In learning, certain things have value don’t they? Maths is full of them. 3.14 for example – That’s the value of pi. I know that one.
But when we look at English, how do we value words? Are there some words and phrases that are intrinsically more useful than others? What for example is the value of the word ‘said’ in writing? If my son’s primary school teachers are to be believed there isn’t any. It may be one of the top 100 words used in the English language but its value in writing is negated greatly when it comes time to teach good writing techniques. That goes for ‘happy’ and ‘nice’ as well – reasonable, useful words that have been relegated to a dark corner of childrens’ minds by the constant instructions to never, ever use them.
My son has been given a sheet of verbs to use instead of ‘said’. There is ‘exclaimed’. There is ‘announced’. There is ‘shouted’. There is even ‘riposted’. Lovely words, all of them. But, are they really so much better than good old ‘said’?
A few years ago my lower set GCSE students were struggling through creative writing and, as a result, I was struggling through a mire of ridiculous metaphors and multi-syllable verbs and adjectives. The output was dire so I looked for help in the form of creative writing coursebooks. What was I missing that was making their writing so awful? One textbook I used a lot was edited by two professors from the famed Creative Writing program at the University of East Anglia. They’d complied the wisdom of authors, agents and editors into a concise guide to writing.
It was while reading through this that I noticed a gem. It was one of those eureka moments. It reflected how my writing was different from that of my students but was something I’d just never thought to consider.
The paragraph goes like this:
‘You can’t grin, smile, laugh, or grimace words. Your characters can – if they must – gush, sigh, sing, sob, splutter and yell them. It’s also okay to use a comma before exclaim, plead, beg, whine, retort, demand, etc. Remember too, that anything more than he said/she said, with an occasional she told him, he replied, is irritating and distracting for the reader, so restrict yourself to a judicious sprinkling of the rest.’ The underline is my own.
And there it was – the simple truth I’d been missing. My students’ work was stilted because it was unnatural. It was more than liberally salted with ‘proclaimed’ and ‘prevaricated’ and ‘pleaded’. It was writing sirloin drowning in a salty synonym sauce.
Think about it. When we sit in a coffee shop and discuss a conversation with friends we don’t talk about how our arch enemy ‘cackled’ at us or how we ‘exclaimed’ to them. We say ‘she said’ and ‘then I said’ with the occasional ‘she shouted’ if things got really out of hand. This is the way we communicate normally and this is the way our creative writing should look too.
The ‘gushing’, ‘spluttering’ ‘whisperings’ should be the seasoning on top – not the main course.
I can understand why we teach students alternatives. When we first start writing our prose is boring and lacklustre. It needs the pep of a ‘muttered’ or ‘shrieked’. But at some point we need to put on the brakes with students (or put down the salt pot) and suggest (if we dare) that good ole ‘said’ and ‘happy’ and ‘nice’ are useful words in writing too.
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