Writing smells – Said Bookism and the Passive


I wrote a post about writing smells before, and mentioned there were many more. Having foreshadowed that, I have to deliver, of course. So, below are two more writing smells: the Said Bookism and the Passive.

Said bookism

As writers, we are trained not to use the same word too many times. I even told you about the ‘duplication’ smell in my other post. However, there is an exception: dialog tags. You should not start replacing ‘to say’ by other things every other sentence, or your story will suffer for it.

An example

Hi,” Roger greeted Beth.

Long time no see!” Beth exclaimed.

Yes, too long,” Roger whispered.

Beth sighed, then remarked, “Let’s not let that happen again.”

I think you get the idea. Using dialog tags other than ‘to say’ is not wrong, but like spices in food, you shouldn’t overdo it.

Resolving it

Resolving this one is easy. Use ‘to say’ instead of all those synonyms, or just leave the speech tag out entirely. The example:

Hi,” Roger said.

Long time no see!” Beth replied.

Yes, too long.”

Beth sighed. “Let’s not let that happen again.”

I replaced the ‘greeted’ by ‘said’, ‘exclaimed’ by ‘replied’. The ‘whispered’ and ‘remarked’ are just gone; it’s clear who is talking, and it makes the writing tighter.

The Passive

Active sentences are sentences where the order is <subject> <verb> <object>. If you switch the subject and object, then you are using the passive.

The problem with passive sentences, is that they are less direct, distancing the reader from the story. It gives off a feeling of being told what is happening, instead of being shown. You want to avoid this in your writing. I think this slips into our writing so easily because we are visualising what we write in a certain way. We then automatically use what jumps out at us as the subject, even if that leads to a passive sentence.

An example

John was slapped by Bill.

John was thrown to the ground.

Resolving it

This is quite straightforward: rewrite the sentence so the active party is the subject. In the case of the examples:

Bill slapped John

The blow threw John to the ground.

Note that I actually had to do add a subject in the second sentence. This means that I’ve also done more showing than telling, which is another improvement.


There you have it, another couple of writing smells. More will follow.

Happy writing.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy author/blogger from the Netherlands