Says I: Against the Repetitive of Use of “Says” and “Said” in Prose

Something has happened in the writing world recently. A sudden sea change in favor of the repetitious use of a particular four-letter word…describing characters’ utterances. Said. Where once it would have been unthinkable to see such lazy writing (and it is lazy, not “simple,” as many writers are fond of using as a defense), it’s now deemed the norm for “straightforward, unpretentious” writing. Writing that “cuts to the core” of what is truly being communicated. Whereas actually coming up with different ways to say, well, “say” is suddenly “trying too hard.” “Distracting” from the real work at hand. Such “logic,” this editor declares, is a load of MFA-sounding bullshit. A lot of mumbo-jumbo designed to make writers believe they’re getting their money’s worth thanks to an “arcane” secret like this. And it’s not arcane at all. For quite some time now, there’s been a credence that touts how “substitute words” for “said” are not the way to go (this perhaps the result of journalism-style formatting’s influence on modern fiction). Hence, a palpable divide on the “schools of thought” regarding dialogue tags. Indeed, possibly the only thing the two opposing schools can occasionally agree on is that it’s best to use no tag at all whenever possible. 

It’s not exactly clear when the enthusiasm for “said” and “says” became so noticeable. But it definitely reached a breaking point this year, with a number of clashing views on the matter leading to select stories accepted for The Opiate going unpublished because some writers felt so strongly about not having “said” edited out. Even when it was used literally hundreds of times in the same piece. The pro-says crowd will of course insist that it doesn’t matter how many instances of “said” appear in their work because the reader’s eye is “trained” to receive it as an “unintrusive” tag, and the dialogue itself is (or should be) good enough to become the main focus of what’s being taken in from each sentence. The pro-says writers also love to dig up that old chestnut about how anything other than “said” falls under the category of “telling instead of showing.” And that the writing is actually lazier when writers opt for “flowery” words like “guffawed” or “pontificated.” These, the pro-says group maintains, are the real enemy. Not the incessant repetition of the same word over and over again that, yes, very much distracts from the so-called real work.

But there is nothing “real” in leaning on “said.” In truth, doing so displays a lack of grit and sense of careful curation. Because that’s what it takes to use one’s mind to come up with some other alternative to “said.” Even if it means describing a character doing something before they talk so as to not need use of a tag at all. There are manifold approaches to maneuvering around “said.” If the writer actually wants to. But, as mentioned, a pronounced phenomenon seems to be occurring in which “said” is all the rage. In turn, causing nothing but rage amongst (the better) editors whose work will be tenfold as a result of wanting to slash out all those “saids” and replace or amend them with something else. 

Here it is worth bringing up the associated conundrum: why would an editor accept a story so chock full of “saids” if they hate that style so much? Well, the answer is two-pronged. Firstly, though it should go without needing to mention it, when a writer submits their story and it gets accepted, there’s a strong likelihood it will not appear in the magazine exactly as they originally submitted it. Such is the nature of editing. Not just editing for grammar or clarity, but for whether or not the story can be molded and shaped into something that better fits the tone and style of the overall magazine. As this editor has freely pronounced before, it’s no surprise when writers “show their ass” with regard to having clearly never read any of the previous issues. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be “shocked” by 1) the contents of the magazine or 2) the excision of their “saids.” Anyone who has read multiple issues of The Opiate can see that it’s not part of the pro-says camp. A camp, mind you, that seems to be staunchly East Coastian (in large part, quelle surprise, thanks to East Coast MFA programs). Proving one’s belief that these are the faux hoity-toity ilk that do more harm than good to the once-sacred métier of writing. Despite believing they are the last beacon of hope and light in terms of Taking Writing Seriously. And that using “synonyms” for “said” is incongruous. But no, they’re not “synonyms.” Or “tags that call so much attention to themselves that the reader becomes discombobulated and detached from the sentence they were reading.” For fuck’s sake, have a touch more faith in your readers that they can handle a little meat on their dialogue tag’s bones. And also have enough faith in them to realize that “said” is not tantamount to a “punctuation mark,” that it is highly conspicuous and distracting when sprinkled all over paragraphs like too much salt. We all know how bad too much salt is for you, don’t we? 

In spite of the rich and diverse vocabulary options offered by the English language, even the highest-paid authors don’t work to avoid “said.” And, as though to prove that making money is directly proportional to how bad/pedestrian the writing is, one need look no further than E. L. James’ Fifty Shades of Grey, where use of the word “murmur” was so rampant, it was enough to cause more nausea than the storyline itself. Had James swapped “murmur” for “said” (or any word describing an utterance, which she also does with “whisper”), the effect would have been just as noticeable. Because no, “said” should not get preferential treatment for being repeated throughout a text just because it’s branded as “simple” enough to go undetected by the reader. Again, no it’s not. Especially not by an editor with a more perspicacious and easily vexed eye. 

To repeat, it very much matters how many times the word “said” is used. Not only does it affect the rhythm of the piece, but the words actually do less emoting with “said” repeated, and that becomes more of the focus than the dialogue itself. All of this said, it bears officially announcing that, should one be interested in submitting their work to The Opiate, this is not a pro-says publication. We like our fiction how we like our world’s demography: varied and ever-changing. Not static, tired and redundant.

One thought on “Says I: Against the Repetitive of Use of “Says” and “Said” in Prose

  1. Thank you for this excellent essay. I remember being surprised about a year ago when I read some editor’s advice to use only said/says in dialogue. It made me self-conscious about using other, more descriptive, words in their place–was I being pretentious in such practice? Would the reader think, “Who does this guy think he is? Marcel Proust?” Afraid that I had succumbed to this said/says-only trend, I checked the last story of mine that you published and was relieved to find I hadn’t. By the bye, I loved your “an editor with a more perspicacious and easily vexed eye”. Brilliant!

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