Writing Tips: Said-Bookisms, the Obscure Sin that Can Doom a Manuscript

I’ve been writing professionally for more than fifteen years, and I’ve been reading avidly for far longer.  Over the years the publishing market has seen sea-changes in almost every respect, with ramifications for the business, the very act of reading, and yes, even the way books are written.  One of the changes that baffled me when I first entered the field was the market’s sharp turn away from what are now known as “said-bookisms.”

Let’s start with a definition.  What is a said-bookism?  Basically, it is any word other than said or asked that is used to describe how a character speaks a line of dialogue.  Phrases like “he hissed,” “she croaked,” “he inquired,” “she averred,” “he rasped,” “she lamented,” and about a thousand more are all considered said-bookisms.  And all of them are looked upon with disfavor by editors and publishers.

I first heard the term said-bookism back when I was revising what would be my first published novel, and as I say, I was baffled.  Hadn’t I read literally hundreds of books in which authors attributed lines of dialogue in just this way?  Had they changed the rules just to mess with my head?  As it happens, my entry into the publishing world did pretty much coincide with this change in the market, so I could be forgiven for my confusion (if not for my sense of self-importance that I would think the entire industry had changed to make me suffer….)

And once I had the issue explained to me, I began to see why said-bookisms had fallen into disfavor.  If you write, you’ve heard people tell you “Show, don’t tell.”  We convey emotion, drama, and all the other goodies that drive our narratives by letting readers experience our characters’ reactions first hand.  By writing, “No!” he roared, we are, in effect, telling our readers how he said the word.  If instead we write “No!”  His voice hammered at her, we give the reader a sense of how our point of view character experiences that roar, without even having to use the word.  Let’s try another, longer example.  The following passage comes from the second chapter of Thieftaker (Tor Books, July 2012).  I’m going to give you two versions; the first is full of said-bookisms:

“Mister Kaille,” the merchant drawled. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon. Is there a problem?”
He was a short, round man whose clothes didn’t fit him quite right. They were too long in the sleeves and legs and too tight around the middle. He was bald except for tufts of steel gray hair that poked out from behind his ears, and he wore spectacles on the end of his nose.
“There’s no problem, sir,” Ethan replied, producing the necklaces and laying them on a small table beside the hearth. “I’ve come to return your wife’s jewels.”
“You’ve found them already!” he exclaimed.  “Well done, Mister Kaille!”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And the thief?” Corbett demanded, examining each necklace by the light of an oil lamp.
“Daniel Folter.”
“Daniel?” the merchant gaped.  “You’re sure?”
“Yes, sir. You know him?”
Corbett hesitated. “He did some work for me a year or so ago,” he explained. “He even expressed interest in courting my older daughter, though I didn’t encourage him in that regard.”  He shook his head. “Still, I’m surprised. I never figured the man for a thief.”

And now, the same passage without said-bookisms, but rather with attribution as it appears in the book:

“Mister Kaille,” the merchant said grimly. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon. Is there a problem?”
He was a short, round man whose clothes didn’t fit him quite right. They were too long in the sleeves and legs and too tight around the middle. He was bald except for tufts of steel gray hair that poked out from behind his ears, and he wore spectacles on the end of his nose.
“There’s no problem, sir,” Ethan said, producing the necklaces and laying them on a small table beside the hearth. “I’ve come to return your wife’s jewels.”
Corbett’s entire bearing changed. His eyes widened and as he crossed to the table he actually broke into a smile. “You’ve found them already!  Well done, Mister Kaille!”
“Thank you, sir.”
“And the thief?” Corbett asked, examining each necklace by the light of an oil lamp.
“Daniel Folter.”
The merchant looked at him. “Daniel?  You’re sure?”
“Yes, sir. You know him?”
Corbett hesitated. “He did some work for me a year or so ago. He even expressed interest in courting my older daughter, though I didn’t encourage him in that regard.”  He shook his head. “Still, I’m surprised. I never figured the man for a thief.”

This second version is clearer, more evocative; we lose nothing by removing the said-bookisms and, I would argue, actually gain clarity and emotional power.  One might think that using “said” and “asked” all the time, instead of mixing in synonyms (“explained,” “demanded,” etc.) would make the passage too repetitive.  But actually what happens is that the “saids” and “askeds” become practically invisible, allowing the reader to focus on the more important matters of action, emotion, context, plot, character, etc.

I do not eliminate all said-bookisms from my work.  I will use them at times to convey volume or manner of speaking — “she whispered,” “he muttered,” “she called,” and a few others.  At times a reader needs to know how the words are spoken. But I try to avoid using any said-bookisms to convey emotion.  That I do with facial expression, gesture, and the spoken words themselves.  And again, that is what the market prefers right now.  Could this change again?  Certainly. But for now, you should try to remove said-bookisms from your writing.  Doing so will improve your chances of selling that first story or book manuscript.

Best of luck, and keep writing!

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10 Responses to Writing Tips: Said-Bookisms, the Obscure Sin that Can Doom a Manuscript

  1. Tim Rohr says:

    Fantastic stuff, D.B. (D-Jack?), and a great idea to add things like this to your blog.

    I’ve seen this topic discussed elsewhere, but I don’t think it’s truly penetrated yet. With some editing I’ve done for others, I’ve seen this very thing and tried to help the authors, though never knowing just how persuasive I’ve been. Balanced against me just not knowing what the hell I’m talking about is the potentiality of doing a bit of work (to quit cheating the reader and craft these emotional-shortcuts a bit more organically into the scene)…

    It will be good to have this blog post at hand to be able to show someone (or link them to).

    A flip side to this discussion is the fact that for the most part, dialog is not conversation. That is, it’s not conversational. Sure, there are exceptions, but for the most part dialog has structure and rules to it that actual conversation does not. For that reason, I appreciate that you pointed out how invisible the speaker attributions become when the set is reduced to “said” and “asked,” primarily. Anything that masks the structure of dialog is going to help with flow and rhythm… in effect making the dialog sound more authentic and drawing less attention to the writer’s hand.

    I’d love to get your thoughts on that side of the question (dialog vs. conversation)… if not in these comments, perhaps in another blog post…?

    • dbjackson says:

      Thanks for the comment, Tim. And I love “D-Jack”, although I think my kids would tell me that it sounds way too cool to apply to me….

      I think that explaining said-bookisms can be incredibly difficult, in part because we’ve all seen them used and so have come to accept them as something perfectly acceptable, and in part because there is something counter-intuitive about them. They are in fact concise ways of expressing the emotion of the spoken word; at times replacing them with something more acceptable from the market standpoint means making our scenes wordier, which is generally NOT what we’re supposed to do. So yeah, it’s not an easy concept.

      As to the dialogue v. conversation question, yes I think that would make a terrific “Writing Tips” follow-up to this post. Look for it soon! Thanks for the idea!

    • Real says:

      , I’m quite young. I do think my stories have ptnoteial. I have a story that I’ve been writing and I would like to know if there’s any point in getting an agent (because if it’s not good enough, I don’t want to spend a lot of money getting an agent).I could send you a sample chapter if you would like? I think my idea is far from cliche9, I think my descriptions are on point and I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with my grammar. Also, I’m not silly about all of this, I’m quite serious.Like I said before, I don’t want to spend money on an agent and get nowhere so could I just have someone read over the first chapter and tell me whether there is any point in it? If this is possible, please get back to me! Thank you.

  2. Anne says:

    Thanks for this! I’ve never seen it explained so clearly before when descriptive speech tags are appropriate versus not (e.g. describing the voice, not the emotion). I’m only a few scenes into the the final pre-beta polish of my manuscript, so I’ll be sure to put this idea on my “things to look for” list.

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