What’s Wrong With This List(?)

I StumbledUpon a page from eight years ago (since which time, let’s hope, writers have smartened up) that lists two hundred (200!) words to use instead of “said.” Why?
See for yourself. I looked at that list and immediately eliminated all but maybe ten, and that’s only because they’re marginally less egregious than the other 190. And only if they’re used under extraordinary conditions. And rarely.

No less a literary personage than Elmore Leonard (see my blog post from June 2014) disagreed, as did Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, and many others. Have you read Ed McBain? Stephen King (see the September 2013 blog post)?

Most of the words on that loathsome list serve mainly as substitutes for weak writing. They also distract the readers, who are smarter than many writers give them credit for. If the dialogue is economical and strong, there’s no need to spoon feed the readers. They get that the characters are angry or scared or miserable or devious. Another dodge is to use adverbs (she said insistently). First, if you absolutely can’t resist, why not just write “she insisted”? Second, and more to my point, if the dialogue is well written, we should already know that she is insisting. Finally, laugh, hesitate, groan/moan, sigh, look, point, and all of their synonyms are also not dialogue tags. They are called “action beats,” and they don’t get commas before, during, or after the speech; they get periods.

Don’t distract your readers. Leave out as many words as you can and leave the heavy lifting (and the banter and heartfelt confessions) to the characters. They’ll tell the readers what they want them to know.

Easy on the Adverbs, Exclamation Points, and Especially Hooptedoodle


These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather. If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday, but it’s OK because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: “I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks…figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that…Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle…Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with “she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances “full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use “suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories Close Range.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” what do the “American and the girl with him” look like? “She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character—the one whose view best brings the scene to life—I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in Sweet Thursday was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. “Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, “Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled “Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter “Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: “Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

Sweet Thursday came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

WRITERS ON WRITING New York Times, July 16, 2001


I have never been much of a Stephen King fan. I don’t like books about crazed dogs (although I did love Misery, which was about a crazed person). Also a couple of others. But for the most part, not my genre.

I’m listening to the audiobook of Joyland, and I’ve become not only a fan, but an acolyte. A follower, a convert. I want to kiss the hem of his schmatta. His writing is so smooth, so understated, so humble. There are no wasted words, and most important, there is no trace of the author in the narrative. Do you know how difficult that is?

I edit so many books in which it is clear that the authors just can’t resist the plays on words. They can’t resist the slightly strained alliterations. They can’t help filching for the least appropriate words in the thesaurus (high on the list of sins per King, about which more later). The best advice I can think of for amateur writers is, “Get out of the way.”

“Said” is not good enough for them. They need to laugh, coax, offer (I really hate that one), ask, quiz, query, inquire, inform, exclaim, explode, spout, sigh, blurt, prod, sputter, tease, protest, groan, moan, whisper, gasp. Even expostulate, fer chrissake. Said is good enough. No dialogue tags whatsoever? Even better.

This is one sure-fire way to tell the amateurs from the pros. Dear Elmore Leonard, who died recently, never used anything but “said.” Didn’t have to.

Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

Rules for writing a short story:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things–reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them–in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

Orwell’s Rules for Better Writing

Today I want to direct you to a dandy site, Delancey Place, which brings its subscribers eclectic excerpts from the writing of interesting people. In this post, opinions about good and bad writing by the great George Orwell are laid out. Please find the 5-13-2011 post for the entire piece, but below is a portion.

“…one can often be in doubt about the effect of a word or a phrase, and one needs rules that one can rely on when instinct fails. I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article.”

Author: George Orwell

Title: “Politics and the English Language”

Date: 1946




An open book

There was a writer named Stanley Elkin who said something very important about creating interesting characters: “I never write about anyone who isn’t at the end of their rope.”

We don’t need to hear about anyone’s ordinary, average day. In gripping fiction, everything is urgent and intensified. The most interesting characters have found themselves in a dangerous, or thrilling, or frightening, or in some way life-changing place. I think we read fiction not only as an escape from tedium or our own problems, but to find out how people who lead interesting lives, who find themselves in risky places, handle themselves. I think reading is, among other things, our quest to learn how we can do better.

Our own lives tend to meander, with a lot of loose ends and dead ends and unresolved issues. Fiction is an escape from that. It’s a cheap thrill. The best writers don’t dilute the stress—we love the stress of fictional characters we are involved with. It requires nothing from us, really. We don’t have to comfort them in the middle of the night, or lend them money, or hide them from the bad guy, or have our hearts broken. We can just read about them, and when we can’t take it another second, we just close the book. Oh, if only life could be like that!

The sexy semicolon

When did the semicolon make a comeback? It used be that it was one of those esoteric little punctuation marks that would brand the user as a smarty-pants, someone who possibly even knew the difference between who and whom. It was rarely seen, but when it did appear, it was in an appropriate context. Lately, though, I’ve been seeing it everywhere (like the tropical berry du jour that shows up in every overpriced product from lip gloss to nutritional supplements), appropriate or not. Yes, the world seems to have rediscovered the semicolon. The world, however, seems to be reluctant to learn how to use it properly.

  • I see it used in place of a colon, which is absolutely never right, regardless of similarity of name. It is related but not interchangeable, like fraternal twins.
  • It may sometimes be used instead of a comma—which it resembles—but only in certain situations. Think of it as the über-comma. It separates phrases that are themselves divided by commas.
  • It may be used to link two related sentences (i.e., two independent clauses) instead of separating them by a period.

So here’s how it’s done:

The bride was unable to decide which bouquet she liked best; she took snapshots of her three favorites: cabbage roses, mock-orange blossoms, and white peonies; daisies, lilies, and baby’s breath; and orchids.

Use it correctly and most of the world still won’t know how smart you are, but I will know, and what’s more important, you will know.

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