On “Said”

There’s currently a bit of a hoo-hah about the word “said” – the hoo-hah being that its made its way onto at least one teacher’s list of words that should not be used by school children.

Instead, they’re urged to use what are referred to in the trade as said-bookisms. Words such as barked, howled,  demanded, cackled. The reason being that they’re more emotive.

“This is terrible,” John barked.
“Why would you think that?” cried Mary.
“Because he does,” growled Peter.

Why is this a problem? Because by the time you’ve learned that John has barked those words, you’ve already parsed them in your head. You then have to go back and re-imagine them as being barked.

Most of the time, “said” will work perfectly fine. It holds no emotional surprises. For speech attribution, it’s virtually punctuation. If you want to evoke emotion, you should clue the reader in the character’s emotion prior to the words that are spoken. For example:

John swept the test papers off his desk. “This is terrible.”
As the papers fluttered to the ground, Mary felt her stomach flip. “Why would you think that?”
Peter put his hand on Mary’s shoulder and then glared at John. “Because he does.”

Doe John actually bark “This is terrible”? Depends if you, the reader, thinks he does. What you may lose in precision, you gain in congruence. The real key to immersive writing is choosing your words so that the reader only needs to parse them once, in a forward direction.