Category Archives: expressing thoughts

Use adult vocabulary for academic words

I was working with a high school freshman writing an essay.  He was baffled by his teacher’s directions to write a chicken foot and buckets.  So was I.  There was a drawing of a horizontal line with three diagonal “toes” going out from the end of the horizontal line.  This was the chicken foot.  There was another drawing of four cans with a space for a label at the top of each one.  These were the buckets.  But there was no identification of what these terms or diagrams meant.

Emails back and forth solved the problem.  The chicken foot was the thesis.  The horizontal line was the opinion and the three toes were the supporting ideas backing up the thesis.  The buckets were the details for each of the chicken’s toes, with an extra one  in case.

The more I thought about these terms, though, the more annoyed I became.  Why not use the terminology that the student will need to use in other high school English classes and in college classes?  Why not call a thesis a thesis and its supporting topic sentences supporting topic sentences?  Why not call evidence “evidence” or “citations”?

What my student’s teacher is doing is what so many parents do for babies learning to talk.  The parents say “night-night” instead of “sleep” or “bye-bye” instead of “we’re leaving.” But eventually the children need to learn the proper names for “sleep” and “leaving.”  Why introduce “baby” versions of the words?  Isn’t “sleep” just as easy to understand as “night-night”?

I know the teacher is well meaning.  And I know she explained “chicken foot” and “buckets” during class.  But my student didn’t understand, and looking up those words on the teacher handout didn’t help.  If the teacher had used the word “thesis,” he could have looked that word up and found plenty of explanation.  If she had used the words “topic sentences” or “supporting topic sentences,” he could have found those words and their meanings online.  If she had used the words “evidence” or “citations,” my student could have figured out what they meant and what he was expected to do.

Children eventually need to learn proper vocabulary for ideas, whether it is “identify” or “cite.”  Babying their vocabulary does no service to children; rather it confuses them and stalls their acquisition of adult vocabulary.

How do we write characters’ thoughts?

When we are writing about a character who is thinking, how do we write that character’s thoughts?

  • Do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, “Should I order the small or the medium fries?”  She pondered the consequences.


  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  She thought, should I order the small or the medium fries?  She pondered the consequences.


  • Or do we write:  Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the small or the medium fries?  What will my weight be?


  • Or do we write: Sophie drove up to the fast food window.  Should I order the teeny-weeney barely-break-my-diet small fries or the back-to-size-14 medium fries?  What will the bathroom scales scream when I get home?  Oh you of little will power.

The first example is a combination of direct thought followed by indirect thought.  The direct thought is in quotation marks to set it off as thought.  This is an approach to showing thinking which was commonly used until the 20th century but which is rarely used today.

The second example is indirect thought.  This way of handling thought dominated the 20th century.  The thought is introduced by the words “She thought” or “She pondered,” but no quotation marks are used.

Another form of indirect thought is italics which were used by some 20th century writers and still are used by some contemporary writers.  With italics, there is no no misinterpreting which words are thoughts.  But increasingly, writers have dropped the italics.

The fourth example is also indirect thought, but all tags of thinking (she thought, she pondered) and all print markings (quotation marks, italics) are eliminated.  More so than in the other three forms, we hear the thoughts of the character only, not the writer.  Of course the writer has put those thoughts in the character’s head, but the thoughts are filtered through the personality of the character.

This last form is the most powerful because the writer is unobtrusive.  The writer is like a puppeteer without the strings.  He is still opening and closing Kermit’s mouth, but not with his hand–with an invisible wi-fi connection.  We, the readers, forget there is someone orchestrating this story.  We are aware only of the character and his or her thoughts filtered through his or her language and personality.

Compare this last approach to the one used by Mary Shelley in Frankenstein.  The monster tells his story to his creator, Victor, who in turn tells the story to the ship captain who in turn writes all this in letter form to his sister.  With so many filters, whose thoughts are we hearing directly?  Hard to say.

The approach without tags and print markings is more like hearing Hamlet on stage, alone, thinking aloud.  No apparent filters separate us from Hamlet’s thoughts.  Like a soliloquy, this kind of indirect thought is dramatic and—so far—as close as writers can come to eliminating their own presence in their narratives.

For more on how to write characters’ thoughts, read How Fiction Works by James Wood.