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Sep 17, 2013

Declared, Affirmed, and Averred

I read a lot of writing advice of one stripe or another and one thing that I've run across more than once recently is the insistence from multiple sources that you should just say "so-and-so said" instead of trying to use more creative terminology like, "so-and-so demanded" or "so and so declared" etc. etc. etc. 

This is absurd.  Those terms exist for a reason and any writer worth their salt can and should make use of them.  Oh, sure, if you're only using them for variety, you're probably being unnecessarily redundant, but it is just flat out not possible to exercise the highly desirable qualities of brevity, clarity, and eloquence while adhering to a single manner of phrasing.  Take these examples:

"You should come with me now.  There isn't much time," he said.
"I don't think that would be wise," she demurred.

Okay, see, that one is redundant.  "I don't think that would be wise" is a clear denial.  Said is a fine thing to use in this case.  Here's another:

"You should come with me now.  There isn't much time," he said.
"How much time?" she demurred.

See there?  NOT redundant.  That's concise and clear.  We see that the woman is questioning him in order to raise an objection and stall for time with absolutely no wasted words and with absolute clarity and precision.  THAT's an example of what you SHOULD do in writing.  Here's a third:

"You should come with me now. There isn't much time," he said.
"How much time?" she said.

This is not clear.  Using "she said" in this context is bad (and not only because she asked a question--at the VERY least it should be "she asked") because it makes it sound like she's asking the question in order to get information.  Oh, sure, you could append some nonsense like this:

"You should come with me now.  There isn't much time," he said.
"How much time?" she said, drawing back and looking around as if unsure of his purpose.

But holy cow that is WAY more words than you need to indicate that she's stalling when you could just say, "she demurred".  How in the WORLD is that BETTER?

So, take-home point: writing well is way more complicated than a bunch of concrete-bound rules like "use said".  You have to learn to understand what your goal is and what you're trying to convey instead of just following the "rules".  If you're not using your judgment, you're not writing well no matter how many rules you follow.

I think advice like this arises because everyone learns to write through imitation at first, but imitation without judgment is what leads people to think, say, that an author is throwing in terms like "demurred" for variety.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that early on in my writing career I was told to do exactly that--add some variety.  I had no judgment at that time, so how could I know?  And later in your career some editor will see you doing this and they will be able to tell that you are doing it without any judgment.  So they'll tell you "use said" because they don't want to be distracted from the parts of your writing that do demonstrate judgment.

Me, I'd rather at least try to help people develop some judgment.  Three examples won't cut it, of course, but if you take your own writing and start asking questions like "is this redundant?" and "can I say this with one descriptive word instead of a phrase?" you'll start to pick it up.  There's a good chance that the people who told you to add variety or use said won't even notice which route you picked--because they'll be too  busy enjoying your story.

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