Monday, March 11, 2013

Said is not Dead

Shaemus came home from school the other day with an editing checklist. One of the things on that checklist:

Have I used words other than said?

Ohhhhhhh. That sentence made shivers go up and down my spine. Then the shivers went up into my head, giving me a massive headache and a possible cold. 

Where do these editing checklists come from? Who makes them up? I don't know, except I do know one thing. 

They don't come from professional writers.

But my little school in North Carolina is not the only school where this is being taught, that said is dead. My own sweet mom said it to me just the other day, right before she went to teach a class on teaching writing to other teachers working on their master's degrees. I had to give her a little lecture, which she took very well, but she told me that this is a thing all teachers teach. That "said is dead" is part of the educational jargon of today. 

Check out your own kids' writing checklists. I'll bet you a lot of money (Monopoly money) that you will see something about said on that list. Some kind of encouragement to use a different word than said.

Google "Said is dead." There are plenty of writing websites with articles about how said is not dead. Every website that proclaims "Said is Dead!" will be an educational website, a school's website or a teacher's blog. 

Now go open a book or a magazine or a newspaper. Check out how often said is used (a lot). Check out how often substitutes for said are used (not much). Said is a dialogue tag. It is a simple word that allows an author to attribute dialogue to a character so the reader is not confused. Said is alive and well. Said is extremely popular. Said is awesome.

Said is not dead. 

Here is a little commentary from John Warner, author and creative writing teacher:

Recently, the most disturbing news I’ve heard in a long time came across my Facebook feed. It was supplied by Matt Bell, a writer and creative writing teacher of my acquaintance who had heard this very troubling thing from the students in one of his classes.
They told Professor Bell that when it comes to tagging dialog in their fiction, “said is dead.” He inquired where they learned this, and they answered, "school."
As a creative writing teacher, I am loathe to hand out “rules” to students, preferring them to experience the freedom necessary to create something meaningful, and see the possibilities in words for themselves, but using “said” as a dialog tag as in - “I can’t believe that some students think said is dead,” he said -  comes as close to a rule as I can imagine.
As my friend, the writer Jim Ruland put it to me, “A tag on a line of dialog is like a tag on a garment: you're not supposed to notice it and it's slightly embarrassing when you do.”
The point is to allow the audience to focus on the character’s words, rather than drawing attention to a “he exclaimed!” or “she enthused!” lingering there at the end.
There really is no argument to be had about this. It is as certain and fixed as gravity or Donald Trump’s comb-over.
My first instinct was to blame J.K. Rowling, who is a serial and incorrigible abuser of this rule, but when I went to Google, I saw that the movement is far broader than I could’ve imagined.
We have fliers and lesson plans declaring that “said” is “overused” and that using a “synonym” such as “squeaked,” “gossiped,” or “gloated” will make students' writing more lively.
A class in Kentucky held a funeral for “said” and other “worn out” words.
These lessons seem grounded in good intentions, the goal of students expanding their vocabularies and being open to varieties in word choice.
But these good intentions, and others like them are, unfortunately, creating dysfunctional writers.
In my own class this semester, as I spoke about how to handle dialog tags, I remember seeing a certain amount of cognitive dissonance cross my students’ faces. I figured it was just because we were close to lunchtime, but having subsequently been alerted to the “said is dead” movement, I returned to class and asked how many of them had heard this wisdom, and half the room raised their hands.
This sort of instruction is hobbling students when they get to college and are introduced to the joys and complications of making the right choice of word at the right time.
(Except when it comes to dialog tags, which should 99% of the time use “said.”)
Mostly I’m bothered because these well-meaning rules close off the beauty and struggle of writing well. It suggests that writing has rules, rather than guidelines or practices. I think it even signals that writing well is a skill we ultimately just achieve, rather than a process that everyone has to employ, a process where we always fall short of perfection.
(Which is a beautiful thing, I think. The struggle is eternal, but it is good.)
They are not being taught how to think, how to choose. We have to stop this “said is dead” business, right here, right now.
If you teach writing in elementary, or secondary schools, please do not perpetuate “said is dead.” Find a different way to expand your students’ vocabularies. If you have school-age children, tell them said is not dead, right after you counsel them to just say no to drugs.
 “It really is that important,” he emphasized encouraged implored said.

Don't you love that last sentence? Doesn't it show you how ridiculous this is? "It really is that important," he emphasized. He encouraged. He implored. He begged. He pleaded. He pronounced. He remarked. He illustrated. He insisted.
He said.
I was speaking to a woman the other day who runs a co-op homeschool. She and her husband were discussing developing a software that will help kids with writing. It would analyze the children's paragraphs and say things like, "Oops! You've used "said" too many times in this paragraph. Choose another word!!!" Or, "You don't have enough "ly" words in this paragraph. Can you stick one in there?"
This is not writing. Writing is not simply looking up and down your words and picking ones that seem sparkly or different or unique so you can get a check. Writing is getting across a story to the reader in clear, interesting ways. Using "remarked" instead of "said" does not suddenly make a paragraph interesting. 
This is important. Why is this important? (Oh, who cares, Lindsay, quit making such a big deal out of dumb little things...) 
It's important because rules likes this—said is dead, you have to use "ly" words, etc, etc— make kids HATE writing. So many kids hate to write. I would wager most of you with school age children have at least one who hates writing. 
Wouldn't you? If you had to look back at everything you wrote and worry about finding a different word for a very basic word like said, instead of focusing on what your writing is really saying, instead of thinking about your story and what your characters want and what their next adventure might be
I am trying to work up the courage to tell Shaemus's teacher the truth. That said is not dead. That there should be no funerals for said. That ninety-nine percent of the time, you should use said as an invisible tag, a punctuation mark. Think of it like a period, because that's really what it is.
Encourage your children at home, in their writing, to use the word said. When they grow up, when they get into college, if they choose any profession that involves writing, this will be important for them, and it will give them freedom! Freedom from made-up writing rules that make teachers feel as if they are teaching their kids how to write, when they are really not. They are teaching them things they can check off so they can give kids grades for their writing and feel consistent about it. 
If their teachers balk, if you start getting papers home asking your kids to use "intoned" instead of "said," tell the teacher the truth. That said is not dead, and may it live a long and robust and healthy and sparkly and vibrant and vigorous and energetic life. (Another school rule is to use lots and lots of adjectives. Lots and lots and lots. The more the better. :) )
Viva la said! 

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