Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Won’t somebody please think of the children?

with 8 comments

Victorian classroom

There aren’t many universal rules in writing, but here’s one that comes as close as any other: in the vast majority of cases, dialogue is best indicated with a simple “he said” or “she said.” Any attempt to change it up with forced synonyms (“exclaimed,” “opined,” “interjected”) will only distract the reader, and to most editors, it’s the sign of an amateur. In my own work, I take this to an almost comical extreme: I only use “said” or “asked,” with an occasional appearance from “replied,” and when I can, I try to avoid using them at all. Maybe I’m thinking of the tale, possibly apocryphal but probably not, of the editor who received a submission in which every single line of dialogue used a different tag—and even if this is an exaggeration, it isn’t too far from the truth. The other day, I was reading through a nonfiction book on psychology, released by a major publishing house, and over the course of just a few pages, I encountered the following, culled here at random:  “observed,” “added,” “ventured,” “directed,” “moaned,” “sobbed,” “protested,” “insisted,” “clarified,” “roared,” “bellowed,” “challenged,” “sputtered,” “accused,” “screamed.” And don’t even get me started on the adverbs.

When I told my wife about this, reading aloud a few choice examples to illustrate, she told me that in grade school, she’d been given exactly the opposite advice: the teacher had written up an entire chart of alternative dialogue tags, telling students that these synonyms for “said” would help make their writing more vivid, and had even assigned homework in which you were supposed to replace “said” in every sentence with a more colorful cousin. I don’t remember being given that particular exercise, but I don’t doubt for a second that it exists, and that it’s still being given to this day. Half the process of becoming a good writer consists in realizing that adverbs aren’t your friends, adjectives should be used sparingly, and a big vocabulary can be as much an obstacle as an asset—in short, forgetting just about everything you learned in elementary school composition, with an assist from The Elements of Style. Hearing this, my wife said that our daughter will run into trouble when she gets this assignment, which she’ll fail because I’ll tell her to use nothing but “said.” “If she’s really smart,” I replied, “she’ll do it just that one time, get the A, and move on.”

Among schoolchildren

The more I thought about it, though, the more I was struck by how badly we teach writing to kids, and how much essential information we omit at the expense of pointless exercises, even when it wouldn’t be any harder to teach something useful. To take a simple example: ensuring that the lead character in a story has a clear objective and attempts to address it in logical ways isn’t any harder to teach than the idea that every essay should have a thesis statement, supporting evidence, and conclusion—which isn’t to say that it’s easy. In practice, you’ll end up with a lot of stories in which the objective is as clumsily introduced as in those stereotyped essays we’ve all produced in grade school: topic sentence, three sentences of factual support, and a concluding sentence that restates the thesis, repeated five times until the end of the page. It’s a dumb, mechanical way of teaching expository writing, but eventually, you’ll end up learning how to structure a paragraph. Writing fiction works much the same way, and I’d much rather have aspiring writers learn such rules at a time when it could actually inform their most creative years, rather than haphazardly relearning it as adults.

Or, on an even more basic level, take the fact that writing is cutting. I don’t think I ever had a teacher explain the importance of revising our work for length, which is the heart of good writing: we were too busy being told to write at least a thousand words on the causes of Shay’s Rebellion. The rule to cut ten percent from everything we write should be a teacher’s dream—it’s simple, effective, and easily quantified. So why isn’t it something students are taught? Maybe because it’s hard enough to get some kids to write a complete sentence, but I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason. I just finished judging entries for the annual scary story contest held by the Chicago Sun-Times, and as I read through several hundred stories, I was struck above all by their energy: it’s bursting from the page in the stories told by third, fourth, and fifth graders. It’s a fragile energy, of course, and there’s always the danger that it will be stifled by a textbook’s worth of dos and don’ts. But since we’re going to feed them a set of rules anyway, I don’t see why we can’t adjust it, at the proper time, to give them the tools they’ll need to write fiction more seriously. Because the only way these lessons will ever stick is if they can write stories that other people will want to read—and once they’ve gotten a taste of it, they’ll figure out the rest on their own.

Written by nevalalee

October 28, 2013 at 9:00 am

Posted in Writing

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8 Responses

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  1. Central to my teaching when it came to writing was economy and effectiveness. I taught how to spot pleonism and tautology and how to eliminate unnecessary words. It was always a good laugh too. It all stems from these very simple things.

  2. Agreed—I think a few simple rules get you halfway there.


    October 28, 2013 at 10:00 am

  3. Good blog. Agree with you on The Elements of Style, too. It’s a bible.


    October 28, 2013 at 10:55 am

  4. Absolutely—I try to read it again at least once a year.


    October 28, 2013 at 11:29 am

  5. “You’ve made an excellent point”, she scribbled, with a flourish.


    October 28, 2013 at 9:42 pm

  6. Mostly good points, though every rule comes with an exception, even dialogue tags. The only thing I disagree with is the notion of *always* cutting ten-percent of a story. Most of my evolution as a writer has been in putting flesh on the skeletons I thought were complete stories.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t work, just that it doesn’t work for everyone.

    Amy Keeley

    October 29, 2013 at 9:58 pm

  7. That’s a fair point, and it’s one that I’ve heard from other writers before. I still think, though, that after the skeleton has acquired its flesh, and the result looks like a complete story, then it might be time to see if you can cut that ten percent, especially after you’ve had a chance to set it aside for a few days.


    October 30, 2013 at 8:50 am

  8. As one who slaps words together, this is how I’d teach a child to write: The first thing I’d do is remember to be mindful that children are not idiots. From there, disconnect the child from any gizmos and disentangle from structured activities and for Christ’s sake let the kid go off and daydream and bump into new people all by his or her self without any structured thoughts tagging along. Then, I’d say, Now go write a story. Afterwards, I suppose, give the child a copy of The Elements of Style, suggest a book or two worth reading to go along with the junk the child probably likes to read (after a while the child will learn to discern the difference) and, as the kid gets older, advise the kid to, if it can be helped (and yes, it can be helped) not spend all his or her time with writers.


    October 31, 2013 at 7:17 pm

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