Via Paul Graham, a WSJ article on teaching kids to write by banning them from using certain “boring” words, such as “good” “bad”, “fun” and “said”.  To quote from the article:

“There are so many more sophisticated, rich words to use,” said (or affirmed) Ms. Shelton, whose manual “Banish Boring Words” has sold nearly 80,000 copies since 2009.

Her pupils know better than to use a boring word like “said.” As Ms. Shelton put it, “ ‘Said’ doesn’t have any emotion. You might use barked. Maybe howled. Demanded. Cackled. I have a list.”

This reminded me of novelist Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing, one of which was: “Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.”

And people wonder why kids have trouble learning to write.

So then, who is right: the teacher or the novelist? My answer: it depends.

There are times when using something other than “said” is appropriate.  This is especially true with humor–saying “burbled” is so much better than “said” if you want people to laugh.

That said, you can go too far with it.  And since Leonard’s goal was to make the writer “invisible”, I would say in that case sticking with “said” is usually a good idea.

My rule of thumb: if it sounds right, use it.  If “said” doesn’t sound right, but “called” does, use “called”.  But don’t spend your time trying to find some other bizarre word if “said” will do.

Take this exchange from my novella, The Start of the Majestic World:

Maynard and Brett sat outside on the steps that led into the headquarters.  Brett was studying schematics of a sniper rifle on his tablet.  Maynard stared straight ahead, deep in thought.

“I’ve received no communication of any kind from anybody at the Bureau,” muttered Brett. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“Yeah, it does;” said Maynard slowly. “This is a Dead Zone.  They are blocking any signal they don’t want getting in.”

Brett nodded.  “And most likely any they don’t want getting out, too.”

“Yes.”

“But D.C. would know it was being blocked.  Any decent Intel machine would—”

“They want it blocked,” she said. “They don’t want to know, and he doesn’t want to tell them.  It’s better for everyone that way.  I’ve seen it a million times—I’ve just never been on the wrong end of plausible deniability before.”

The two agents sat in silence for a minute.

“They have to be listening to us,” said Brett.

“Probably,” said Maynard. “But they don’t give a damn what we say.  They figure there’s nothing we can do.”

The first time Brett speaks, I used “muttered” to indicate he was still looking at the rifle schematic, and not thinking fully about talking.  When Maynard responds, it becomes “said” because now they are just having a conversation.  And I dropped “said” or any variants after that, and left it to the reader to follow.

Leonard had some other interesting rules.  I took particular note of these two:

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

As I wrote recently, I used to believe this too.  Then I wrote a collection of short stories that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

I thought there must be some other problem.  So I wrote a novella that contained very little description, and my readers complained that there wasn’t enough description.

Was Leonard just wrong? Seems unlikely–he was an award-winning novelist. I am guessing it’s more that once you are a really good writer, it doesn’t take much effort to describe someone or something.  It barely feels like you are doing anything when you know exactly what words to use.  There have been great authors (John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald) who could take things that were not very interesting in themselves, and write gorgeous descriptive passages about them.

One of the most common criticisms of my fiction has been that there is not enough description. I’ve heard this from both P.M. Prescott and Jonnah Z Kennedy, as well as other readers who don’t have websites I can link to.  It was not an accident that there is so little description.  I had a hypothesis that most fiction contains too much description, and that this was particularly a problem in horror fiction, when describing things detracts from the horror.

I think my aversion to description goes back to when I read the following in Paul Graham’s essay “Taste for Makers”:

Good design is suggestive. Jane Austen’s novels contain almost no description; instead of telling you how everything looks, she tells her story so well that you envision the scene for yourself.

That sounded good to me.  And hell, I thought,  it’s even more important to avoid description when you’re writing psychological horror than when you’re writing a comedy of manners.  Horror, I’ve always said, is all about the unknown, and nothing screws up the unknown like describing it.  So I made a conscious effort to not describe stuff; the idea being that people would fill in the details for themselves.

Based on the feedback I’ve received, this was a mistake.  Keeping description to a minimum was not a formula for success, at least not in my stories. Now, maybe there are other issues as well–maybe I didn’t tell the story well enough that readers could fill in the blanks.  But all  I know for sure is people specifically complained about the lack of description.

Fair enough.  So, how is it best to describe stuff?  Should I say:

The pale blue Autumn moon shone its faint light on the cemetery.  A passing cloud would now and again cast the ancient graveyard into darkness.  A howling of some distant animal echoed through the surrounding wood, and the bewitching southern wind wafted the leaves over the long-forgotten tombstones.

Or:

It was a dark cemetery.  The moon was occasionally obscured by clouds. It was windy, and a dog was howling far away.

The former is poetic, but it takes forever to convey a fairly simple scene.  The latter communicates the same information more quickly, but it seems boring and dry.

“Well, it depends what you’re writing!”, you say.  Ok, but in the above example, it’s the same basic point both times: to show the reader that we are in a graveyard at night.  And it’s creepy.  But what’s the best way of doing that?  Normally, one would think conveying that in as few words as possible is best.  And yet, writing: “They were in a graveyard at night” seems a little bare, doesn’t it?