Monday, November 25, 2013


A couple of years ago, a teacher asked my advice on a student’s writing. The conversation went something like this:

“I’m hoping you, as a published author, can work with Mary Ann and give her some pointers. Her writing is so good, I don’t know how to help her anymore. All I could do was encourage her to substitute the word, “said,” because she overused it.”

The discussion made me cringe. The teacher’s writing instruction (which I later learned was part of her county curriculum) was completely contrary to the advice I had heard from editors speaking at writing conferences.

There are much better ways to improve a story than to go through and substitute the word, “said.”

If you examine most published novels, you will see that authors use “laughed, grunted, whispered, squeaked, shouted, etc.” sparingly. Speakers need to be identified without distracting the reader, so the majority of tag lines should not stand out. 

In an August 2013 blog, Kristen Lamb posted “Six Easy Tips for Self-Editing Your Fiction,”  Her advice follows what I had heard before from editors: “Said becomes white noise. Readers don’t “see” it. It keeps them in the story and cooking along. If we want to add things like laughing, griping, complaining, then fine. It just shouldn’t be the tag.”

For a fun lesson on writing dialogue, check out Mary Quattlebaum’s post from January 2012  In this post, Mary challenges students to write a dialogue poem between a big animal and a small animal. ie: mouse and lion, ant and elephant, etc.

Other writing challenges for students:
Write a family conversation. ie: child and parent, two siblings
Write a conversation between two foods in a refrigerator or kitchen cabinet.
Write a conversation between two friends in an argument.
Write a conversation between a cat and a dog.

Dialogue should move a story forward and reflect the personality of the speaker. Choosing words carefully, rather than spending time with a thesaurus on tag lines, is a much more effective method for creating good dialogue in a story.

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