IWSG 32 – Writing Rules and Consequences

New IWSG BadgeThis post was written for the Insecure Writer’s Support Group where we share our encouragement or insecurities on the first Wednesday of the month, to join the group or find out more click here.


I wrote a book, and it was published last year about this time.

During the editing process I found out that my use of the Said or Asked Tagging Rule didn’t cut it for two reasons.

One: Following the rule made me lazy. I found that I avoided talking head syndrome by using descriptors ONLY when the conversation went on for more than a couple of sentences. Therefore, I missed opportunities of digging deeper.

Two: When following the said/asked tagging rule, I didn’t consider the overused word rule. And I was forced to address the problem when my editor got her hands on the manuscript. I could have avoided cleaning up the mess if I only thought about it.

As you know, the convention is to only use said or asked when tagging dialogue. It’s also okay to tag every third line when there are two speakers. Another alternative is to use stage direction or an emotional descriptor to show who the speaker is.

I learned this lesson well when I faced correcting my manuscript. A lesson I will not soon forget.

I’m sharing this because once I completed this particular revision, my work didn’t feel the same. I wanted my beta readers to take another look and help set things right again. Somehow the work reverted to unpolished. Not much of a problem with an editor to help—but still.

Honestly, I’m glad I’m aware of the rule. I just wish I had given it the thought it deserved before I implemented it so sloppily. Anything like this happen to you? Or as a beta reader, have you come across another rule that is not as straight forward as it seems? Please share. Once is enough for me.


69 responses to “IWSG 32 – Writing Rules and Consequences

  1. Sometimes I feel like I’m writing a play while trying to avoid using said/asked. He smiled. She sipped her tea. A lot of those on a page can be even more annoying than he said…she said. Don’t berate yourself because you “didn’t think about it” – that’s what drafts are for and it’s our cp/betas and editors have to show us what caught their attention.

  2. I struggle with that rule, also. Often, as the rule says, ‘said’ becomes invisible, glossed over by the reader. Still, I’d rather tag the dialogue with an action so I avoid overusing ‘said’.

  3. Nice tip. Not yet, have not had a professional edit yet, but is coming.
    Juneta @ Writer’s Gambit

  4. Timely post. I was actually thinking about this rule today while writing as I realized I was using dialogue tags other than said and asked. I think you make a good point that any rule needs to be thought through before it’s implemented.

  5. I think sometimes rules are both good and bad. The one you bring up today is definitely tricky. I don’t mind the use of said and ask. I think one thing it does do, is clarify who is speaking sometimes. I do like actions tagged with it though, because words are just words, but body language and gestures create emotion with the words, in my humble opinion.

  6. There’s nothing wrong with using more than said, just not too much. It does let us think deeper.

    The same can be said for eliminating every “was.” Do that to a manuscript and it will read a little awkward.

  7. This rule is simple – on the surface – but quite complex to use in truth. I think a better rule would be: all in moderation. Don’t overuse anything, even ‘said/asked’. But so far, nobody came up with this rule. 🙂

  8. Oh no, I said when I saw this rule on your page. Do you hate it as much as I do, I asked as I continued reading. And Yes, you do, I exclaimed and smiled.
    JQ Rose

  9. Sandra Ulbrich Almazan

    Something else that can be repeated often with “said” and “asked” are names. I have scenes where several female characters are all talking, so using “she” isn’t clear enough. It’s hard finding the right balance.

  10. I tend to think “writing rules” are less rules and more guideline-ish.

  11. Didn’t they say in “Pirates of the Caribbean” that the Pirates’ Code is more like a guideline? *grin* Happy writing.

  12. Many rules of writing are hard ones, especially when editing. I did some editing for a literary magazine years ago and I remember seeing some amazing stories that broke a lot of rules. NONE of them made it into the magazine but my vote was for all of them because they broke the rules but KNEW what they were doing! There was a reason behind it and I admired their reason and their art. I find myself searching for more descriptive words when I write dialogue. Now, if it’s a huge chunk of dialogue, I leave it alone and let the tone of voice dictate who’s speaking. Then, when I break it up with action, I go back to the old “said” routine.

    Happy New Year!

  13. Happy New Year and thank you for sharing this because I didn’t know it. I am in the process of completing my final draft so this is good to know.
    Wishing you an awesome 2017.
    Shalom aleichem,
    Pat Garcia

  14. In my writing and in my reading, I like dialogue to flow as naturally as possible, and I prefer being able to tell who is speaking without too many of those pesky tags. 🙂

  15. One of my favorite ways to avoid using ‘said’ is the action tag. I’ll make up an example here:

    “Oh my God.” Amy couldn’t believe this was happening. “Why today, of all days?”

    “I know.” Roy’s heart ached for her. “On the day of your dead dog’s birthday!”

    It shows who is speaking while also getting deeper into what the characters are feeling. I try to use said and asked sparingly.

  16. I try not to over use said if at all possible. Trying to find a balance of using action/emotional descriptions to help with the dialogue isn’t always easier, but it helps me feel like I’m being less robotic in my writing. Happy new year

  17. that’s why it’s so imperative that you listen to that inner voice, the one that says, “Oops, something’s not quite right.” Or more importantly the voice that says, “Wow, I wrote this!”

  18. I’m of the opinion most tags are a waste anyway. If you MUST draw attention to who is doing what, do it with action. Otherwise, try to write dialog in such a way that people are defined by their speech patterns. (Total hypocrite typing this, btw. Working on this one, but not there yet.)

  19. Balance is always key. Readers need to feel they are reading natural conversations no matter how different or fantastical the book might be. Flowery words can be used but if it feels too off balance readers will be turned off. Audience is essential so we have to write in a way that will attract the one that will stick around.

  20. Ah yes, those pesky dialogue tags. I’m trying to incorporate what Margie Lawson calls “dialogue cues,” little phrases that interpret how the line was delivered. An example: “I never want to hear his name again.” Her voice screeched like an angry macaw’s. Those are harder. My default is to use too many action beats/stage directions to clarify who’s saying what, but that can get tiresome and intrusive as well. Still, when a writing partner throws in too many synonyms to said and asked (expounded, inquired, reminded, expostulated), that’s really jarring. A tough balancing act indeed.

  21. There was a long period when I knew about the rules but didn’t really understand them. Oh well, that’s why we have to write a lot in order to learn.

  22. Anna,
    Writing is such a learning process, especially dialogue. I’m actually editing this scene I wrote years ago (for one of my novels that won’t die) and thinking if only I knew then what I know now, and what will I know years from now? Thanks for sharing this.

  23. I don’t write much dialogue so I wasn’t aware of this rule. I agree with what everyone is saying that moderation is key. Nothing bothers me more than seeing the same word repeated over and over again (without a good reason) within a small portion of text.

  24. It’s a good rule so that one avoids using descriptive tags that really shouldn’t be needed if the dialog and action carry the emotion. But, yeah, all rules need to be broken now and then. Also, most people gloss over tags anyway as long as they can tell who is speaking, so they don’t carry as much weight as the actual dialog. Happy 2017!

  25. I have the same issue – how many times can I write “he said/she said” until it becomes boringly repetitive? I try to resort to some identifying action to avoid this. But it’s an evolving process for me.

  26. That’s another one I try to find a balance with by trying to avoid overusing said/asked I try using other similar words.
    Happy 2017!

  27. Angela Wooldridge

    ‘s/he shrugged’ – that’s my overused one, I spot it all over the place in my writing ;(
    (Maybe my characters need to be more positive)

    • Hey, add an adverb then you’ll really rock the world. hehehe

      Seriously, I have a list that I refer to that keeps most of my overused words/phrases off the page. 🙂

  28. I love to write dialogue EXCEPT for this aspect of it! It’s so hard. That’s why sometimes I think I would be better trying to write scripts instead of novels LOL. It would be such a relief to be able to just write a name and then whatever line they have after it. 😀

  29. GREAT post! Rules do make us lazy. But the said/asked bit is one that’s hard to negotiate. Kudos for finding—or at least gaining the awareness to try to find 😉 —a balance.
    Guilie @ Life In Dogs

  30. I like to be anchored by a he said or she asked here and there. I do try to use action tags and somehow make it obvious, but even if as the writer get confused as to who’s speaking then I throw the said back in. Happy New Year, Anna!

  31. Pingback: Rules We Love | Megan Morgan

  32. Such a rule! The only reason to use dialogue tags is to make sure the reader knows who’s speaking. You don’t want the reader to have to stop and back up to find out. My first draft looks like a screenplay, mostly dialogue and action. Then I go back and fill in lengthier descriptions (esp. so I don’t have talking heads) and emotion.

  33. Actually, this is the first I’ve heard of that rule. Thanks for sharing, because now I’ll go back through my manuscript and save my editor a headache. Thanks for sharing what you’ve learned.

  34. Writing rules can be dangerous. And who makes these rules, anyway? That’s what I’d like to know.

  35. Just learned something new. Thankyou!

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