This post appeared, updated from the original, in the July 2021 writer’s corner of my newsletter. If you’d like to get regular tips, sign up here (You can browse past newsletters first to see what other goodies are there AND as a bribe, you receive a free ebook of my short story collection, Dragon Gift).
I think of ‘weasel’ words as a subset of verbal tics, so I’ll start with the bigger picture.
How often are you reading over a piece of writing and one word jumps out at you repeatedly? It might be a favourite adjective or adverb. In which case, it’s off to thesaurus.com to find a substitute, or, better, rearrange sentences so there’s no need for the adjective or adverb. Easy! Done!
Then there are the verbal tics we don’t know we’re using. You know, those harmless beige words we use over and over until we don’t see them anymore. Or, as we’re reading, we suddenly do see them! Apart from being repetitive, many of these words indicate a lack of variety in sentence structure – a sure-fire way to deaden our writing.
My favourites are when every other sentence starts with ‘So…’ and the alternate sentences begin with ‘Then…’ ‘But’ is another frequent player in this regard.
My absolute favourite verbal tic, however, is ‘that’. If this surprises you, here’s a challenge.
The ‘that’ challenge
Take a piece of your writing and do a search on ‘that’. If it’s a novel, I will wager (although not a gambling person) there are too many to show up, or as MS Word says: That shows up quite a lot! (‘quite’ being a weasel word by the way, see below). Why is this a problem? It’s grammatically correct, after all. Here’s the second part of the challenge:
Go to every ‘that’ and read the sentence without using it. I will wager (again) 99% of occurrences are redundant. The sentence reads better without it. All you have done with all those occurrences of ‘that’ is add unnecessary word count. Take them out, lighten the load.
Over the years I’ve developed my own list of verbal tics (I was fond of ‘nodding’ and ‘turning’). In the list you can download at the end of the post, I’ve noted common tics both in my own writing (the list keeps being added to), and in other people’s. Start making your own. And when you weed the tics out at editing time, see how you can also turn sentences or even paragraphs on their heads to sparkle brighter.
As a subset of verbal tics, ‘weasel’ words sneak into our writing all the time. Yet all of us start out with no idea these pariahs of authorship exist. We read through our drafts and despair because the glorious vision of perfection we have in our heads as we tapped away hasn’t translated to the screen. Of course, ‘weasel’ words aren’t the only thing to blame, but being aware of these creatures and culling them like rats in a granary is a good start to helping us achieve the perfect page.
What are ‘weasel’ words?
In 1900, Stewart Chaplin published a story in The Century Illustrated Magazine titled ‘Stained Glass Political Platform’ in which he used this apt sentence:
“… weasel words are words that suck all the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks an egg and leaves the shell”
‘Weasel’ words are qualifiers. They drag down our writing by adding irrelevant words which slow the pace and make our text wishy washy. We’re telling the reader we aren’t willing to commit, we’re not sure what’s going on, so if they don’t like it, we can, maybe, perhaps, if they like (all ‘weasel’ words of course) backpedal.
Is your protagonist ‘quite’ beautiful, or beautiful? Is she ‘a bit’ tired after a day’s work, or tired. Even better, does she slump to the sofa and lean back, eyes closed? (We’re not here to discuss ‘show not tell’, however.)
Learn to recognise ‘weasel’ words – anything which qualifies the words next to it and sucks the life out of it – and when they crop up, swat them out of sight. As with verbal tics, use them as cues to rework your sentences and add more sparkle.
Starter list of verbal tics and ‘weasel’ words
Download the starter list here, and have fun slashing and burning through your manuscript.
(I’ve edited this post to ensure there are no ‘weasel’ words or verbal tics. Let me know what I missed.)