On Speech Tags

Use “said.”

Did your English teacher ever pass out a handy worksheet of alternatives for the word “said” and encourage you to “jazz up” your stories with them?

Please, tell me no English teacher did this to you.

Sadly, I have heard from more than one person that English teachers actually did deliberately train them to “make their writing varied and interesting” by switching out boring old “said” for these clearly more interesting words like “jeered,” “growled,” or “expectorated.”

No.  Use “said.”

If the reader cannot tell how characters are saying something based on what they are saying, it is likely that the dialogue has been written sloppily.  And that goes double for adding unnecessary adverbs to your speech tags.

“You’re not thinking,” admonished Bumpo Generic.

Yes, that is an admonishment without you telling us so. Leave it out.

“Get on with the story,” he said impatiently.

Well, if one person is urging another to get on with it, it stands to reason that it’s being said impatiently.

I do not need the speech tag “apologized Bumpo” if his dialogue is “I’m sorry.”  Use the simplest words when they’re not the focus words of the sentence.  Get out of the way.

You can deviate from “said” if for some reason how the sentence is said is not obvious, such as volume (“he whispered”) or intent (“he said sarcastically,” if it isn’t obvious that that’s a sarcastic comment anyway). Leave out the decorations.  They’re tacky.

The speech tags are not the part of the writing that is supposed to be interesting, so don’t distract us.  Believe me when I say that if you do it, nearly any editor will consider it an early warning sign that you are an amateur.

When you do this, the parts of your sentences that you’re making “colorful” with zesty little words like “proclaimed” and “apologized” and “expectorated” are not the parts of the story that NEED to be colorful. They are middle school English attempts to make writing varied. What needs to be colorful is the storytelling, the descriptions, the dialogue. Not the permutations of “said.”

It’s misplaced.

That’s why editors and publishers look at that as the hallmark of the amateur writer.

Because it indicates a basic misunderstanding of the whole point of language.

And keep in mind that sometimes when you really do need a character to growl, murmur, or sigh sleepily, it will be that much more powerful an image if you don’t desensitize your readers through overuse of “jazzy” permutations.

The speech tags are the stage directions.  You should “hear” them as little as possible.  If you think consistent “creative” speech tags make for elegant storytelling, you’ve forgotten that their job is to be so elegant they become invisible.

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