Writing Lesson: Teaching old Dogs New Tricks


I’ve been writing since about 2000. (That’s 15 years!) I host a monthly writing group, a monthly writing class, and do beta and alpha reads for other authors. I know a lot of writing rules and tricks. I can even judge when to break them most of the time. Why? I have experience. Been there, done that, learned to do better. But, a little over a year ago, I changed what I write and have had to learn some new rules.

Writing for children is different than writing for adults. In some ways, it’s easier. I feel released because there are things I can skip and not worry about explaining. But, in some ways, it’s much harder because it’s new to me. I’m the new kid on the block. šŸ˜‰

One of the writing rules I teach my class is repetitive words. Never be accidentally repetitive. You can be repetitive on purpose, but not on accident. When you repeat words beyond AND or THE it catches the readers eye and draws them out of the book. It makes them stop flowing in their reading and start reading every word specifically. Now they are doing a vocabulary study, not reading your story.

There is one exception to this word. The word ‘said’. You can repeat ‘said’ as many times as you like. Over and over. Sentence after sentence. Why? Because the human mind stops reading it. They read the dialogue and then the name of the speaker never once reading the word said. This is in fact why writers are encouraged to not use other words like asked, exclaimed, and growled to describe a character talking. When they use a more descriptive word it breaks the flow of reading. The reader has to stop the flow of the words in their mind and make sure they read the dialogue correctly.

Did I read that line with a growl?

Did I understand that the character was exclaiming?

In the best-case scenario, the reader should be able to tell by your word choice and vocabulary the emotion of the situation without saying anything beyond ‘said’.

This is a rule I have honored, taught, and experienced. I have stood by this rule for years.

Then my younger brother broke it for me.

My younger brother is married and has two of the cutest little girls in the world. He works for Halliburton and has spent time all over the world on oilrigs. I don’t get to see him very often, so we started a Christmas tradition of going shopping together before the holidays. He gets gifts for the girls and his lovely wife and I finish up everything I haven’t gotten done yet. Between stops, we talk about what we haven’t covered via text or email, and some things we have but we wish to rehash. We talk about books, movies, philosophy, Tolkien, vampires, my writing, his girls, and just life in general. It is one of the many things I love about the Christmas season.

This year, as we drove from Target to World Market, we talked about my Texas Cousins Adventure stories. They are very popular with my nieces and nephews and I hope to get them published some day. My brother told me how much he enjoyed them but wanted to offer one word of critique: the word ‘said’ is used too much.


You can’t use ‘said’ too much!!

It’s a rule!

But wait . . .

Children’s stories are not the same as novels. They are short and meant to be read aloud by parents to little people who can’t read yet. Eureka! Lightbulb!

They are meant to be read aloud.

Few of us read novels aloud. We read them silently in our heads. But a children’s story is meant to be gathered around and enjoyed by several little people while someone reads each word. Why yes! In that case, you would never want to repeat the word said because it would get old and annoying. In a novel, your mind and eye skip it. But when you’re reading it aloud, you’re reading it over and over and over and over and over.

Oh my.


In that one little moment, I realized that I need to look at Texas CousinsĀ Adventure storiesĀ as something read verbally and heard with the ears. I need to read it aloud before sharing it so that I can make sure it works well with the human mouth and not just the human eyes. I need to used words like exclaimed, asked, growled, grunted, and any other fun descriptive word I can come up with for the way someone talks.

I was thankful for his honest and gentle critique. It’s important as a writer to have friends who are willing to tell you where you’re going wrong. It’s tough to take, but worth it.

Now, on to better writing!

(Our current debate is about genres. Are they good, bad, a necessary evil? We’re still discussing it over text and emails, so I’ll keep you posted. Also, I’m listening to some audio books to see how they handle this situation. Do they skip said if they’re doing distinct voices or do they say it and we start to ignore it? Thoughts?)

Me and my younger brother!

Me and my younger brother!

5 thoughts on “Writing Lesson: Teaching old Dogs New Tricks

  1. I find that I repeat said with the kids a lot too.

    “I said to stop doing that!”

    “I said yes.”

    “I said no.”

    “I said go ask your mom.”

    “I said I was busy.”

    “I said go to bed.”

    See it does work in children’s fiction.

  2. Fascinating! I’d never heard that side of the debate with the word, “said” but that completely makes sense. I’ve experienced the have-to-reread-dialogue phenomenon a lot when reading. I find I like it a lot better when it comes prior to the dialogue so I can be prepared for the correct inflection. What you said about the dialogue itself defining how it should be read has got me thinking–I always thought adverbs were the problem in weak dialogue but now I see that switching it out for a verb doesn’t nexessarily solve the problem. If the dialogue tone isn’t clear on its own, more description is needed. (Blushing, clenching his fist, rolling her eyes.)

    The difference between oral-based storytelling and written-based storytelling is fascinating too. I know that John R. Erickson draws predominately from oral tradition when he writes Hank the Cowdog books and reads everything aloud before publishing.

    • Yes. I think it is very important to know whether you intended your story to be oral or read. If oral, than you must mix up said with other indicators. If not, try to limit yourself to said and let the dialogue and action do the talking.
      Seeing how people read and tell stories is a fascinating study!
      Thanks as always for reading and commenting!

  3. Very good difference to be aware of! I’ve never thought about how the transmission of a story may change the way you would present it. I think I’ve always intended and hoped that my stories would be read aloud, and I try to read it out loud to an extent.

    Personally, I don’t find ‘said’ invisible. But I think I can be hypersensitive to repetitive words. I try to leave tags off as much as possible and interject a beat of action that shows who spoke. I think an occasional word besides said should be acceptable in general.

    Good article!

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