the official website of
Bob Nailor

Said, The Myth

I am currently doing final edits on my novel. One of the last methods of really checking for errors is to read the book aloud.

My wife has endured the first twelve chapters of me reading the book and making minor adjustments - usually a spelling or simple grammatical error.

I was told - No, it has been pounded into my head over the last couple of decades, that the word "said" will disappear into the background for the reader. A writer doesn't need to use flamboyant terms such as "he sputtered," "she moaned," "they yelped," or any other possibility to indicate that somebody said something. As we have all been taught, just use the word "said" and nobody will notice it.


Oh, so wrong! Perhaps it does slip into obscurity when a reader relaxes and peruses the book at their leisure. But, if the reader is speaking - yes, reading the book aloud - it becomes extremely annoying. In fact, it comes nauseating.

I know. I have a tale where five people are conversing. Now, if the conversation was only two people, the typical set up would be "John said." "Jane said" and then continue it with an assortment of he/she said every so often to align the reader with the proper speaker.

But, when you have five people, you really need to define who is speaking. "John said." "Jane said." "Bill said." Vera said." "Tom said." Arghhhhh...

In my current work-in-process, the first two chapters, a total of 20 pages, there are approximately 147 "said" which doesn't seem too bad but add in the next two chapters, another 21 pages and now the ante moves up. Add another 175 "said" for a grand total of 323 "said" and a very nauseated speaker/reader.

I finally checked to see how many repetitions of "said" were in my novel. The final tally: 1,367. That's a lot of "said" to read aloud. Before you start screaming "But my book won't be read aloud!" Think about it. Wouldn't it be great to have somebody spouting words from your work to a group? What would your book sound like? A speaker did exactly that. She read from one of her favorite author's novels and by the time she finished the page, even I could tell she was getting tired of "he said" and "she said" which cluttered the reading. It was embarrassing - not only for the speaker who was reading, but also for the author, I'm sure, if he'd been in attendance.

So how does one go about removing them without using other verbs? You start by making your story stronger and a little longer. Just reducing the number of them will force you to rewrite segments. Doing so, you'll find yourself expanding descriptions and making your story suddenly come even more alive.

I was able to reduce "said" to 51 incidents in the first two chapters and down to 72 incidents in the next two chapters for a total of 123 repetitions of "said" vs the 323 originally written.

This was accomplished by adding action.

Using this as 'original' conversation...
"Which way do we go?" Elaine asked.
"Head down the path and about half way to the bottom of the hill, take a left by the boulder," Adam said.
"That should be easy," Bill said. "Thanks."
"No problem," Adam said.

Let's rewrite it to read something like this...
Elaine stared down the path. "Which way do we go?"
Adam pointed at the darkened trail. "Head down the path. About half way down the hill, take a left by the boulder."
"That should be easy," Bill said. "Thanks."
Adam shrugged. "No problem."

The word count didn't really get upped too much but I wanted to keep it as simple as possible. A lot more detail could have been added but the bottom line is explained. As first written, there were three "said" and by rewriting it, now there is only one. If you think this is a silly exercise...Read the four sentences aloud and I mean, use your voice! Your ears will hear "said" as it is repeated. Now consider a conversation of perhaps twenty or thirty lines being spoken by five different people.

By adding action to the person speaking, you've given the story more punch, more bang for the buck and made your reader see more of what you really intended them to see.

Remember, dialog isn't about talking. It is about moving the story forward and keeping the reader involved. By removing "said" from the mix, it allows you to increase the action and description of what is happening. Your story has improved.

  Click to add a comment - say something!


Onisha Ellis
You are so right, Bob. We listen to a lot of audio books and the "names" in thrillers use said, all- the- time. Eventually I can tune it out but for the first couple of chapters I really want to do harm to the author.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Elyse Salpeter
What a fantastic blog - I think all of us make this mistake with the word said. It's like the easy way out. Your suggestions are extremely helpful and I've already integrated them in my newest WIP - great post Bob!
~ Reply to this comment ~

Scott Bury
An excellent strategy, Bob. Thanks for this tip!
~ Reply to this comment ~

teri smieja
Great writing tip! I've also been taught to try to eliminate the word 'that' as apparently it is overused.
~ Reply to this comment ~

Lisa Jey Davis
Oh GREAT… another thing to look out for! LOL… Luckily I don't think I do that much any more… however… I may need to double check… and that will TOTALLY suck if I have to fix it! HA! Thanks Bob!
~ Reply to this comment ~

Another great tip, thanks Bob!
~ Reply to this comment ~

Wright Forbucks
"Excellent post, Bob," Wright Forbucks said.
"Thank you," Wright Firbucks said. "Very helpful." :)
Great advice. I'm doing a final edit now. I read our loud too. And the saids were killing me.
~ Reply to this comment ~

M. J. Kelley
A great point, Bob.

I think the purpose of having a dialogue tag is simply to keep the reader oriented. You solve that here with something akin to stage direction (by describing body language).

There are a lot of stylistic choices with dialogue. I don't think any are wrong, and I think your solution is great as long as it works for you.

A lot of times "said" can just be omitted from an audio book, because a good voice actor will change the pitch of his or her voice for different characters, injecting them with a consistent cadence that is easy to follow and keeps the reader oriented.

I think it's important for writers to ask: will body language descriptions interrupt the flow of my dialogue? Or add to it while orienting the reader? There are conversations that happen at different rates and "said" might work best for those.

There are some writers who omit "said" and quotations and don't even use gestures. They rely solely on the strength of their characters' voices to orient the reader.

And for others the answer might be a combination of several solutions. It all depends on what works best for you and your book.

Thanks for the post!

-M. J. Kelley
~ Reply to this comment ~