A few weeks (or has it been months? Who knows! Time is relative) ago, I joined Pinterest as a way of sparking some visual creativity, which some of you may know I’ve always been a fan of. And Pinterest did not disappoint:
But one thing I’ve noticed that I’m not so crazy about is the plethora of writing advice infographics along the lines of “Words to Use Instead of X.”
Before I start talking about why I don’t like this and don’t think it’s helpful, let me say that this isn’t a criticism of those dispensing this kind of writing advice, or even the advice itself. It’s not bad or wrong – I’ve personally found it useful in certain circumstances – but I think for aspiring writers to get the most of it, there needs to be a very specific approach.
Writing isn’t a science where you can replace one thing with its equivalent and get the same result. When you tell someone to use “enraged” instead of “very angry,” you could be legitimately improving their writing – or you could be ruining their work. The only way you can know for sure is if you see the word choice in the context of the piece itself.
Remember the scene in Friends where Joey tries to write Monica and Chandler a recommendation for their adoption agency but gets a little overenthusiastic with this thesaurus feature?
That’s basically what you risk when you follow this kind of advice willy nilly.
For example, one of these posts suggests “deafening” as a replacement for “very noisy.” But these two are not necessarily the same thing. What about “piercing”? It may well be a better replacement for the meaning you’re trying to convey. What about “cacophonous”? Riotous? Clamorous? Ear-popping? And that’s just off the top of my head. All of these words mean “very noisy.” None of them refer to the same kind of noise.
Another post gives 50 alternatives to the phrase “looks like,” including “mirrors,” “reflects,” “parodies,” “mimics,” and “parallels.” Personally I prefer this kind of post because it gives the writer a chance to consider what works best for their meaning, but that still requires one to be very familiar with the language and confident in what they want to portray. If you’re in that category, then you may well find these posts exceedingly helpful. But if you’re just starting to get comfortable with writing, I think you need to approach this type of advice carefully.
I think the best, most authentic writing comes from where you are naturally in your vocabulary and your environment. When I was in grad school, I had several people tell me that my writing wasn’t “academic” enough, because I tended to use short sentences and paragraphs and everyday language. That was a direct result of my training in journalism – it was what I was reading and writing naturally, and so it carried over into my graduate work. I rather liked it – I find a lot of academic writing cumbersome to the point of being unintelligible. Here’s a pro-tip: if you’ve hit line four but you’re still in the same sentence, stop and find somewhere to put a period. No one knows what you’re talking about anymore.
But I digress. My point is this: I could have tried to mimic the academic style I was told to by my peers (for the record, my professors never took issue with my writing style), but it would have come off as awkward and artless. Writing is not a “fake it till you make it” skill. It’s something that needs time to develop naturally, and it’s also unique in that to perfect your writing, you need to do something else – read.
Reading is the only way to grow your vocabulary in a way that will organically feed into your writing. That’s the long and short of it. You can save all these posts and bookmark thesaurus.com and read the dictionary every night before you go to bed, but none of that will feed into your writing like reading does.
And speaking of reading…
Just say it!
One thing that really, really bugs me is when people give you a list of words to replace “said.” Guys. Guys. You do not need to replace “said.” In some cases, when you’re trying to really emphasize an attitude or a characteristic, it is appropriate to use “stammered,” or “demanded,” or “snapped.” In most cases, “said” is just fine. In fact, it’s better than fine.
Here’s why: your reader isn’t actually seeing the word “said.” That’s not how the brain works. It doesn’t read every individual letter or word. Instead, your brain scans and absorbs a context, and fills out the details from there. Have you ever been reading a page and suddenly stop and go, ‘wait, what,?” because what’s happening now doesn’t make sense with what you just read. So you go back, only to discover that you missed a crucial “not” in a sentence in the last scene, which is why the what happened afterwards was such a shock.
It’s not because you’re skimming or falling asleep or otherwise not paying attention. That’s just how your brain reads. When your brain sees quotation marks in the context of a story, it knows that there’s dialogue coming up, i.e., someone is saying something. It doesn’t need to read the word “said” to know that, so more often than not, it doesn’t.
So as a reader, you’re not registering the word “said,” and you’re certainly not nitpicking the author’s use of it. But of course as a writer, it’s a different ball game entirely. Because you’re typing it out so much, you become paranoid about your use of “said.” Is it boring? Is it evocative of what you’re really trying to express? You have an image in your head of exactly what your characters are doing and thinking and feeling; is “said” really doing them justice?
Yes. Yes it is. Don’t just take it from me. Author and publisher Rob Hart is a huge proponent of “said”:
Said and asked are beautiful in their simplicity. They are completely anonymous words. We know what they mean. We’ve seen them so often that our eyes recognize the shape and convey the meaning with zero effort. We glide right over them.
That’s very important when you’re reading dialogue. Dialogue flows. Conversations don’t stop so we can figure out what people are feeling. We intuit it. And having these nearly-meaningless words to steer you along means that you’re not pausing to figure anything out.
But when you see that a character retorted or blustered or hissed, your brain slows down. There’s something there you need to process. It’s momentary, probably imperceptible, but when it comes to writing a flowing conversation, the pause may as well last for hours.
In writing, everything counts. Where you put your periods. The white space between the paragraph breaks. Everything. And said and asked are very valuable tools in your arsenal. Because they get the job done and get the fuck out of the way. They’re so good at it, they can completely disappear when you need them to.
Hart makes an important point about the anonymity of “said” and “asked.” When you write, you’re trying to convey a certain idea or image, and often you become so invested in that image that you become obsessed with making sure the reader sees it exactly as you do in their mind’s eyes. So you use these unnecessary words and add emphasis where you don’t need it because you’re trying to force the reader to conform to your vision of the narrative, and instead you push them out of their reading bubble and force them to recall this outside force, you, the author, that has created this imaginary world.
They were immersed in your world. Then you dragged them out and beat them over the head with your complicated dialogue tags.
Sometimes, it’s better to just go with your instincts and not overthink these things. You can always go back and edit. And when you do, you may find that your work is in better shape than you thought!
*Feature image credit: John Davey via Flickr.