Writing Advice: Thought Verbs


Everyone’s writing could use some improvement in one area or another. Unless you’re some type of writing genius, chances are you have a weakness that can often hold your work back. This is whatever bothers you most when you read your own work or stalls you when you’re trying to write. Maybe it’s that you use too many “said” dialogue tags, or you struggle with description, or you have a hard time naming your characters. For me, it’s moving the action of a story forward. More often than not, I get caught up in exposition or the characters’ internal dialogues rather than advancing my plot. I recently found an awesome piece of advice for solving this problem that I want to pass on to all of you.

In a Lit Reactor blog post several years ago, the author Chuck Palahniuk wrote about eliminating thought verbs from your writing. I know, it sounds crazy. But as soon as I started to consider what he was saying, I knew it would be an interesting challenge and would probably help improve my writing. Basically, Palahniuk’s challenge states that you can no longer use words such as thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes…and the list goes on. He says, “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.”

Although this may sound terrifying, to cut out an entire class of words from your writing vocabulary, I think it sounds amazing. I tend to get stalled in my writing when I’m describing what a character thinks or wants. Even as I’m writing like this, I know that it’s boring and clunky. If I forbid myself from using those thought verbs, and instead force myself to truly show rather than tell, I know my writing would improve.

Palahniuk suggests trying this for several months. I think this is a good idea because, after that time, you will probably be in the habit of using more dynamic language. Hopefully, you’ll have broken the habit of relying on those bland thought verbs to do your work for you.

Personally, I love this idea, and I intend to try it out when I start my next writing project. If you struggle with clunky descriptions and reliance on thought verbs, I’d suggest reading Palahniuk’s full blog post. It’s full of examples to help you understand how you can stop using thought verbs in your writing. And, if you’re feeling up to the challenge, try it out in your own work!

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Before They Were Famous: Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck Palahniuk, bestselling author of the cult novel Fight Club, claims truth is often stranger than fiction. It certainly seems this theme has held true in his own life. However, some of the struggles Palahniuk faced during his early years seem altogether typical for a yet-to-be-published writer.

Palahniuk credits his 5th grade teacher Ms. Olsen with igniting his interest in writing. He recalls she once commented on one of his poems, “Chuck, you do this really well. And this is much better than setting fires, so keep it up.” While not much is known about Palahniuk’s grade school and high school years, his passion for writing seems to have remained constant. After graduating from Columbia High School, Palahniuk attended the University of Oregon and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.

Fight Club

For a short time, he worked for a local Portland newspaper, but quickly became bored and decided to explore other employment options. Palahniuk worked as a diesel mechanic, repairing trucks and writing technical manuals for some time following his graduation. He also (as his fans morbidly enjoy pointing out) worked for a hospice escorting terminally ill patients.

In his mid-thirties, Palahniuk returned to writing, exploring a particular fascination with fiction. While attending a workshop hosted by minimalist writer Tom Spanbauer, he authored a few notable short stories and eventually his first novel. Despite his many attempts, Palahniuk (like many aspiring authors) failed to find a press willing to publish his book. In the wake of rejection, he continued to write somewhat unsuccessfully until 1996 when Fight Club was published.

— Dominique Dusek, Assistant Managing Editor & Submissions Manager