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Speech Verbs, and Why You Shouldn’t

My brother used to wind people up by adding speech tags in conversation.

Me: I was going to the shops –

Him: “She announced.”

Me: And I saw this bloke –

Him: “She revealed.”

Me: Will you shut up?

Him: “She demanded” – Ow, that really hurt!

Me: “He yelped.”

Speech tags can be just as annoying for a reader, plus you can’t punch the author. All the following horrible speech tags are real examples I’ve encountered as an editor, and all of them jar me right out of any immersion as a reader.

This is Not a Synonym For “Said”

“I’d like a drink,” she averred.

“It’s a nice day,” she opined.

“My name is John,” he pronounced.

See also ‘declared’, ‘asserted’, etc.

These are all (more or less) acts of speech, but they are attention-grabbing, a bit jargony, have specific meanings, and are absolutely not synonyms for ‘said’. I don’t need ‘opined’ to work out that a character is expressing an opinion, and if she isn’t expressing an opinion, then it’s the wrong word. The only reason I want to read ‘pronounced’ is if a character’s name is Xgafjbnvk and he’s explaining how to say it.

If a character is doing something with their speech that the author needs to convey – whispering, hissing, snarling or shouting – that’s fine. (If used sparingly, and if the dialogue supports it. Even better is to make the dialogue snarly or shouty.) But using a tag as a regular synonym for ‘said’, rather than conveying a precise meaning about how the character spoke… basically, just don’t.

This is Not a Speech Verb At All

“I agree with you,” he nodded.

You can nod your head till they give you a red hat with a bell on it and force you into a dubious relationship with an elderly gnome, but it won’t create audible speech.

“Wonderful,” she smiled.

Smiling is not speaking, nor is laughing, or giggling. This may not bother everyone but it bothers the hell out of me. They are different acts. Speak with a giggle, smile after you speak, rely on the dialogue to create the character’s light and joyous mood. Or use these as speech verbs and watch me have a brain haemhorrage on your MS. Whichever.

“I – I’m not sure,” she hesitated.

Yuk. Not only is this not a speech verb, but it’s one of those cases where either the action is made clear by the dialogue itself, in which case it’s unnecessary, or the action isn’t in the dialogue, in which case it’s the wrong word. Wrong on so many levels.

Yeah, Well, “Said” Isn’t All That Either

‘Said’ is a much more ‘silent’ word than other speech verbs, but it can still make its presence felt too strongly. I made great efforts to avoid horrendous speech verbs in my own writing, and then had my editor gently point out that my Hemingwayesque reliance on ‘said’ was heavily overdone and became obtrusive through overuse. (She put it much more nicely than that.) And she was absolutely right. I went through The Magpie Lord deleting ‘said’ and turning it into action wherever possible, and the writing sharpened up nicely.

Compare these three. Which is punchiest and most visual?

“You’re dead meat,” John threatened, reaching for the knife.

 The very definition of trying too hard.

 “You’re dead meat,” John said, reaching for the knife.

 What does ‘said’ add here? We know he said it. It’s in quote marks.

 “You’re dead meat.” John reached for the knife.

Snap.

So, down with speech verbs! Bin the thesaurus, lose the obtrusive or inaccurate speech tags, and make your writing visual and active…

… she pleaded.

Editor, writer, anaconda, rat

My name is KJ Charles and I’m a first-time novelist. (The Magpie Lord, Samhain, Sept 13.)

In my other life, I’m an experienced commissioning editor. (For the purposes of this blog I’m an anonymous editor, so I can give actual examples without feeling too constrained about authors thinking, ‘Is she talking about me?!’ (Honestly, darling, I’m not. It’s those other authors.)

This blog is about what it feels like to straddle both sides of the publishing fence. I’m pretty sure it means you get splinters in your bum.

I’m hoping to give some insights for aspiring writers, new authors and people interested in the word business as to how the system works, and why things happen the way they do. I will also be blogging about how it feels to be edited rather than editing. Expect expletives.

But first things first. Me.

I’m a commissioning editor, meaning I buy and edit MSS. I’ve spent my whole career in various forms of publishing. I have taken on a lot of new authors out of the slush pile.

I also write in my free time (hollow laugh). I have completed two full length novels, one of which got me an agent and some nice feedback, but no publication. I took a long time off writing when I had my children (the pram in the hall is the enemy of creativity, particularly when it’s got my son in it) and have only recently got back behind a keyboard again.

Knowing the game from the other side gave me some advantages in knowing what editors want and what to expect. Someone brilliantly referred to ‘the book moving through the publishing process like a rat moving through an anaconda’. It’s easier to be the rat if you know how anacondas work. This blog is aimed at sharing that knowledge.

So, on with the show!