
    "I, uh, ate out."

    No dialogue tags identify the speakers here, but the reader has no doubt about who's speaking.

  9. Sadly, this "technique" is still taught in public schools, right along with typing two spaces after periods.

  10. Just my opinion, but I think this particular "writing rule" is complete bunk. It seems to me that it's people, like writers and editors, that are always over-analyzing prose who notice these things, not regular readers. When I told my husband about this widespread "rule" he was shocked because he CAN'T STAND it when writers only use said.

    As I was rereading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix the other day I noticed for the first time (I'd read these book multiple times before) how often J.K. Rowling uses a wide variety of dialog tags and almost always modifies said with an adverb. She uses said alone maybe... 10-20% of the time? And the Harry Potter books are excellent story telling full of vibrant and complex characters. Oh, and ridiculously successful too.

    I think writers and editors are kidding themselves if they think this kind of thing actually matters that much to readers. Just my 2 cents.

  11. When I was in Junior High School (now called Middle School), I had an English teacher who told the class that people just don't say things. They exclaim them They ask them. They tease with them. He didn't want any of our stories to use "said".


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