Community Columns

A central rule of writing: Just say it

I got some feedback on Somerset Maugham’s three rules of writing, leading me to believe there are more of you out there staring (glaring?) at screens than I would have guessed. Maugham was encouraging in a funny little way, but not a whole lot of help. I’m sure there are many fine how-to books out on the market, but everyone seems to mention two before any others: Strunk and White’s “The Elements of Style” and Oxford’s “Fowler’s Modern English Usage.” It would be presumptuous of me to critique them in any way — they speak clearly enough for themselves — and you all probably have copies of them anyway.

But how about adding The Oxford English Dictionary to your library? Not the two-volume. Not the Concise or the Shorter. Not the CD version. No, the original case-bound books! All 15 volumes! All seven cubic feet! All 150 pounds worth! Just so you could look at it and say, “Yeah, I have that.” And it would sit next to you in your writing room like a big dog, panting happily, woofing out any conceivable word you would ever need. Of course, you might have to buy a bigger house.

I recently came across a book that might be easier to deal with — Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules of Writing.” One of those rules immediately jumped out at me: “Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” Now, I’ve always liked Leonard and one of the gifts I admire is his ability to write believable, down-to-earth dialogue. I dug out my copy of “Pagan Babies” to see whether he followed his own rule. I began to read, checking for “said,” and a rather remarkable thing happened. In seconds I was reading the dialogue, caught up in it, wanting to see what was said next, and totally forgetting to look for the “saids.” It was strange, forgetting to do what I had set out to do, but it nailed down Leonard’s approach. He never departed from “said” and, because of that, I was never distracted. I thought it was masterful that such a seemingly small thing could have such an impact.

Who else does this, I wondered. I’m about a third of the way through “Olive Kitteridge,” Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of short stories. I went back over the five I’d read and guess what? Nothing but “saids.” I went to John Irving, a writer with a character in one of his novels who surely deserves a “he shouted,” a “he exclaimed” or a “he ranted.” But no: “â’I DON’T KNOW HOW I KNOW IT,’ said Owen Meany. ‘I JUST KNOW THAT I KNOW,’ he said.” Owen, if it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me.

So, sure, there are dozens of books out there supplying all kinds of tips and hints encouraging writers onward. But inexorably it comes down to filling in all those blanks before, after and in between the He saids and the She saids. Also known as “The Hard Part.”

Finally, a question Nora Joyce asked her husband, James: “Why don’t you write books people can read?” Now there’s a tip.

Mr. Case, of Southold, is retired from Oxford University Press and a former member of Southold Free Library’s board of trustees. He can be reached at [email protected]