Editing Tip #38

Variety is the Spice of Life ~

Gold Tattoo 1One of the simplest pieces of advice for new and emerging authors to recognize is not to use overly descriptive attribution words – just say “said.”

e.g. “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Margaret intoned said.

Sometimes it’s easy to take this advice too far into other contexts of our writing. As a writer of science fiction and fantasy I find myself needing to explain an element of alien or other-worldly appearance that is the same but different for the races of my worlds. For example, for humans we can simply refer to someone as having black hair or as being blonde. We know and understand the concept of “hair” without needing to be told: The thin stands of feather-like tendrils that flow from our heads to various lengths.

But what about a foreign concept? or even something as recognizable as the same tattoo on a bunch of people that is slightly different for each one? It would make sense to describe this new or odd feature in a simple and easy-to-remember way – and repeat it whenever it’s mentioned so as not to confuse the reader but solidify the idea in their mind, right?

Gold Tattoo 2Not necessarily.

Just like we don’t say “said” all the time (there’s yelled, called, screamed, whispered, cringed…) to be able to get across the right mood or idea, the same is true for description of tactile details. Yes, keep it simple but change up the description enough so that it doesn’t become repetitive. One of the reasons we use “said” so frequently is to make it disappear and allow our brains to gloss over it and not interrupt the flow of the story. When it comes to distinguishing traits, you don’t want them to dissolve and become meaningless – they’re important distinguishing features after all. It’s a delicate balance where you give the reader the right clues to create a mental image but not under or overwhelm them.

And so it seems that this tight-rope act continues as we’re raised to higher levels with each new performance (and edit!).

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Categories: Editing

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2 replies

  1. Brilliant tip. I hear all the time that you should only ever use ‘said’, but sometimes you just need to use something else, and when you do it really does stand out and make more of an impact 🙂


    • Agreed. We’re not all Hemingway. I think books would be boring if they were all written as stripped-down versions of themselves. It’s an art, don’t get me wrong but sometimes we can make the right impact with the right word or phrasing at the right time.


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