Monday, March 8, 2010're it

by Pamela

Many years ago I answered an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for a job as a stringer. (aka: a reporting post so insignificant, we can't really waste our real writers on it, therefore, we job it out) Woefully under-qualified--I had a marketing degree, for crying out loud, not journalism--I sent out my résumé and went about the rest of my week.

I got a call a few days later, gushed out my qualifications and they hired me. A few months later, they doubled my assignments when the other stringer who covered the second market quit. (I think she found a job pressing pants at the dry cleaners. Clearly a step up.)

Not long into my gig I got an email from my editor. For the most part, it read: The only dialog tags you should be using are 'he said, she said, he asked, she asked.'

What? What kind of creativity killers are these people? I can't write: she wondered? Or he supposed? How boring and repetitive is an article replete with HE SAIDs?

But I acquiesced and honestly, life became simpler when I wasn't searching for another word for pondered.

Today I sit on the other side of the desk, and I find it a little refreshing to relieve a writer of the habit of using tags that really should be simpler, cleaner. The other day, I had a client, for whom I wrote a marketing piece, send me back a revised copy of changes she wanted to make. The only suggestions she had were changing a handful of 'he saids' to 'he stated,' 'he explained,' 'he expressed.' I changed them all back--well, I think I gave her one 'he explained.'

But really, the only tags you usually need are the simple ones. Let the dialog be strong and convey the attitude of the speaker. You shouldn't have to tag it to help express the message.

In fiction, we're more likely to be tempted to add an adjective after the tag to help the reader understand the mood or emotion of the character. In extreme cases, authors are accused of having a case of Tom Swiftlies.

Tom Swift was a Hardy Boys-type series of books (1910–1993) produced by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. In the series, Tom Swift, a young scientist hero, performed sci-fi adventures with rocket ships and ray-guns and other hi-tech (for the era) inventions. In some of the series' books, author "Victor Applegate" went to great lengths to modify the word "said" with adverbial words or phrases. Since most adverbs end in "ly" this kind of pun was called a Tom Swiftly. The simplest being: "We must hurry," said Tom swiftly.

Today you can find hosts of Web sites dedicated to real and fabricated Tom Swiftlies. A favorite around our house: "I have a split personality," said Tom, being frank. Some other funny ones: "We have no oranges," Tom said fruitlessly. And, "Boy, that's an ugly hippopotamus!" said Tom hypocritically.

You can entertain your nerdy-self for hours but, as a writer, if someone marks up your draft with "Tom Swiftly" in the margins, it's no laughing matter.

So, when it comes to tags, really all you usually need is a simple 'he said' or 'she asked.' And please, please, please don't ever write: "That's the funniest thing I've ever seen," she laughed. The only guys who can laugh dialog are HERE.


  1. AMEN! I used to teach a writing course at a community center and I had such a hard time convincing the students to stop gushing, musing, expressing, expostulating, and grunting. Said is like the, a, and an -- your eye just inores them so you can focus on what is important (which is, of course, the dialog).

  2. Exactly! And I know it's tempting, when there are so many other interesting words out there, to use something more colorful. But in the end, all they do is distract.

  3. I try to forgo tags altogether when I can by working in action so it is obvious who is saying what. When I have to use them, 'said' works great the vast majority of the time. If the characters are fighting I may use 'snapped' or 'shouted' once in a while.

  4. I agree with all of you. The wrong tag feels like a sudden stop, and can ruin even the best dialog.


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