Good Writers Use “Thought” Verbs and So Can You

In a post about Words You Should Avoid™, the website ProWritingAid gives some advice about which words you shouldn’t use in your creative writing. The words that they single out are think, know, understand, realize, believe, want, remember, imagine, and desire. They quote Chuck Palahniuk as evidence of a successful writer who also thinks you shouldn’t use these words:

Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing. And loving and hating.

The idea is that these words are used to describe what is going on in a character’s mind, but good writers instead describe their characters thoughts in other ways… or something. Chuck Palahniuk 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.”

But does Chuck really avoid using these words? And how common are they really? Let’s have a look.

We can compare one of Chuck Palahniuk’s most successful novels, Fight Club, to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). COCA is an online database of language. More specifically, we can narrow our COCA searches down to fiction novels, which is what Fight Club is, so that we’re comparing like with like. As there are more words in the COCA section of fictional novels than there are in Fight Club, we’re going to normalize the frequencies of our results. This makes comparing corpora of different sizes possible*.

First, let’s compare the occurrences of “thought” verbs in Fight Club to the occurrences of them in the Fiction subsection of COCA. The table below shows the raw frequencies (or the number of times each “thought” verb occurs) and the normalized frequencies (the number of times each “thought” verb would occur in one million words, labelled “Norm. fpm” in the table) for the “thought” verbs. I’ve shaded the cells green where either Fight Club or COCA shows a much higher frequency of a “thought” verb. The yellow cells mean that there isn’t much difference – but remember that Palahniuk specifically advises against using these verbs, so we should expect his writing to feature less of them. I’m also looking for various forms of the verbs (you can see that in the left column). So not just “think,” but “thinks” and “thought” and “thinking”**.

The word count for Fight Club is 50,579. The word count for COCA’s Fiction section is 111,845,122.

What can we see from this table? Well, Chuck likes to use the “thought” verbs want, imagine, love, and hate much more than his contemporaries. On the other hand, he uses think, understand, realize, believe, and desire much less than everyone else. And the uses of know and remember are about the same. I’d call this one a wash in terms of who uses more or less “thought” verbs. However, what’s clear is that Chuck Palahniuk definitely uses “thought” verbs. Tsk tsk.

We can narrow our search even further to look at only books of General Fiction. This is the category that Palahniuk’s novels fall into in COCA (there are excerpts from three Palahniuk novels in COCA: Invisible Monsters, Survivor and Doomed), as compared to Science Fiction or YA Fiction. The table below shows the comparison of this subsection of COCA to Fight Club.

The word count for Fight Club is 50,579. The word count for COCA’s FIC:Gen:book section is 34,966,702

The results here are similar, but now the difference in frequencies between Palahniuk and COCA are much greater for know and remember, with Palahniuk using these verbs at a higher rate than his contemporaries in COCA. He still uses think, understand, realize and believe at lower rates than the ones in COCA, but from this we can see that Palahniuk maybe doesn’t follow his own advice.

So why should you?

I think you can use “thought” verbs in a book and apparently David Fincher will make a movie out if it starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter.

* We can talk later about the can of worms that is comparing one novel to COCA’s FICTION subsection. This is just a blog post.

** This is a bit easier to do with COCA since each word is tagged for its part of speech, which means that I can exclude all uses of thought as a noun from the results. I have not tagged Fight Club, but have just eyeballed the results. For example, all 11 hits for thought in Fight Club are verbs – “I thought,” “He thought,” etc.

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2 thoughts on “Good Writers Use “Thought” Verbs and So Can You”

  1. Nicely done! I agree the article is just plain weird. But I feel like it’s important to separate instances of ‘thought’ verbs in spoken dialogue from those used by the narrator. I get the impression Palahniuk doesn’t take issue with characters saying things like, “I know you’re lying,” but advises against similar things being said by a narrator, e.g. “Joe knew the theory was trash.” All examples in the article fall into the latter category.

    Either way, it’s a bizarre proscription. And one that, however you run the numbers, is unlikely to be supported by any evidence.

    1. I’m sure Palahniuk follows his own advice and describes what a character is thinking in the same way that he suggests in that article. But he still uses these thought verbs – even for his narrators. And you’re right, it’s a weird proscription. I bet there are no writers who never use “thought” verbs. I think the much more interesting piece of advice in Palahniuk’s article is where he points out how paragraphs of creative writing shouldn’t have a thesis statement – something that is practically required in academic writing. Both styles can be used to describe things, but that’s a major difference in how they go about describing things.

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