Sunday, January 06, 2013

"Synonyms for said?!" he said...

There's a great twitter account that provides resources to help primary school teachers with creative writing lessons. One of their latest tweets caught my eye. You'll find it here: but if you can't be bothered to click through that's OK, it's a link to a teaching resource called...

"Synonyms for 'said'"

I've seen this kind of thing in classrooms all over the world. Otherwise brilliant teachers go crazy when kids use the word 'said'. One teacher, one of the best primary school teachers I've come across, even had a word cloud written on the window to show that she and the class had agreed to throw these words out of their stories. In the middle in large letters: SAID.

This is no kind of training for a young writer. Ask any author and they will point you towards Elmore Leonard's 10 rules of writing (

Rule 3: Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue.

'Said' is a wonderful word. It's adaptable, dependable and if you use it with skill it becomes invisible. No other word can do that.

I admit to breaking Elmore Leonard's rule every now and again, but only reluctantly. I think you can get away with 'asked' sometimes, or perhaps, very occasionally, 'replied' - but only if you're too lazy to go back and edit your conversation so that you don't need it.

Time for an example to explain what I mean.

Here's a passage from early on in Jimmy Coates: Killer, my first book. I'm not holding this up as an example of perfect writing - far from it - I'm just using it as a handy way of showing you how you don't need to use any word other than said. Look out for where I've used 'said', how many times it's repeated without sticking out, and where I've avoided using any other word for 'said' by using no word at all.

Two men have just turned up at Jimmy's house and here's the conversation:

            “Oh, it’s you,” Jimmy’s father said, “I didn’t expect…”
            “Can we come in, Ian?” It was a man’s voice, deep and flat.
            “Erm, of course. We weren’t expecting you.” His father sounded nervous, and the other man cut him off.
“Thanks,” he said. The floorboards creaked and the door opened. The man who walked in was tall and broad, taller even than Jimmy’s father, and obviously in much better shape. He was tanned, and good-looking, but only smiling with one half of his mouth, a small smile that scanned the room and found Jimmy.
“Hello, young man. You must be James.”
Before Jimmy could answer, his mother jumped up between them. “Please,” she said with her hand out to distract the man’s attention. “Sit down. Please sit down.”
The man looked at Jimmy’s mother and straightened his tie. It was a long black tie, thinner than the ones Jimmy’s father wore for work, and the man’s suit was the same black. “Helen, how lovely to see you again,” he said, and sat where Jimmy’s father had been sitting.
“Jimmy, go upstairs,” said his father, who walked in and sat down awkwardly.
“No, he can stay, Ian,” said the man in the suit.
“You haven’t…” started Jimmy’s mother, but the man cut her off.
“We’ve come for the boy.”
There was silence.

Remember, this was the first thing I'd ever written, so it's not going to be perfect. I look at it now and I really regret that "started Jimmy's mother". It's icky. It's in the way. I'd rewrite that now.

Here's a chunk of much simpler dialogue from a book I wrote 5 years later, Jimmy Coates: Power. It's simpler because there are only two people talking, which is always easier, but hopefully you can still how much better it is to use 'said' and only 'said' or nothing.

Jimmy is on the phone, conning a receptionist into revealing where he can find the mysterious Professor Wilson:

“Hello,” he said, twisting his voice without intending to into the voice of an old man. “I have an appointment with Professor Wilson, but I didn’t write down the time. Could you check it for me, please?”
“Professor Wilson?” said the receptionist.
“Yes, that’s right. Professor Zigmund Wilson.”
“There’s no Zigmund Wilson at this hospital.”
“Oh, is this the Hollingdale Institute?”
“No, this is St Thomas’ Hospital.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jimmy, a smile breaking out on his face. “I must have the wrong number. Do you know how I can reach the Hollingdale Institute?”
“I have the number here, hold on one moment.”
Jimmy slipped into the mouth of an alley between two boarded-up shops and peered back round the corner to check the street. He was constantly aware of the threat of being tracked, and every second that this phone was in his hand he was even more vulnerable. At last the receptionist came back on the line and gave Jimmy a number.
“And that’s in Hackney, isn’t it?” Jimmy said, as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
“No, no, that’s wrong,” replied the receptionist. “The Hollingdale Institute is in Mill Hill. It says here that it’s on the Ridgeway, Mill Hill.”
Jimmy snapped the phone shut, slipped it down a drain and ran north.

And again, I wish I could go back and change something. Get rid of that 'replied' and put in 'said' instead. Much smoother.

Sometimes I really wish I had the confidence to follow my own advice.

So here's a new classroom resource:


1 comment:

Farmer Rich(Cpg Mod) said...

Nice resource !