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I am asking this from the point of a reader not a writer and just wondering why, so sorry if this is a bad place.

I read loads of books to my kids and the construct always seems to go:

"What a day," gleefully burbled Kate

With all of the information needed after the fact for reading out loud: who is speaking and the mood of the speech.

So why is that preferred over:

Kate gleefully burbled "what a day."


This example is chosen to show a quote which I would read in a gloomy voice to discover I was completely wrong after the fact.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Wendy. Please check out our tour and help center. I edited your post for punctuation and capitalization, as well as tags. I guessed on children. If middle-grade is a better choice, please change it (or tell us). – Cyn May 23 at 15:23
  • I wouldn't lead with 'What a day', especially if it was the opening of the scene. At least, not if it was supposed to be read as cheerful. Without context, I default to reading that as negative. ("What a day," Kate sighed forlornly.) Also, while I'd generally put the dialogue tag after the dialogue, I'd put the name before the dialogue tag ('Kate burbled gleefully'), but that might just indicate which side of the Atlantic I'm from. – Jedediah May 23 at 18:03
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Adding dialogue tags with adverbs is generally considered poor form and lazy writing because it removes the need for the writer to use dialogue, non-verbal cues, and action that properly conveys the emotion of the character. It is telling the reader how the character feels about what's being said rather than showing it.

So, if you remove the lazy dialogue tags from this example, and just go with said (which is generally preferable) putting the speech first and dialogue tag after is more common because it puts the emphasis on the speech instead of the tag:

'What a day,' said Kate.

As opposed to:

Kate said, 'What a day.'

But, an experienced writer will use the 'said' dialogue tag in different places to break up the rhythm of speech. Or, they'll use character actions to inform the reader who's speaking without the need for 'said'. Like this:

‘Hey, what’s wrong?’ He pulls me close. ‘It’s just a book. Don’t all your lovers buy you presents?’

‘No,’ I sniff. ‘My other lover’s useless, he never buys me anything.’

‘Hardly surprising,' he says, 'he’s been tied up in the trunk of my car for a fortnight.’

  • "and just go with said (which is generally preferable)" really I lost marks in school for using said and nice – WendyG May 23 at 16:10
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    @WendyG Really?? Clearly your teacher didn't know what they were talking about. Just do some Googling of "awful speech tags" and you'll find hundreds of articles on why it's bad. Read Louise Harnby, she's a highly respected fiction editor and explains it better in a lot more detail: louiseharnbyproofreader.com/blog/… – GGx May 23 at 16:52
  • So the stories I read where I do the voice for the wrong person (who I was expecting to be talking from the story flow) means that was bad writing because it should have been obv. for other reasons? – WendyG May 28 at 8:52
  • @WendyG Exactly. The speaker and emotion behind the speech should be obvious from all the elements in the scene. Writing is art when a hundred different tools and techniques are employed to create the perfect image in your head, the perfect flow across the words, the ability to hear the dialogue as if it’s actually taking place. And then, for all those tools and techniques to disappear from the page, and be invisible to the reader. – GGx May 28 at 9:04
  • Have you ever picked up a book and read it in one sitting, never bumping your nose against the page, completely forgetting you were reading? What reads like an easy book is an extremely difficult one to write. – GGx May 28 at 9:04
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Much of writing is about making your writing invisible and the reading effortless.

For example, many books are printed in a common font that people are used to (and therefore don't notice) and that facilitates easy reading.

In the same way, most writers of popular fiction employ a style and use words that people are used to and that they find easy to understand.

Part of this simple to read (but difficult to write) style is using conventional dialog markers:

"Said" is a convention so firmly established that readers for the most part do not even see it. This helps to make the dialogue realistic by keeping its superstructure invisible. – Sandra Newman & Mark Mittelmark, How to Not Write a Book


Now you might ask, but why should writing be largely invisible? Isn't it one of the most important rules of writing to paint a rich and fascinating world for your readers? No, the most important rule of writing is the exact opposite. That rule is: Don't stifle the imagination of your readers.

I'll use an example. Suppose you think a Ferrari is the best car out there, so you write a character who's obsessed with his Ferrari, and since you love Ferraris you think that your reader will identify with your character and share his experiences, thus making their reading experience immersive and satisfying.

But many readers think a Ferrari is either inferior to some other sports car or that sports cars in general are stupid. When they read your story they will find your character ridiculous and keep a distance to him. If you are lucky, that distance is ironic and they will enjoy the read in the same way that you might enjoy watching fails on YouTube. But very likely they will simply not engage with your story at all and stop reading it altogether.

For that reason, accomplished writers do a variant of this:

Dear reader, imagine the car that you have always dreamed of. The car that you would be proud to show to your neighbors, and that is a pleasure to ride. That was the car that George had. And like you would enjoy owning it, George enjoyed his car.

That is, you invite your reader to imagine your world to their liking.

Usually this is not done in such an explicit manner, but rather by leaving out irrelevant detail. If a man meets a beautiful woman, a good (popular fiction) writer doesn't describe her at all. The writer will only say that his protagonist thought her beautiful, and allow the reader to imagine the woman that they would find attractive.

In the same way, "said" allows the reader to imagine the details of the dialogue, making the reading more fun.

Say is the most neutral word to express that someone is speaking aloud. From the context of the narrative and from the content of the character's speech the reader will imagine the way that the person says what they say.

If you read of a character asking "But why didn't you...?", you'll immediately think of the incedulous tone of voice that we commonly employ when we say that phrase. When you write that "Bob asked [the above] incredulously", you are in fact telling the reader what they already know. And they might decide to imagine Bob's voice differently. Instead of being incredulous, Bob you speak with a tired voice, because it was not the first time that his partner did what they did, and Bob felt tired of them making the same mistake over and over again. If that's what your rider wants the story to be, let them! Because that is what makes reading fun – getting a framework that you can fill in to your liking. Reading is like painting by numbers, and if you present a finished painting, some readers may be fascinated by your skill, but many may not like what you have painted as much as they would like painting it themselves.

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