In praise of the simple word "said"
As I discussed in my last post, inexperienced writers, told that repetition is A BAD THING, believe that when you're quoting several people in an article, you need to avoid repeating the word “said”. In my experience, this style quirk is a particularly common feature of company newsletters put together by comms professionals rather than journalists. Typical examples might be:
“We’re going to be the top investment bank by the end of the year,” she maintained.
“The firm has opened a new branch in Italy,” he explained.
“The company’s profits have grown by 10% this year,” she commented.
“We’ll be introducing the new product next year,” argues Jenny Smith, Head of Sales.
“We’re expanding rapidly in emerging markets,” she admitted.
“The sky is blue,” he revealed.
Can you see what’s wrong here?
When writers replace “said” with something else, they’re making four false (and related) assumptions:
1. Repetition is always a bad thing
It’s not necessarily the case that repetition is a bad thing – in fact, in the hands of a skilled writer repetition can make writing more persuasive. The repetition of “said” in an article that has several quotes in it simply makes your writing sound more professional.
2. All words involving oral expression are synonyms
Inexperienced writers think words such as “maintained”, “explained”, “argued”, “commented”, “admitted” and “revealed” are interchangeable synonyms. As the examples above show, clearly they’re not. A typical reader’s reactions to the quotes would be:
“We’re going to be the top investment bank by the end of the year,” she maintained. (Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that . . .)
“The firm has opened a new branch in Italy,” he explained. (Run that by me again, I don’t think I got your explanation the first time).
“We’ll be introducing the new product next year,” argues Jenny Smith, Head of Sales. (Hey, I wasn’t disagreeing with you!)
“The company’s profits have grown by 10% this year,” she commented. (She’s known for her insightful critiques, you know).
“We’re expanding rapidly in emerging markets,” she admitted. (But the reporter had to drag that piece of highly controversial information out of you, didn’t he?)
“The sky is blue,” he revealed. (Gosh, I’d never noticed!)
3. “Said” is a boring word
Inept writers believe that by replacing the simple “said” with something more colourful they’re injecting their writing with drama that will keep the reader reading.
On the contrary. The non-synonyms in the above quotes may, indeed, scream for attention, but they distract the reader from what the speaker actually said, negating the whole point of quoting them in the first place.
Think of “said” as framing the quote – a conventional way of presenting the words that were spoken but less important than the words themselves. Trust me, readers barely notice it.
Replacing “said” with anything fancier is like sticking a painting in a garish frame that detracts the eye from the picture itself.
4. Bland non-quotes will do
I think one reason inexperienced writers tend to replace “said” with something fancier is that more often than not the quote is dull, dull, dull.
The reason it's dull? Usually because no-one's actually spoken to the quotee. Rather, the quote's been written for them by someone who's on-message, on-strategy and on-brand.
And it's being included in the article or press release for no other purpose than to stroke the quotee's ego or to raise their profile.
The fancy non-synonym is therefore called upon to spice things up a bit or make the speaker sound more impressive than they are.
A quote should capture something of the person's voice, their unique way of expressing things (assuming, that is, that they're not a corporate robot too terrified to be themselves).
Trying to convince your reader that your quotee's words are a comment or argument when they're not won't make the individual sound any more convincing.
So if their quote doesn't add something of value, leave it out.
Or, better still, get on the phone and actually speak to the person whose opinion is clearly so important.