Don’t Always Believe What You Read Online

When I started writing creative nonfiction/memoir, the issue of dialogue tags rose its nasty little head early on. I’d never given them much thought in fiction writing, and they don’t exist in poetry. For some reason, nonfiction made me think and rethink what works best. Maybe it’s that more expressive word choices conveyed more information than plain old “said,” but in nonfiction it seemed like overkill to write “stammered” or “giggled” about oneself.

These “more expressive” tags look something like this:

Eventually I took courses online and learned that all the creative and imaginative tags I’d debated were worthless. I think these teachers were right, so I’m sharing what I learned from them.

The idea is to stay as far from “tagging” as possible.

That means that if you can write dialogue where it’s clear who is speaking each line, you don’t need any tags at all. Sometimes you can start a conversation out by identifying the first speaker and then drop tags after that point. Here is a passage from Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty:

We stopped at the airport gift shop and I bought a scarf in a red tartan with the money I had left. “Write to me all the time,” she said as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.

“I always do.”

“Write to me more often now. I’m going to miss you more.”

The book is about the friendship of Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face). Lucy is leaving and wants Ann to write to her. In this passage, we know it’s Lucy who begins because she is the only other person in the scene and because with her head on Ann’s shoulder, she’s exhibiting her characteristic neediness. In the next line by Ann and the response from Lucy their personalities shine through. The only tag in this whole passage is “she said,” used once.

So why did Patchett use “said” and not a tag with more emotion or more information?

Because said is an invisible word. It’s so common that it exists just under the surface, much like articles (the, a, an) do. It doesn’t intrude on the scene. Instead the dialogue itself is allowed to pop with just a little help from scene setters: “as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.”

Another way you can avoid a tag is to pair the line of dialogue with an action that advances the plot. Here is a passage from Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father:

“By the time they come, I’ll have proof.”

“So what? What if I was seeing a man?”

My father turned. His hands were shaking. “It’s too soon.”

In this case, the father’s hands shaking pair with his words and create more emotion than if Cooper had written, “It’s too soon,” he said with a shaky voice. What is more important is that by avoiding a tag, the action and the words are not watered down by unnecessary words that attract attention.

Different versions of this “Said is Dead” chart are being shared all over the internet, along with other questionable writing advice. Rather than listening to these sources, pick up a good writing book and follow the advice in there.  Two good ones for nonfiction are Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away and Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanna Paola.

Have you seen advice online that you know to be wrong?




Filed under Creative Nonfiction, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing, Writing Talk, Writing Tips and Habits

61 responses to “Don’t Always Believe What You Read Online

  1. I tend to choose “said” rather than other tags. “Complete detagging can result in choppy prose,” she said. “Worse yet, confusion about who said what.”

    • It’s not possible (or maybe desirable re the choppiness) to completely detag, but writers should try to eliminate the extra ones, IMO.

  2. Mmm, in terms of bad advice, I’m hung up on adverb use. Not very, but quickly and not most but utmost. I’m not going to stop using adverbs altogether.
    I love those words in Said is Dead, but not as dialogue tags, and certainly not in a conversational pattern. I agree with the above — it leads to choppy prose. They’re better used as descriptors IN the dialogue. “She insisted we stay friends.” “He snapped at me for no reason.” I seldom use them, but for One-Liner Wednesdays — remarked, joked, yelled, screamed, shouted. It’s all a matter of what we’re conveying and how we’re trying to convey it. When you’re pressed for impact in brief pieces, those words can be helpful, but they’re a hindrance to lengthier works. As a reader, they’re hard to follow in the long-term.

    • I like that, Joey–that those words are good in the dialogue. Brief pieces, I agree. But in reading a story of any length at all, all these creative words are distracting and annoying.
      Interesting about the adverbs. I’ve pretty much had them beaten out of me. Once in a blue moon I can’t live without one. BUT when I was looking through Patchett’s book for this post, I did find a few adverbs and was quite surprised. When I read the book I hadn’t noticed them at all.

  3. Since I write humor I don’t worry about tagging. (Maybe I should?) Most bad advice I get from the internet is about my health. Never google symptoms.

    • Since tagging is only an issue in writing dialogue, it only matters if you write a fair amount of dialogue and then the subject rears its ugly little head. Hahaha, re googling symptoms. If you go by symptoms we all have just about everything!!!

  4. Tagging is an avoided topic in our critique circle. Lots of opinion on that one. The invisible said works well, yet it does become visible when the story is read out loud.

    • This is a really good point, and you know what? When I was writing this post I noticed that a few wonderfully written books had more “saids” than I felt necessary. When reading silently I didn’t notice this, but when I was looking for it, I saw it, and I know that if I read it aloud it would annoy me no end. Maybe writers needs to read their own writing aloud a few times before giving it to others to read!

  5. I think it’s simply another variation of “show, don’t tell”. The dialogue itself, as well as any actions the characters take in the telling, should be enough. I get irritated when I’m told what the character is feeling when they say something, when the something they say should convey it.

    Dialogue is tough for me, because of that requirement, but the chart above smacks of writers trying too hard to be “writerly”, instead of just telling the story. The best stories, I find, are the ones told without flourish. I enjoyed this post, Luanne – it’s writer brain food!

    • You know what really helped me with this? Weird, but true. I wrote a scene with two people all in dialogue without using any tags. It wasn’t as an end scene, but for the process, you know? And it didn’t lead to information dumping, but to better dialogue. And I LOVE your idea that this is part of show, don’t tell!!!!!!!! You are so right!

  6. I’ve learned that every publisher is different as to what is “right” or “wrong.” Personally, I’m not a fan of tagging.

    • And editors, too, but some things are pretty standard. If you take a smattering of some of the best quality books and check out dialogue tagging, it’s pretty standard to rely on “said,” although an alternative might slip through once in awhile ;). The problem is that when you’re working with an editor and/or a publisher, you have to rely on their methods unless you want a bloody battle . . . . When you say you’re not a fan of tagging, is it tagging in general (because I can’t imagine how we would know who was talking if we didn’t tag at all) or do you mean “creative” tagging? haha

      • Sorry…I was interrupted. I’m not a fan of tagging that isn’t invisible That said, I do like to use enough exposition to set the scene and make it clear who’s talking, but not too much that it detracts from what’s really being said.

  7. Thanks for this post with such great examples.

  8. I admit my old school writing still inserts a tag now and then. I’ve moved away from it and use action beats now unless I have more than two people having a conversation at once. Even then, I try to stick with action beats as identifiers. She’s right though. Never google symptoms or treatments.

    • LOL, is that Nurse Susan talking there in that last comment? I admit I do sometimes look up medical stuff, but I am not prone to imaging that I have stuff. I use it as a guide for things to consider and questions to ask. Or for language on how to describe a symptom that I have. Sometimes I have a hard time figuring out how to describe something so that a doctor can understand whereas I can describe it in a lyrical sense hahahahaha.

  9. My editor is big on not using said…maybe because I write for younger readers? It was crazy because I’d spent 10 years having “JUST USE SAID” drilled into me in writing workshops. Just shows that whatever your preferences (or the preferences of your writers group) is, you may have to toss it all out if you start working with an editor who has her own preferences!


    • Interesting. I have a pretty decent collection of Newbery books. I’ll have to go back through them and see what the “consensus” is for this dilemma. I agree that editors all have their own ideas, and I usually get a little dismayed by some of what I’ve had to go through in that area. Oh man. I love your website!.

  10. Good advice here, including the comments. 🙂

  11. I find myself using tags from this list a lot in place of said, but as I analyze it, I realize that because I am writing humor most of the time, that gloppy, unnecessary word provides an opportunity to contradict, deflect, or flip upside down the words the character said. “I’m the most honest person you ever met,” he lied shamelessly while trying to make a point about dialogue tags. “You need to be executed for even thinking that,” she giggled. Okay, I’m probably wrong, but I do it anyway.

    • Hahaha! I love your humor! Also, I think you are right that these words can be used humorously, but maybe that’s a tipoff for prose that is less humorous! 😉

  12. You’ve struck a nerve, Luanne. When I go to Amazon’s Look Inside feature to decide if I want to buy a book, I scan for instances of dialogue. That usually tells me if I want to read the book. If I see dialogue tags like “inquired, snapped, growled, stated, responded, asserted, questioned,” etc., I get out of there as fast as I can lest I vomit. Do you mind if I reblog this post on annelisplace?

  13. Great post! I know I have done this before, looked up dialogue in various books to see what they use, especially since using “said” seems repetitive after a while, but I always go back to it because the other terms seem too inflated sometimes. However, occasionally, I like them. I am going to review some more books soon to refresh my mind about it. Important issue in both fiction and non-fiction!

    • That’s the best way, in my opinion: to examine the books you respect and see what they do. That said, when I started examining books for this post, I was kind of surprised that some of the books I think are very well-written were still a tad sloppy at points, meaning an unnecessary tag or a non-said tag when it is not helpful. Not too many of these, but some.

  14. I am probably guilty of all kinds of writing offenses, Luanne. I was so blessed with many professors who appreciated my variety of styles of writing, many said this: “Your essays (or reports) are interesting and never boring, Robin.” I am afraid there were few real critiques to allow me to know whether or not my adverbs are too numerous or my words too profuse or characters too verbose…. smiles!

  15. Have I ever seen advice online that I knew to be wrong? Oh lord. A better question might be “Have I ever seen advice online that I thought was useful?” But truth to tell, I’ve seen plenty of useful advice online, advice consistent with my own experience as a writer and editor, advice I’d learned once and then forgotten, and even new-to-me advice that gave me a good idea at just the right time.

    Fortunately it’s not all that hard to tell the wrong advice from the useful advice. The wrong advice usually starts with, or implies, “always” or “never.” If you jettison the “always” or “never,” however, that wrong advice may turn out to be useful. Prose that avoids tags or restricts itself to “said” and “asked” can be every bit as annoying (or confusing) as prose that uses tags too extravagantly.

    Here’s some online advice: Read lots of stuff by good fiction writers. Read some passages out loud. Read your own works in progress out loud — a lot. Develop your ear. Notice how tags can help pace your dialogue; they’re like punctuation that way. Pay attention to good films and TV shows: notice how the script and the actors convey tone and feeling with no tags at all. When it comes on online advice, take what you like and leave the rest.

    • Good points, Susanna, particularly about the “always” and “never” tip. That’s one way to tick off a loved one in conversation is to use “you” in conjunction with “always” or “never.” I like what you say about pacing dialogue, and it is related to what jeannieunbottled says about the complete elimination of dialogue tags creating chopping prose.
      A lot has changed over the years, too, on what is “correct.” For instance, I had 2 spaces after the final period beaten into my head and then suddenly it changed! Not going to change that Oxford comma, though.

  16. I enjoyed this post. I want to start back on a manuscript written in 2013. All this information is wonderful. It’s also enjoyable to read the comments. Thanks, Luanne.

    • Eileen, best of luck with the manuscript! I too am wanting to go back to my “old” memoir manuscript on work on it. Kind of chomping at the bit, actually. Thanks for stopping by!

  17. I read advice all the time that I disagree with, but I’m not sure that makes it wrong. Some of my best photos break all the rules!

  18. I agree, if your characters are distinctive a running conversation is understandable. I have gone from poetry to nonfiction and now delving into fiction, learning if possible. Thank you for sharing this post. E

    • You’re welcome :). That move from prose from poetry really brings up a lot of questions like this. Poetry has its own concerns, but doesn’t share all of them with prose. It took me a long time to go back to prose.

  19. I tend to use said, based on the same sort of writing advice, but I’ve been reading about ‘deep POV’ recently, which suggests any kind of tags should be avoided so that the reader can forget that the narrator is there.

    • I think it’s a great idea to eliminate as many as possible. But I don’t think it’s always possible. Plus, there is something to be said (IMHO) for what jeannieunbottled says about choppy prose.

  20. Thanks for this, Luanne! With my own writing, I’ve often wondered whether I should add adjectives, but it’s more fun when the dialogue conveys, by itself, the emotion, more fun for me as a writer and as a reader 🙂

  21. Luanne I have read so many contradicting posts that I am frozen when it comes to writing stories. I use to write all the time. Now the more I learn the more confused I have become. I may just write without thinking about all the rules to get some flow and imagination back into my work.

  22. Just saw this now, and am glad I did – it confirms what I thought. It’s always bugged me, seeing “she said sadly” and “he yelled.” Very good post!

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