Nobody wants to sound like a broken record. In addition, nobody wants to sound like a broken record.

Wait. What?

Okay, two quick questions:

  • Do you own a thesaurus?
  • Have you ever replaced a common word you’ve repeated in your writing with a fancier, lesser-known one?

Here are my answers. Yes, and yes, of course! In fact, the first draft of the second list item above almost started with “Have you ever scrutinized a common word…” Ugh!

As we develop our writing voice, many of us go through a phase where we try to replace quotidian (common) words for ones that are more sophisticated (less common). We want our work to have precision, don’t we? So why would somebody complain when they could caterwaul? Is a situation propitious, or is it simply good?

I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs.

Stephen King, On Writing

Sometimes, a ten-dollar word can spice up your writing. These words are perfectly cromulent, after all. However, you’re making a trade-off. You can drag a reader out of the moment if they have to stop to look up a word, or if the word sticks out like something you’ve–oh, I don’t know–just looked up in a thesaurus.

Take dialogue, for example. In a heated conversation, characters are going to speak with emotion. They’re going to growl, they’ll yell, they might huff and puff, and they might mutter under their breath. Does that mean that they graduate out of simply saying what they’re saying?

In other words, should you bring out the thesaurus and eliminate “he said,” “she said,” “they said,” and the like?

A little goes a long way

The most important thing to keep in mind is that you need to tell your story in the way it needs to be told. If somebody exclaims something important, or if one character protests instead of simply saying something, that’s okay!

Consider your adverb. Does what your character says already imply the way the words are said? If so, maybe you don’t need to tell the reader what’s happening. Maybe your words already show them.

A long back-and-forth discussion between two characters with no movement or other stage direction can be a dry affair for the reader. While it’s possible to imagine what’s going on, try to read this terrible text with a straight face.

"I didn't," he proclaimed.
"Yes, you did," she retorted.
"No, I didn't," he groaned.
"Yes, you did," she spat.
"Oh, wait! You're right," he confessed.

Ugh, again. The adverbs certainly show some action, but it’s awful to read. What happens if we let ourselves keep a single one, and either toss the rest or replace with said?

"I didn't," he said.
"Yes, you did," she retorted.
"No, I didn't."
"Yes, you did!"
"Oh, wait," he said. "You're right."

Not going to win any Pulitzer prizes, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Unless you’re building a writer’s voice around adverbs, consider using them sparingly to add flavour. Try not to overdo it.

Oh, and try to choose your adverbs appropriately.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Oh no.

Common words can be invisible

When a word is commonly used, a reader won’t focus on it as they would with a less common one.

Consider the example from above. Let’s simplify it further.

"I didn't," he said.
"Yes, you did," she said.
"No, I didn't."
"Yes, you did!"
"Oh, wait. You're right."

Again, the writing isn’t going to win a prize, but you can probably see what’s going on here.

When the attribution is obvious and the action is clear, your use of “said” will disappear into the rest. Let’s add some direction to our two characters.

"I didn't," he said.
She frowned at him. "Yes, you did."
"No, I didn't."
"Yes, you did!"
He opened his mouth, as if to speak, and then paused. "Oh, wait. You're right."

We’re down to one use of “said” and zero adverbs. I’d also bet that “said” is the least visible piece of that text.

You can generally get away with using “said” in place of something fancier, even if you have to repeat yourself. People will focus on what the characters are saying and doing, glossing right over a common word that becomes invisible.