Recently, the most disturbing news I’ve heard in a long time came across my Facebook feed. It was supplied by Matt Bell, a writer and creative writing teacher of my acquaintance who had heard this very troubling thing from the students in one of his classes.
They told Professor Bell that when it comes to tagging dialog in their fiction, “said is dead.” He inquired where they learned this, and they answered, "school."
As a creative writing teacher, I am loathe to hand out “rules” to students, preferring them to experience the freedom necessary to create something meaningful, and see the possibilities in words for themselves, but using “said” as a dialog tag as in - “I can’t believe that some students think said is dead,” he said - comes as close to a rule as I can imagine.
As my friend, the writer Jim Ruland put it to me, “A tag on a line of dialog is like a tag on a garment: you're not supposed to notice it and it's slightly embarrassing when you do.”
The point is to allow the audience to focus on the character’s words, rather than drawing attention to a “he exclaimed!” or “she enthused!” lingering there at the end.
There really is no argument to be had about this. It is as certain and fixed as gravity or Donald Trump’s comb-over.
My first instinct was to blame J.K. Rowling, who is a serial and incorrigible abuser of this rule, but when I went to Google, I saw that the movement is far broader than I could’ve imagined.
A class in Kentucky held a funeral for “said” and other “worn out” words.
These lessons seem grounded in good intentions, the goal of students expanding their vocabularies and being open to varieties in word choice. This link makes an explicit connection to the North Carolina and Common Core standards, including Objective 4.02: “Use expanded vocabulary to generate synonyms for commonly overused words to increase clarity of written and oral communication.”
But these good intentions, and others like them are, unfortunately, creating dysfunctional writers.
In my own class this semester, as I spoke about how to handle dialog tags, I remember seeing a certain amount of cognitive dissonance cross my students’ faces. I figured it was just because we were close to lunchtime, but having subsequently been alerted to the “said is dead” movement, I returned to class and asked how many of them had heard this wisdom, and half the room raised their hands.
This sort of instruction is hobbling students when they get to college and are introduced to the joys and complications of making the right choice of word at the right time.
(Except when it comes to dialog tags, which should 99% of the time use “said.”)
I don’t really wish to cast blame. If I had to, it probably belongs on the standardized testing regimens that reduce learning to easily quantifiable things like breadth of vocabulary. Or maybe it’s because, in my experience anyway, there’s very little coordination between secondary ed and higher ed in terms of curriculum.
Mostly I’m bothered because these well-meaning rules close off the beauty and struggle of writing well. It suggests that writing has rules, rather than guidelines or practices. I think it even signals that writing well is a skill we ultimately just achieve, rather than a process that everyone has to employ, a process where we always fall short of perfection.
(Which is a beautiful thing, I think. The struggle is eternal, but it is good.)
They are not being taught how to think, how to choose. We have to stop this “said is dead” business, right here, right now.
If you teach writing in elementary, or secondary schools, please do not perpetuate “said is dead.” Find a different way to expand your students’ vocabularies. If you have school-age children, tell them said is not dead, right after you counsel them to just say no to drugs.
“It really is that important,” he
emphasized encouraged implored said.
Tweet the message far, tweet it wide.