Articles

Said isn’t dead–why this “rule” ruins your writing

Did your teacher ever mention tell you this? If not, you might’ve seen the plethora of online synonym lists. Here’s why said really isn’t dead at all.

All things in moderation, including moderation.

Socrates

Looking back on my education, there is a common theme in my writings, one message that was taught that completely dragged my story down into the muck. Can you guess it? 

Just like many youth growing up today, I have heard teachers use the same phrase repeatedly throughout elementary and early middle school, meant to strengthen variety and add an element of emotion to any story. My teachers printed out charts of synonyms and taught the class about sentence fluency, always using the same phrase: “Said is dead!”

Back in the days of being an elementary-age kid with a tremendous passion for writing, I hailed this as a golden rule, scolding myself for using “said” even once as a dialogue tag. But whereas this tip should have been helpful to me, I took it to the extremes–as did every other one of my classmates. 

Collectively as a grade, after learning this “useful trick,” our writings were flooded with unnecessarily flamboyant synonyms, proud of ourselves for always using a “show not tell” strategy that included not using said. But too much “show” bogs down your story and slows down the story’s pace to a crawl. This leaves the readers bored and dragged along by an endless stream of chunky, hard to read dialogue with weirdly specific verbs and dialogue tags. 

So, I wrote these points to help all those writers that question the rule, or wonder why these crazy synonyms ruin the flow of their writing or destroy a good piece. Because to me, said isn’t dead! Here is my message to those who choose to take the essentially harmless phrase too literally:

Sometimes “said” is the exact right word

Using your billowing, five page long synonym list isn’t always the best option when it comes to dialogue. Sometimes, “said” really does get the message across better than any other word. Especially when writing an action scene or a piece in which a lot of dialogue is exchanged between characters, this “forbidden” word can be just what you need, for a single reason: you need to keep. It. Moving! 

Let’s look at two examples, one using the rule religiously (which was not the intent of teachers using this curriculum, but was certainly the widespread outcome), and another writing freely with the ability to mix in the word said.


❌ Example 1 (without using said)

“Mother went to the kitchen, pulling down a jar of honey from the shelf and angrily twisting at the cap. It was obvious she needed help; my arms still hurt from baseball practice and I stepped hesitantly forward.

‘Do you need help?’ I asked.

‘No, I’m good,’ she groaned. ‘Just…trying to…get this thing…open!’

‘Uh–I can do it, I guess,’ I responded.

‘Honey, I can get it!’ she exclaimed. ‘No pun intended,’ she added. 

‘Okay, I’m going to go to my room then,’ I stated, shuffling to the stairs.

‘That’s fine. Leave me here. I’ll do it alone.’ Mom amended.”

✅ Example 2 (mixing in said)

“Mother went to the kitchen, pulling down a jar of honey from the shelf and angrily twisting at the cap. It was obvious she needed help; my arms still hurt from baseball practice and I stepped hesitantly forward.

‘Do you need help?’ I asked. Every nerve in my arm protested at the mere thought.

‘No, no, I’m good,’ she said with a groan. ‘Just…trying to…get this thing…open!’

‘Uh–I can do it,’ I said, muttering to myself, ‘I guess.’

‘Honey, I can get it!’ she exclaimed. After a moment, realizing her words, ‘No pun intended, of course.’

‘Okay, I’m going to go to my room then,’ I said, shuffling to the stairs on sore legs. I thought I saw disappointment flash in her eyes, a disappointment entirely unjustified after I had repeatedly offered her help. As my aching feet touched the landing, I heard from below,

‘That’s fine. Leave me here. I’ll do it alone.’”


Now, can you see how the first one is no better than the second? In fact, the first version of this brief story is entirely worse. The dialogue stays entirely the same, yet in example #2 there is use of “said” and much more intermingled actions. What this shows is that:

  1. Mixing in actions with dialogue makes the story flow better.
  2. The use of the word “said” is good in moderation.
  3. It is unnecessary to tag every line of dialogue in a two character exchange unless not doing so would be confusing to the reader.
  4. You can also practice switching between pronouns and character names in you tags, for example, “he/she/they said…” rather than always “*character name* said,” or vice versa.

Hopefully those examples showed you how the “said is dead” rule is misleading, and why it is misinterpreted so frequently by authors young and old.

Why was this taught/promoted in the first place?

So, if this rule really is a detriment to your writing, why was it even taught in the first place? The answer is simple: variety. A huge focus in writing good essays or short stories is the use of a variety of vocabulary, sentence lengths, and sentence structures within the piece. But having good variety in your sentences shouldn’t only rely on synonyms for “said” when writing dialogue tags. 


In short, what teachers/online posters meant to avoid was:

“‘Hi Brett!’ She said.

‘Hey, what’s up,’ he said.

‘Nothing much,’ she said.

‘Oh, okay. Same with me,’ he said.”

Yes, I agree. Awful! Completely horrible to read, but here’s what happened to many student’s writing after “said is dead” was implemented:

“‘Hey Brett!’ She exclaimed.

’Oh, hi Ellie!’ He responded. 

’It looks like it’s going to rain,’ she commented.

‘Yes, definitely, those clouds are pretty grim,’ he inputted.”

It’s obvious to me that the second version is no better than the first. Said isn’t dead. Therefore, instead of giving the advice “said is dead” to students or authors, I would recommend to use these tactics to promote sentence variety:

  • Mix in action with the dialogue to avoid boring scenes.
  • Switch between various pronouns.
  • Don’t tag every line of dialogue in a two-person exchange.
  • Include characters’ thoughts about the situation or people in it.
  • Use the five senses in your descriptions.
  • Vary the sentence length, punctuation, and the starting word of paragraphs/sentences.

Using these tricks can easily turn one of those disgustingly bland conversations above into this:

“‘Hey, Ellie!’ A voice called from across the room. A set of eyes caught hers, bubbling with energy, excitement rippling in the deep midnight blue. She turned away immediately. Her face flushed pink; she knew exactly who it was. The voice was familiar, a nasally, pitchy voice she had learned to ignore whenever possible. Sighing, Ellie turned back to face him.

‘Oh, hey Brett!’ She forced excitement into her voice, injecting as much enthusiasm as she could muster into the words. It was physically painful not to scowl, draw up her nose in disgust at the mere sight of him. Brett was just one of those people: nothing outwardly wrong with them, nothing they’d done to offend you, not particularly ugly or handsome, and yet, inexplicably, she hated him. Detested him. Him, and his infuriating love of small talk.

‘It looks like it’s, uh…’ Ellie trailed off, looking out the window, ‘going to rain?’

‘Yeah, those clouds are pee-rit-y grim!’

‘Yeah, I guess,’ she replied. This was why she hated chit-chat. What do you say to that statement? Always, ‘yeah,’ ‘uh huh,’ and ‘I was thinking the same thing!’ even when you couldn’t care less about the weather or their family or politics. Dead-end conversations, every one of them, with no meaning except to waste time and craft a polite facade. Ellie turned away brusquely. It was rude, sure. But she had an essay to write, not much time, and a last straw that had already been pulled.” 

How much better is that? Not only does it give the petty small talk meaning, but it aptly describes the relationship between the two characters a thousand times better than the two examples above. 

Is “said” dead?

Maybe you’ve been swayed by the infographics online, childhood teachers, or internet buzz over the subject…so here’s a question: what is your stance on this “rule”? If you were taught this, how did it impact your writing? Do you have any other tricks you use to create better sentence variety for essays, stories, or other pieces? Feel free to comment down below!


1 thought on “Said isn’t dead–why this “rule” ruins your writing”

  1. Well, I had never been taught the catchy phrase of “said is dead” but I certainly was taught that the more you vary your words the better your writing will be. And YES, I agree, that this probably greatly contributed to me being too wordy in my writings! Still to this day I feel like I can’t repeat a verb or adjective but have to go to the thesaurus for a new, flashier word. Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s