Don’t Do This! Pt 2 – The Single Worst Line I’ve Read in a Published Book This Year

I love the modern style of writing. In it, the prose is supposed to get out of the way and let the characters and story shine. Gone is trying to create a unique voice or poetry with your words. Instead, the goal is to be clear and concise and to tell your story.

My Ninth Law of Writing puts this concept succinctly, “Every word counts.”

It’s my dedication to the principle above that makes the use of unnecessary speech tags so annoying. I’ve stated this dozens of times — the only reason for a speech tag is to tell the reader who is speaking. If the information is conveyed already, get rid of the speech tag.

The most frequent violation of this edict that I see is a writer having a character act and speak in a paragraph and including a speech tag in that same paragraph. I noticed Sanderson doing this very thing in A Memory of Light. You’d think he’d know better.

The reader understands that the person acting and the person speaking in a paragraph are the same person.

Two important takeaways from the concept above:

1. A speech tag is not needed.
2. You must change paragraphs if you have a character act other than the speaker.

With that common mistake out of the way, I read a line in a published (traditional, not self) novel that was so horrid it inspired me to do a post.

This line is the single worst bit of writing I’ve seen in a published novel this year:

“It’s Joren, Your Highness,” Joren said.

Really?

If the author would have written, “It’s Joren, Your Highness,” Chuck said” that would have made sense. As it is, we know Joren is speaking because he says, “It’s Joren.” We know he said it because of the quotation marks. Putting the speech tags is sign of a writer who is paying absolutely no attention to his words.

Don’t do that!

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8 thoughts on “Don’t Do This! Pt 2 – The Single Worst Line I’ve Read in a Published Book This Year

  1. This made me laugh – and I totally agree with you about the speech tags. I teach writers how to read their work out loud and this is where an excess of speech tags really are dumb.

  2. It’s funny…we all know not to do this yet (I at least) find myself doing it anyway. It always gives me a good chuckle when I go back and edit. Sometimes I think I should create a “bloopers” file for my writing for comic relief.

  3. I wonder how often we notice speech tags when we are reading? I have been working on developing better dialogue for my characters. I worry about them sounding the same or not showing their personality. What are your feelings about placing the work in a specific time frame with slang or language that is anachronistic or even too time specific? One of the things that I remember reading from Beverly Cleary’s discussion about writing is that she tries not to make it time specific, so it can apply to more than one generation. I think her concern was regarding different technologies more than language.

    • The argument for using “said” is that it is not noticeable, that it blends into the text, so I don’t think readers see it all that often. To me, however, that doesn’t excuse an author from writing the best he can.

      As to the question about slang, it really depends on your audience. Slang is difficult to get right, and it does date the book. On the other hand, if you’re trying to sale to YA, you need the dialogue to sound like YA.

  4. Hahaha! This is so true! I actually took a Creative Writing class from Brandon Sanderson about a year ago, and this was one of the main things he mentioned in my personal critique! I would put a speech tag right next to a character beat that made it obvious who was speaking.

    I haven’t read “A Memory of Light,” but it’s funny that he does the same thing there. At least he’s aware that it’s a problem and can see it in other people’s writing. =)

    • That is hilarious.

      I haven’t read anything of his except A Memory of Light since becoming aware of this issue. I’d be interested to see if he does it in his other works.

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