Says Who?

keep-calm-and-do-what-simon-says-2At the missions organization where I work, we’re moving toward using “says” rather than “said” most of the time for attribution in stories.

The reason is part of our gradual change in voice. “Says” helps build drama. It helps build scenes and narratives that readers can immerse themselves in. There’s a currency about “says.” It’s breezier. Present tense is more like watching a movie, and that’s the feel we want whenever possible.

Now, not every piece needs to read that way. If we’re writing something that’s less of a feature story and more of a fund-raising rationale, “said” might read better. “Said” is sometimes better for authoritative quotes or paraphrases, where instead of building a scene we’re constructing a case.

Sometimes in feature writing we’ll mix present and past tense. It’s a way to show that a person is telling us the story now, but referring to something that happened in the past. Here’s an example from a story I just wrote from Russia. Dasha is talking about the church service where she accepted Christ 15 years ago:

As the service ended, people greeted each other. They greeted Dasha, too, with smiles and hugs.

“And the pastor came up to me. I was still worried that he would rebuke me, but he didn’t. He said, ‘Dasha, I’m so glad that you are here. Do you want your life changed?’”

“Yes, I want that.”

The pastor invited Dasha to make a decision.

“I accepted Jesus Christ,” she says. “It was the moment that my life totally changed. I understood that there is a God — not just God, but a Father who loves me so much. And I am not alone in this world.”

Here’s a deeper discussion about this from Chip Scanlan of the Poynter Institute:


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