There is an excellent post on "saidisms" over at agent Nathan Bransford's blog today. Basically, a saidism is when you say some other word in a dialogue tag other than simply "said" or "asked." Read Nathan's post if you're not familiar with this topic, because you really should be. There have been excellent posts on this topic at all the other staples of the online writing community, too.
As is probably the case for most of you, this is an issue that I've been aware of for years, and I try to be conscious of it in my writing. But in my early drafts of a work, those darn saidisms just sneak back in there. Even into some of my later drafts, variants of the nasty "X said, Y-ing Z-ly" can survive more often than I'd like. Ditto for variants of "X said Y-ly."
When statements that follow one of the above patterns flow well in the work, I've generally figured they weren't a problem. And to your average reader, I'm sure they wouldn't be. The thing that dawned on me today, however, is the mindset of the average editor or agent reading their slush pile. This is something that Anne Mini discusses quite often, actually, but the full import has only just recently hit me: basically, these people read a lot of poorly written work. A lot of that work is riddled with spelling errors, comma splices, saidisms, cliche statements and plot elements, and a myriad of other problems.
Why is that such a problem for even those of us who don't have most of those problems, or at least don't have them very frequently? Because those readers are super tired of seeing those same problems crop up over and over again in submissions, and their opinion of a work immediately ratchets way down when they see one of these issues--no matter how "tastefully" it is used. It's how I feel when I see gross misuse of homophones: it takes a lot to impress me enough after that to think the writer isn't an idiot. That's not really fair of me, since misspellings happen when we're thinking ahead, and spell check doesn't find those, but that's my gut reaction.
What Anne Mini has been saying for some time is that agency screeners tend to feel this way about all technical or stylistic infractions. That's just something to think about.
I've made wonderful progress on my revisions today. I've made it up to the start of chapter 5, now, and added a net of about 200 words. No completely new content today, but that's all right. I expect to make it the rest of the way through this round of revisions tomorrow, and then I should be able to get some new content written on Thursday. I've been studying the writing in ENDER'S GAME and THE GOLDEN COMPASS as it relates to saidisms, dialogue/description/exposition mix, and early character development, and I've really learned a lot from those two works. I expect you would find the same if you really take the time to closely study a few works that are stylistically similar to your own.
It's interesting: in the opening two chapters of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, I only counted three of the saidism-style "issues" mentioned above. In ENDER'S GAME I only found one. That, too, is something to consider when thinking about saidisms. Professional writers really use such tactics a lot less frequently than some aspiring writers seem to think they do. Close study of succcessful published works really is important; if we just rely on our memories of these works, we tend to come out with a really skewed image of how they are constructed.