When Quoting Someone, Just Say ‘Said’
If a quote is worth quoting, let it be said. Not noted or related or murmured.
The word said is the vocabulary equivalent a properly sized, well-balanced hammer, essential to the writer’s toolbox. Sure, you’ll need screwdrivers and wrenches, but if you don’t have a good hammer, you can’t construct a house. If quotes are the nails that hold a story together, said is the underrated hammer that efficiently and effectively drives them home.
Use said liberally, pretty much whenever someone says something useful and relevant to your writing—especially non-fiction and especially journalism—and definitely whenever there could be an iota of doubt whether a fact or comment came from an actual person or was pulled out of thin air.
A slew of substitutes will not improve your story. Rather, they will render it amateurish, putting the focus on the writing and distracting from what was said.
When something is said, it need not be noted or related or declared, and especially not murmured.
And please, never ever ever write said with a laugh or said convincingly or mentioned offhandedly or any such hoo-hah. Editors just have to take that crap out, and editors are busy people with tired fingers and families to go home to.
Also be very careful with thinks. Joe might say one thing, yet think another. Thinks is not off-limits for attributing, but it comes with great risk and responsibility, and said is so darn safe and easy. Keep that thought in mind when you’re potentially putting thoughts into someone else’s head. I’m just sayin’.
Just as a carpenter doesn’t need a dozen hammers, a writer needs no thesaurus for said. In short, said is one of the greatest verbs ever invented. It has no equal.
But, But, But!
Some of you are jumping up and down and screaming at me by now, so let’s turn to the exceptions. There are too many to count, but here are seven of the most common and useful ones — none of which should be taken as a license to give up on said. Below the list, I’ll get into some variations to consider when you obtain the quotes yourself, via phone or email, versus quoting from a statement or other source.
If your story is published more than a millisecond after someone says something, it’s in the past. It’s said. However, says can be used in specific instances to indicate a source’s long-held or general stance.
The president says he didn’t do it.
Some editors won’t allow says ever, given its tense issue. Some don’t mind it. Some magazine editors may prefer it. Copy desks have tense discussions over it. But for most writers, says is a specialty tool, something to pull out for a specific task. If you use it, do so consciously — know why you’re changing tenses, and tread carefully. Approximately zero people will ever care if you never say says.
Can be effective when the person is truly explaining something, versus blandly stating facts or giving an opinion. Use it infrequently, and only when deserved. Readers may not wish to be explained to too often.
Perfect for citing a passage (direct quote or paraphrase) from an article or a book, especially if it was written by multiple people (often the case with journal articles). Examples:
“We’re 100 percent certain we’ve discovered life on another planet,” the researchers wrote in the journal Science.
“Flying is freeing, like nothing else in the human experience,” Willford wrote in his book, Why Fly (Air Press, 2019).
(And if you’re a says writer, you should be a writes writer, too.)
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