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Kelley Wilson

A Game-Changing Writing Exercise


As a writer, I always struggle with verbs. How many times have I used said, replied or answered? Can I think of a better verb to avoid being repetitive? Do I even need the verb? Verbs, seriously, crumpled_draftskeep me awake at night. So when I skimmed a recent online newsletter, Chuck Palahniuk’s “Thought Verbs” practically leapt off the screen and slapped me in the face. More verbs to choose from! I was so pumped.

But then I started reading… Not a single new verb to add to the list I keep next to my computer. In fact, his post challenges writers to stop using all “thought” verbs (thinks, knows, realizes, desires, hopes, imagines, loves, hates, understands, etc.).

But I love “thought” verbs! Sometimes I think it’s the only reason I pursue fiction writing more frequently than screenwriting, where a character’s thoughts have no place on the page. I’ll never be able to do this, I’m thinking. A character’s thoughts are an integral part of any story. And I love diving into each character’s psyche. Not only does it help me fill pages, but it also helps flesh out the character in a way that readers can grab onto and become invested. So, for me to no longer use “thought” verbs… But then I kept reading.

The more I read, the more intrigued I became. I decided to take this challenge, and immediately opened up Word. I just had to try this “thought” verb slaughter. Maybe I had the killer instinct after all.

Just two pages in, I was already reaching for my character’s thoughts.

“It’s been weeks already. I thought we moved past this,” he groaned. He knew it was Jessica.

Darn it, “thought” verb. Backspace and rewrite.

 “It’s been weeks already. I thought we had moved past this.” It had to be Jessica and that electric blue glare of hers. She was one of Renee’s oldest friends.

As I continued to write, I kept coming up against these “thought” verbs. And while I didn’t kill every single “thought” verb, I did kill the majority. And with every one I killed, I could see an improvement in my writing. More show, less tell. With every murder, I was discovering new ways to flesh out my characters, fill in backstory and describe setting. I was sold.

At the beginning of Chuck Palahniuk’s article, he says, “In six seconds, you’ll hate me. But in six months, you’ll be a better writer.” I could tell that very first day that this little challenge was going to be a game changer.

Is this something you struggle with in your writing? Is this something you come across in manuscripts you edit?


Read Chuck’s article here:

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About the author

Kelley Wilson

Creator of yet-to-be-published YA series Pacific Heights, owner of AKS Communications in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and stay-at-home mom of two lovely ladies (two and four years old).


2 Comments on “A Game-Changing Writing Exercise”

  • Anita Jenkins


    Journalists deliberately use “said” repeatedly, on the premise that the quote, not the verb meaning “said” is the focal point of the sentence.

  • David Antrobus


    I’ve heard it said (uh, sorry) that “he said/she said” becomes invisible after a while and my own experience as a reader tends to agree with that.

    But this idea of eliminating “thought” verbs is intriguing, and is something I can’t wait to try myself and to pass on to my author clients. I can see how it would encourage the use of “beats” in dialogue.

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