Strengthen Your Writing – Kill Your Thought Verbs 9

WHEN LEARNING THE CRAFT OF WRITING — which, as far as I am concerned, is a never-ending state of being — we often hear the refrain that we should “show, not tell.” “Showing” means writing in scene, using physical actions, sense-based details, and dialogue to create the story, rather than explaining the actions, thoughts, and feelings of our characters. To be successful, both fiction and creative nonfiction, such as memoir, must draw readers into the story through their imaginations. This only occurs through the use of concrete details, not abstract words.

Along these lines, I recently ran across a 2013 article written by Chuck Palahniuk, in which he challenges us to transform the way we approach writing scene.

Palahniuk suggests that we discipline ourselves to avoid the use of “thought” verbs — for six months. The verbs to avoid include the following: thinks, knows, understands, realizes, believes, wants, remembers, imagines, desires, loves, and hates.

For example, instead of writing, “I thought James was conceited,” describe James acting in a conceited manner. Something like: “Whenever James came to my house, he had a habit of standing in front of my hall mirror, preening and puffing out his chest like a rooster.”

Instead of “I knew my father liked apple pie . . . ,” show your father’s reaction to the pie: “My father’s face always lit up at the sight of apple pie.”

When I performed a search for the word “thought” in the memoir I’m writing, I found a couple of instances in which all I have to do is remove the words “I thought,” because they are unnecessary: “It was, I thought, eerily like the kiss of Judas . . .” can be written simply as, “It was eerily like the kiss of Judas,” and “But hell, I thought, I wasn’t about to give up now . . .” can be “But hell, I wasn’t about to give up now.”  Because I am writing in the first person point of view, readers already understand these are my thoughts. I don’t need to tell them so.

In another instance, I found the phrase, “I thought this hilarious, as Eric did not know the first thing about wine.” I could rewrite this as, “When I heard Eric had gotten the job of sommelier at a ritzy resort restaurant on the coast, I burst into laughter. He didn’t know the first thing about wine.”

“Thinking” and “knowing” are abstract. They do not exist in the real world. In the real world, there is only acting and reacting; there is only feeling and experiencing. Everything we experience in real life is in the body. So, when writing scene, you want only specific and concrete detail in the form of action, dialogue, and sensory details: smell, taste, sight, sound, and feeling. And yes, we have inner dialogue (thoughts), but write that inner dialogue directly. If you’re writing in a character’s point of view, you won’t need to tell your readers these are thoughts. They can figure it out by themselves.


Right now, take out a piece of writing you’re working on and perform a search for each of the words listed above. In every instance, can you eliminate the word or find a better way to describe what is happening?

That’s the challenge. And boy, oh boy, is it ever a challenge! For six months from today — no more abstract shortcuts using thought verbs.

Are you willing to take this challenge with me? (You’ll want to read all of Palahniuk’s article, as I’ve just brushed the surface of it.)

Just for fun, share how you transformed one of your thought-verb sentences in the comments below.

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9 thoughts on “Strengthen Your Writing – Kill Your Thought Verbs

  • sara etgen-baker

    I completed the task on a short memoir vignette I’m writing. I quickly discovered that eliminating the “thought” verbs and replacing them with similar examples provided made my writing more engaging for the reader…and actually more fun to write. Thanks!

  • Karen Monteith

    I read a few of your articles and I am looking forward to more. I am going to try to eliminate the thought verbs from my writing for six months to see where it takes me.

  • Stacy E. Holden

    I feel like the universe is paying me back for a comment I made to a student today. This afternoon, I noticed that a student uses two verbs instead of one, such as “She managed to survive…” or “He was able to eat…” And now, karma dictates that the editor’s voice in my head (literally) suggest that my own quirky tendency “to remember” stop right now, for it weighs down the prose, leaving less space for the kind of action that engages readers. Thanks, Amber!

  • Sharon Lippincott

    Awesome post Amber. That challenge appeals to me. I’ve already broken the habit of starting sentences with it was, there were, and similar semi-passive constructions. After a few days, more active, energetic sentences became second nature in writing. I catch myself within the first word or two. After a year or so, I’m noticing that my speech habits generally conform to my writing style. Who knew?

    Try Amber’s challenge y’all. You’ll have fun, and your readers will thank you.

  • A. S. Templeton

    Sorry, but there is no good reason to summarily banish “thought” verbs from a literary work. A class of “filter” verbs, these supposedly distance the reader from a character’s POV, a faddish literary notion that has gained many adherents among agents and editors. However…

    From lexical analysis described in a paper by researchers at Stony Brook University (“Success with Style: Using Writing Style to Predict the Success of Novels”), verbs that describe thought-processing–recognize, remember, consider, ponder, perceive, believe, wonder, recall, etc.–are in fact generally found in more-successful novels.

    Incidentally, they also confirmed that adverbs in any form, whether general or as adverbial phrases, are indeed frequent (i.e. overused) in less-successful novels.

    • Amber Lea Starfire Post author

      Thank you for joining the conversation, A.S. Templeton. You make some good points. I’m not suggesting that we summarily banish all thought verbs (that might be impossible), only that we pay attention to when we use them. Many times, as in my examples above and just like adverbs, they’re unnecessary, and our writing can actually be strengthened by omitting them. On the other hand, there are times when you want to bring the reader’s awareness to the thinking itself or provide that little bit of distance from the character’s POV. It’s all about awareness of writing style and honing our craft — every word should have a purpose.