Is there any other word more overused than said? Probably not. But it still is, of course, an important word.
Readers don’t comprehend the word ‘said’. This is because it’s essentially an invisible word that their mind skips over while they read. As a result, the reader’s attention is absorbed back into the action, plot, or actual dialogue of the story- all very important aspects. But ‘said’ can be the bane of a writer’s existence because sometimes the way a word is spoken is just as important as what they say. It can really make the difference in the mood of even the most simple scene. Take the humble, “I’m sorry” scene, for example:
“I’m sorry,” he sighed.
“I’m sorry,” he lamented.
“I’m sorry,” he hissed.
All examples produce very different meanings, and all are far more telling than ‘said’. Each descriptor offers information to the reader on how the character is feeling and thinking. They also show exactly how the character reacts to their environment and how they might interact with other characters and situations around them in the future. Descriptors build the personality and habits of the characters allowing readers to become familiarised with them and even identify with them.
While descriptors are useful, it is important not to overuse them and to remember that ‘said’ still has its place. It’s an important filler word for when the reader’s focus must be directed elsewhere- such as on the action of the story, or when dialogue is being used to provide a history of people and places, or world building information.
It’s also important to remember that replacing ‘said’ with descriptors isn’t the only way of changing up your dialogue! There is, of course, the old adage ‘show don’t tell’ (but more on that another time!).