coley88 asked: "I've read many time that using words other than said or say is a sure sign of an amateur do you believe that's true?"

I (C) believe that there are many different styles of writing and schools of thought to detail every nuance of these styles. None of these are completely wrong, and they all tend to have very strong opinions about each other.

Basically, there are four schools of thought I see around, and this is my (as in one person: me) take on them:

  1. The Said Lovers: These people think of said (and most include asked and/or replied as well when they say said) as the only acceptable dialogue tag there is. They also often cut down on their adverbs to describe said (i.e. “he said slowly/angrily/insolently/gayly”) and their writing can (but doesn’t have to) be very “modern lit” and “minimalist”, which means low on the flourishes of adverbs and adjectives. They tend to make their verb choices and sentence structure really count. These writers were probably told by an educator that any dialogue tag that is not said is amateurish and therefore wrong. There are certainly plenty of articles online to reflect their opinion, and they usually have the loudest voices when the dialogue tag argument arises.
  2. The Said Haters: These people think that said is awful. They generally avoid the use of said at all costs, preferring to use tags like exclaimed, whispered, recalled, offered, etc instead. To them, these tags do a lot of the grunt work in making crystal clear to the reader what their character’s tone is for each section of dialogue. These writers were generally taught that said is an unimaginative dialogue tag and that only boring writers use it. (Note: Almost nobody over the age of 12 strictly expels said from their vocabulary, so the extremist nature of Said Haters is generally exaggerated by their opponents. It’s usually something more like said 20% of the time, other dialogue tags 70% of the time, no tags 10% of the time, or some minor variation thereof.)
  3. The Dialogue Tag Protesters: These people hate dialogue tags in general. Not even said escapes their detestation. They believe that the framework of the book should make clear to the reader (or not) who is speaking and why they have spoken. No tags necessary. Or, slightly less radically, maybe two or three tags necessary over the course of a chapter. They also tend to pare down on the adverbs and adjectives. These writers are the modern innovators, often seeking new styles of writing altogether than the current style norms and genres. I admire them, but I fear their absolutism.
  4. The Moderate Use Proclaimers: These people think that said (and asked and replied) are like the big dogs on campus. If they need a dialogue tag, they’ll go to these building blocks of dialogue first. Then, every so often, they pepper in a lesser used tag like whispered or promised or jeered. They usually think pretty hard about what tag they’re going to use instead of said. Also, these writers will sometimes leave off the dialogue tag altogether, taking a leaf from the Dialogue Tag Protestors’ book. They mix it up, but that isn’t to say they don’t have a strong opinion about the way dialogue tags should be used. Indeed, they are pro variety. 

So, what do I think? I think that there is no such thing as the “right way” to write. Successful authors (check out J.K. Rowling, George R. R. Martin, and Alexandre Dumas for examples, among thousands of others) have used a wide array of dialogue tags in the past and become widely-respected best-sellers. Try telling them that their dialogue is too purple!

Then again, I agree that sometimes dialogue tags can be lazy or patronizing. “‘Achoo!’ he sneezed” insults the intelligence of the reader, but “‘Let him go!’ she cried”, I think, is less offensive. To each his own.

There are few things that irk me more than seeing a person label anything in writing as “wrong” or “amateurish”, however, because that simple act condemns all beginning writers (and plenty of old hats, too) to a life of second-guessing their own gut, their own style of writing. Condemning any stylistic choice as bad also condemns any user of that style to forever wonder if how or what they write is good enough.

And of course it’s good enough! There is a readership out there for every style of writing. There is no “wrong” way to write. Dialogue tags are neither “amateur” nor “professional”. They are words about which people — readers and writers alike — have a preference. And preference is varied and isn’t that wonderful? 

Just write. Just write. That is the only right answer. 

For more on dialogue tags, visit our Dialogue page. Also, check out this awesome article on dialogue. I don’t agree with everything in it, but it explains the argument pretty well.

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