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.


Dear Dorothy Parker allegedly said, “I speak six languages, and I can’t say no in any of them.”
If she didn’t say it, she could have, and indeed, she should have. I can speak only for myself when I say that learning how to say no has been one of the most valuable, and most expensive, lessons of my life.

It is very hard for me, and I guess for most freelancers, to say no to work. But there are times when you’ve just gotta listen to those bells and sirens and shrieks saying, “It is not worth it!” Because there are those times and those jobs that, if you don’t turn them down, will come back to haunt you, one way or another.

This past year I have had my first bad debts—an alleged pro in New York, and then a lunatic who found me on Writer’s Digest—my own fault, I guess. We were besties right up to the minute when I asked her to pay me.

In the past month or so, a jackass of a new variety has put me on edge, and I won’t relax until his credit card clears my account. He’s the type who feels entitled to call me and get free advice, push me for tight deadlines, and ask my opinion on his chances of becoming a best-selling author, yet he wants a few bucks off for…who cares why. I don’t think so.

Ah, the freelance life.

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