The Most Dangerous Advice Young Writers Believe

You’ve seen them on Tumblr, on Pinterest, in writing groups. You’ve seen them reblogged with the captions “yes!!!!” and “THANK YOU” and “this is really good advice!” You may have even posted one somewhere yourself.

Words to use instead of…

Said. Very. Great. Feel. Nice. You name it, there’s probably a badly made infographic for it.

The people who make these charts and tout their excellence no doubt have the best of intentions. Writers struggle with word choice; here’s how to use better words. The logic is there. The writing knowledge is…not.

There are two main issues here.

Words have different meanings.

Duh. If you call yourself a writer, you should know this in the depths of your soul. Not only do two different words have different denotations and connotations, one word can have multiple meanings in different contexts. A light that is very bright might be luminous, as one chart says, but it could also be blinding or dazzling or incandescent. All of those words mean very different things to a reader, and set very different scenes with very different moods. But since bright also has different meanings in itself, a day that is very bright wouldn’t be luminous, it would be sunny. A very bright person would be brilliant or ingenious. Very bright prospects might be auspicious, while a very bright color could be neon or even just intense. You see the dilemma.

A thesaurus should only be used hand in hand with a dictionary. We all remember the episode of Friends where Joey wrote his recommendation letter about two “humid, prepossessing homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps.” It should be common knowledge, but it bears being said again: if you don’t know what a word means, don’t use it.

A find-and-replace chart should never be used, period.

At best, you’ll just be overusing words other than very, or whatever word it is you’re looking up. At worst, your writing will make absolutely no sense and be laughed out of every workshop and publishing house you submit it to. If you want to avoid very, just delete it. If you must use a thesaurus, find a word whose definition and connotations fit the mood, voice, scene, and context you’re creating. Don’t just find and replace. Expand your vocabulary.

But there’s another problem with these infographics and blog posts.

Said is not dead.

Not even a little. Said is the old man in Monty Python and the Holy Grail saying, “I’m not dead!” and “I feel happy!” as the internet hits it over the head and dumps it on the cart. See, said is not a tired word. Said is an invisible word. As you read, your eyes move faster than your brain. So when you see “said,” you don’t feel the need to actually comprehend it in the context of the sentence, it simply exists to indicate to your brain who is speaking. When you replace said with one of the many awkward words in a find-and-replace chart, the person reading your work has to stop after every sentence and not only comprehend what the word is and what it means, but also how the word reinterprets the dialogue that came before it. Suddenly a short, simple conversation becomes jolting and painful to read.

Compare:

“I’m tired,” Jill complained. She leaned her head against the car window.
“Go to sleep,” Jack snapped. “And stop complaining.” He had been irritated since they left.
Jill had had enough. “Why are you so mad?” she shouted.
He looked sad. “Because I have to put up with you,” he lied.

 

“This trip is taking forever. I am so tired.” Jill leaned her head against the car window.
“Then go to sleep and stop complaining,” Jack said. He had been irritated since they left, and Jill was done with it.
“Why the hell are you so mad?” Her voice was loud in the small car.
Jack sighed. “Because I don’t—” He turned to her, a sad look in his eyes, but he wouldn’t meet her gaze. He looked away. “Because I have to put up with you.”

Both paragraphs say the same thing, and the same actions occur in both, but one is significantly smoother and provides a lot more context and characterization. The first drags the reader awkwardly through the scene, while the second leads the reader gently, leaving room for interpretation. Your dialogue should be expressive enough through word choice and supplementary actions that no dialogue tags other than said are necessary. If you find yourself having to end a piece of dialogue with “he boasted” or “she lied” in order to make it clear to the reader, you haven’t written the dialogue well enough.

Now, of course, using these words sometimes is good. Occasionally you want your reader to stop and comprehend and reinterpret. Occasionally the juxtaposition of a piece of dialogue and mismatching dialogue tag can be impactful. But only sometimes. It’s the scarcity of these tags that gives them power. It’s the break from said that cues your brain to go, “huh, this seems important.”

While using very is lazy writing, using a find-and-replace chart is even lazier. While using said seems lazy, not doing the research is lazier. In order to be a good writer, you have to understand writing. There’s no getting around that. Any shortcuts you attempt to take will be painfully obvious in the end, and what might’ve been a very good story is bogged down and ruined by very bad writing.

3 thoughts on “The Most Dangerous Advice Young Writers Believe

  1. Thank you. Just thank you. Thank you for being one of the few people who is willing to see past the world’s facade. This article could be used to describe any profession and it would still be valid. I have a theory that most unbelievable chacters are actually written with false MBTI function stacks. I wonder what your thoughts are on that. If you’re willing to entertain a random person who just stumbled across your work, please email me. I love discussion, and you seem to be a potential wealth of it. – a fellow

    Liked by 2 people

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