Becoming a better writer through purging “thought” verbs.

Chuck Palahniuck (writer of Fight Club, the book) had this great advice up on Lit Reactor that I thought I’d share. His argument is an old one (“show, don’t tell”) that every writer learns towards the beginning of their career, but he explains it very well in a way I haven’t seen before. The whole article is worth a read, but this first excerpt has the core of his argument.

In six seconds, you’ll hate me.

But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.

From this point forward – at least for the next half year – you may not use “thought” verbs.  These include:  Thinks, Knows, Understands, Realizes, Believes, Wants, Remembers, Imagines, Desires, and a hundred others you love to use.

The list should also include:  Loves and Hates.

And it should include:  Is and Has, but we’ll get to those, later.

Until some time around Christmas, you can’t write:  Kenny wondered if Monica didn’t like him going out at night…”

Instead, you’ll have to Un-pack that to something like:  “The mornings after Kenny had stayed out, beyond the last bus, until he’d had to bum a ride or pay for a cab and got home to find Monica faking sleep, faking because she never slept that quiet, those mornings, she’d only put her own cup of coffee in the microwave.  Never his.”

Instead of characters knowing anything, you must now present the details that allow the reader to know them.  Instead of a character wanting something, you must now describe the thing so that the reader wants it.

Instead of saying:  “Adam knew Gwen liked him.”

You’ll have to say:  “Between classes, Gwen was always leaned on his locker when he’d go to open it.  She’d roll her eyes and shove off with one foot, leaving a black-heel mark on the painted metal, but she also left the smell of her perfume.  The combination lock would still be warm from her ass.  And the next break, Gwen would be leaned there, again.”

In short, no more short-cuts.  Only specific sensory detail: action, smell, taste, sound, and feeling.

Typically, writers use these “thought” verbs at the beginning of a paragraph  (In this form, you can call them “Thesis Statements” and I’ll rail against those, later)  In a way, they state the intention of the paragraph.  And what follows, illustrates them.

via Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs | LitReactor.

3 thoughts on “Becoming a better writer through purging “thought” verbs.

  1. Interesting and effective. I don’t know if you ever took my advice and bought “Writing Tools” by Roy Peter Clark. http://www.amazon.ca/Writing-Tools-Essential-Strategies-Writer/dp/0316014990
    But it is, by far… the best thing for writers since Shrunk and White.
    Writing Tool #4 “Be Passive Aggressive” basically argues against universally the concept “Stay away from passive verbs”.

    His argument, and I think its a valuable one, is that passive verbs have a real place in writing- in that to show vicimization or inaction.
    For example.
    Teachers teach and the children are taught.

    This line shows the active verb for teachers, and counterpoints the helplessness of students who are left “to be taught”.

    • I actually have Writing Tools on my Wish List on Amazon. I tend to buy books in bunches to save on shipping, and it will be in one of my upcoming orders. *^_^* Fun fact- did you know he turned it into a Podcast outlining all the rules? https://itunes.apple.com/ca/itunes-u/roys-writing-tools/id380130686?mt=10

      I agree, though. No language form is every “wrong”, it’s just a question of whether it’s the right language form to use for the job at hand. Trying to create absolute rules when it comes to writing are silly.

      That said, I think Chuck has some good advice about avoiding “thought” verbs (unless they are also the right ones for the job) as a way to force more descriptive and lively writing. I’d been looking for a way to push my writing to the next level, and I think this is going to be quite helpful advice.

      Rob

  2. cool on the podcast. At the beginning of the book, that’s why he calls it “Writing Tools” and not “Writing Rules” because if you know the tools, you know when to use them! 🙂

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