Writer’s Insights: A Thoughtless Sort of Book

Writer’s Insights: A Thoughtless Sort of Book

If you’ve read my writing (I hope?), you probably know I’m a big fan of “thought” words.

Somewhere, Chuck Palahniuk and his loyal devotees are having a fit.

Palahniuk has suggested writers should challenge themselves by eliminating “thought” words from their writing. These kinds of verbs, he posited, weaken our writing.

He has a point: A thought verb tends to “tell,” rather than “show.” The list includes words like thought, wondered, and pondered. And, of course, it also extends to those other telling words–felt verbs.

I’ve Got a Feeling

“Feel” gets a bad rap among writers because it’s a weak verb. Furthermore, it has a nasty habit of “telling,” rather than “showing.” Think about how flat the sentence “she felt happy” is. Rather than showing the reader the emotion (or allowing them to experience it themselves), it simply tells the reader.

That’s it. That’s all. End of story.

There’s relatively little artistry in the construction. Palahniuk singles “thought” verbs out for doing essentially the same thing.

So he challenged writers to go a month or a year without these verbs, and to see what a difference it made to their writing.

All in the Editing

Chances are you won’t be able to eliminate every single thought verb from your writing. There will be times when you need these verbs. But Palahniuk suggests eliminating them in order to reduce reliance on them.

Ultimately, Palahniuk didn’t say a writer will never need these words. It’s just that the key to their use is much like adverbs–sparingly. If you rely on them, however, you’re writing will likely become fairly boring fairly fast.

Of course, there’s something to be said for editing here. When you’re in the thick of writing, sometimes just getting the idea down on paper is the real struggle. Not every sentence is going to be the most artistic sentence you’ve ever created. Some of them are going to suck.

And there are going to be the points when you’ll use a thought verb. Sometimes, you just have to get it down–you can’t wait forever to find the right word to get this one sentence written.

You’ll probably end up taking out a lot of “thought” verbs during revisions and editing, especially at the early stages of this experiment. That’s okay. In fact, it might be wiser to make this an experiment in editing than a exercise in writing.

See a Thought Verb? Destroy

In many ways, setting yourself a “watch word” or “weasel word” to witch-hunt through your manuscript revisions is an excellent exercise in editing. If you start missing instances, you know it’s time to stop and take a break.

It will also force you to rethink your writing a little bit more, to really get your hands messy. Sometimes, it’s very easy to do the bare minimum when editing–eliminating an unnecessary word, correcting a typo. Pulling the verb out of a sentence makes you do a little more rewriting.

Time to Experiment

All right. Enough talk–it’s time to put this to the test. As I said, my writing is often replete with “thought” verbs. So, let’s try taking them out.

The Original
Danny considered him for a moment paused, then said, “Ah.” He gestured for Luke to step inside.
“Who is it?” Matt’s voice was thick with sleep, nearly drowned out by the door clicking shut.
“Just Macks,” Danny said softly. Luke leaned back against the door, listening to a zipper, then the duffle being rifled through.
Danny handed him the pill bottle, and Luke snapped it open with practiced ease, dumping the contents into his hand.
“Hey,” Danny said sharply.
Luke sighed, then dumped most of his handful back into the bottle. He snapped the lid back on, handing it back to Danny. He popped the solitary pill into his mouth.
“Hope it helps.”
“Yeah,” Luke murmured. He wasn’t sure; It had been a while since one had done much for him.
“That’s all?” Danny asked.
“Yeah, thanks,” Luke said.
They stood there awkwardly in the dark for a moment, and Luke had the vague suspicion that Danny was giving him a critical look, like he was evaluating him or something.
And Luke wondered if Danny could smell him like Jake had Could Danny smell him, like Jake had? The idea made his heart pound, his mouth go dry. What if he could, what if he did? He nearly panicked. What could Danny smell? Did he know? What did he think?
“I … should go,” he said after a moment. “You probably want to get back to sleep.”
“Yeah,” Danny yawned, “that’d be good.”
“Good night then,” Luke murmured.
“G’night.” Danny held the door for him, then locked it behind him.
Luke let his shoulders slump a little. That was his last resort; Danny wouldn’t dole out any more of the meds, he knew that much was certain. Not even if he begged …
He meandered back to the elevator, leaned against the wall as he rode it back to his floor. He picked his way down the hall, crept back into their room.
Ty was still sound asleep, none the wiser.
Luke crawled back to bed. Maybe, just maybe, one would be enough. Maybe he'd get some sleep tonight. hoping that one would be enough, that he’d at least get some rest
He tossed and turned some more, his body refusing to relax, even with the influx of the drug in his system. Danny had scared him. Did he honestly smell? Were his medications not working? Jake had scented him, and maybe Danny had too.
He tugged the blankets over his head. It was stupid to worry about it. He had a game to play tomorrow night, and he needed to rest. Determining whether or not his teammates had scented hm, silencing the little voice that kept whispering they had, would have to wait until after the game. He could worry about whether or not his teammates had figured out his secret after they finished playing the game.
But what if they knew and they told Q and that got him kicked out of the game entirely? Out of the league? What if he didn’t even get a chance to play tomorrow’s game, because—
He smashed the pillow down on the side of his head, as though he could knock those thoughts loose. He had to sleep, not chase himself around in mental circles worrying about things.
Only one of those things was coming easily at the moment though.

Rationalizing Changes

That’s a fair amount of red! You’ll also notice that, unlike previous Writer’s Insights, I’ve had to delete and rewrite several sentences wholesale to take out the thought verb. Ultimately, the writing is tighter and probably stronger for it.

There’s definitely a few instances were more “showing” is visible over the previous version, which wanted to tell.

A good example:

He wasn’t sure; It had been a while since one had done much for him.

This sentence is made simpler and more cutting by losing “he wasn’t sure.” The exasperation, the desperation comes through more clearly in the revised version.

Another example:

Maybe, just maybe, one would be enough. Maybe he'd get some sleep tonight. 

The revised structure has more polish than the previous version. It conveys hope, yet at the same time defeat, without explicitly saying “he hoped” or “he wished.” It’s showing, not telling.

Where Isn’t It Working?

There’s a couple of points where the revisions aren’t really working; the original might be stronger.

But what if they knew and they told Q and that got him kicked out of the game entirely?

“If they knew and they told Q” has more rhythm than the shortened version here. We get rid of the thought verb, but keeping it could actually be the wiser move.

What could Danny smell? Did he know? What did he think?

I crossed this line out and revised a little, but this litany of (panicked) questions give us insight into Luke’s mindset. Losing them erodes the forcefulness, and with it, the sense of panic.

A Thoughtless Kind of Writing

Ultimately, ditching verbs like “think,” “hope,” “wonder,” “wish,” and others isn’t going to make or break your writing. It’s a fun challenge, and it can give you pause. It will make you think (oops) a little more deeply about your writing.

But there are times you’ll need them. And, as I’ve argued before, they can be just as effective at showing a character’s mindset as they are at “telling.” Saying “he thought x” or “he thought y” tells us what the characters was thinking–but it also gives us a glimpse into their mindset. It shows us–rather than tells us–what kind of character they are.

All in all, eliminating every thought verb from your writing will make for, well, a thoughtless kind of prose.

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