Delete bookisms in your story’s dialogue

Ever notice when reading a story that sometimes an odd word appears when “said” would do? For example, “Well, I’ve never!” she blustered.

If so, you’ve just come across a bookism. A term coined by science fiction writer James Patrick Kelly, a bookism is a long word that means “said.”

Usually writers use a bookism to convey information that is not directly stated in dialogue or description. For example, in “That could be the case,” he admitted, the fill-in for “said” – admitted – is intended to connote that the speaker acknowledges that there’s some truth to a position or explanation that apparently the previous speaker gave.

Rather than tell readers how they should interpret a certain statement, writers almost are always better off to infer it. That may mean rewriting the dialogue or description.

In many cases, the writer already has inferred it. For example, in the previous paragraph’s bookism, the speaker’s statement implies that he acknowledges there’s some truth to a position or explanation with which he disagrees. There’s no need to emphasize it.

Another reason not to use bookisms is that really poor ones sometimes can result in an unintentional Tom Swifty, such as “It’s a unit of electric current,” Tom amplified.

Don’t worry about overusing “said,” a common reason authors like to use bookisms. “Said” is a nearly invisible word for most readers. In addition, during long exchanges of dialogue between two characters, attribution usually isn’t needed for every line they speak, so many potential uses of “said” are deleted.