How Writers Can Trap Sneaky Weasels

This week editor Christy Distler takes on this month’s Fatal Flaw #11 – Pesky Adverbs and Weasel Words.

This month we’re discussing adverbs and “weasel words” in fiction. We’ve already talked about adverbs, so today I want to take a look at weasel words. What is a weasel word, you ask?

Merriam-Webster defines a weasel word as “a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position.” This definition describes how weasel words are used throughout a variety of situations, but it has some truth in fiction writing as well.

In fiction, weasel words are not intended to purposely evade directness, but their use can certainly result in a sentence that lacks concise forthrightness. Let’s review the more common fiction weasel words:

  • Weak “to be” verbs: is, are, was, were, had, had been,
  • Superfluous words: that, very, just, really, rather, kind of/sort of, nearly/almost, quite, like, even, so, absolutely, usually, truly, totally, probably, actually, basically, extremely, mostly, naturally, often, particularly, started to/began to
  • “Telling” words: seemed, knew, thought, felt, wondered, mused

Weak “to be” verbs. These words, in most cases, produce subpar writing. Consider these two sentences: “The dog was on the bed” and “The dog lay on the bed.” The second sentence is not only more active, but it’s also more specific. “The dog was on the bed” could imply that the dog is sitting, standing, lying, etc. “The dog lay on the bed” gives a clear picture of the dog’s action.

Superfluous Words. These words, in many cases, are unnecessary or can be exchanged with a word that paints a stronger picture. Consider these two sentences: “She told me that I could go with her” and “She told me I could go with her.” Both sentences say the same thing; the only difference is the extra word (that) in the first one. Most editors agree that that should be omitted anytime a sentence sounds right without it. If a that is necessary for a sentence’s clarity or because the sentence sounds awkward without it, keep it. (Note: “had” is acceptable when used to describe something that happened in the past.)

Now consider these two sentences: “He started to sing” and “He sang.” In many cases, “started to” and “began to” are unnecessary and can be replaced with a description of what’s happening. An exception would be if an action is interrupted, and it needs to be obvious that something was started and not finished. Then “started to” or “began to” is more accurate. Bottom line, replace passive-voice words with more active wording whenever it strengthens the writing.

Modifiers Can Suck the Life out of your Sentences

Continuing through the list, you’ll see that many of the other superfluous words are modifiers (adverbs and/or adjectives). A long-time editor once told me that modifiers are like leeches: they suck the lifeblood from the word they’re attached to. These adverbs and adjectives often can be omitted or replaced, reducing the word count while not changing the meaning. Here’s another comparison: “He quietly spoke to her” and “He whispered to her.” Here, the verb (spoke) and its modifier (the adverb quietly) are replaced with a more vivid verb, whispered. To boot, the sentence becomes tighter. Win-win.

Back to the leech analogy. Like leeches, modifiers can provide benefit. Consider these two sentences: “I can’t thank you enough” and “I truly can’t thank you enough.” Hear the difference in the emotion levels? The second sentence sounds more sincere. Here’s another: “She occasionally brushes her teeth” and “She brushes her teeth.” Big difference (especially if you’re her dental hygienist). So, like many of the writing “rules,” there are exceptions to the weasel word rule as well. Bottom line, superfluous words are often just that—extra and unnecessary. Other times, they’re not. Learn to know the difference, and your writing skill will soar.

“Telling” Words. Like the first two groups, these words can often be omitted or replaced to strengthen writing. Consider these two sentences: “I pulled into the driveway and wondered if anyone would be home” and “I pulled into the driveway. Would anyone be home?” The rewording to omit wondered not only tightens the sentence (it breaks it into two) and removes the “telling” aspect but it also provides a more “showing” in-depth character point of view (known as Deep POV). Here’s another example: “I felt sick” and “My head throbbed.” In this case, searching for alternate wording that doesn’t use “felt” results in a more active, descriptive sentence.

Of course, weasel words have their rightful place too. Consider these sentences: “Why had I done that? I knew better.” Yes, “knew” is a weasel word, but it also provides a succinct, concrete meaning that would be difficult to retain with other wording. So, again, learn when the “telling” words should be used and when you’d be better off exchanging them or rewording.

Without further ado, here’s our weasely Before and weasel-free After.

BEFORE:

I crossed my arms as we started walking toward the administration building. After seeing some of the campus and meeting some students, I felt that Covington Hall actually might not be so bad after all. Everyone seemed to be nice, my roommate-to-be really liked reading, and Mrs. Gray had even planned to work with me on my food issues. I knew I truly couldn’t complain.

Mrs. Gray began to slow down so she could fall into pace with me. “What are your thoughts, Cassie? Do you think Covington Hall is a place where you can see yourself thriving, both academically and personally?”

I shrugged uncertainly. “I think I won’t know for sure until I’ve been here a few weeks.”

She patted my shoulder kindly. “That’s perfectly understandable. And we do everything we can to help students transition.”

Daddy, who had been walking ahead of us with Mother, turned around. “I know you’re going to do so well here, honey. Change always has some uncertainties, but I think you’re truly going to enjoy being here. Your mom and I will only be forty minutes away if you need us—”

“And at the same time, you’ll be far enough away from what got you in trouble in the first place,” Mother added.

True. I doubted anyone in Covington knew one thing about Emily Anderson and her wrongfully accusing father.

Daddy smiled. “So you’re going to give it fair chance?”

I glanced around at the surrounding campus. “Totally.”

AFTER:

I crossed my arms as we walked toward the administration building. Now that I had seen the campus and met some students, Covington Hall might not be so bad. Everyone treated me kindly, my roommate-to-be loved reading, and Mrs. Gray planned to work with me on my food issues. How could I complain?

Mrs. Gray slowed to fall into pace with me. “What are your thoughts, Cassie? Do you think Covington Hall is a place where you can see yourself thriving, both academically and personally?”

I shrugged. “I won’t know for sure until I’ve been here a few weeks.”

She patted my shoulder. “That’s perfectly understandable. And we do everything we can to help students transition.”

Daddy, who walked ahead of us with Mother, turned around. “You’re going to do so well here, honey. Change always has some uncertainties, but I think you’ll truly enjoy being here. Your mom and I will only be forty minutes away if you need us—”

“And at the same time, you’ll be far enough away from what got you in trouble in the first place,” Mother added.

True. I doubted anyone in Covington knew one thing about Emily Anderson and her wrongfully accusing father.

Daddy smiled. “So you’re going to give it fair chance?”

I glanced around at the surrounding campus. “Totally.”

Okay, so I lied. The After passage isn’t weasel free (although it’s considerably less weasely). As we discussed before, there are times when weasel words should be used—which brings me to my last points on when to leave weasel words alone . . .

Weasel Words and Dialog: People use weasel words all the time when speaking. So be careful when removing them from spoken discourse. If a weasel word strengthens the dialog (makes it sound more natural), leave it; if removing the word doesn’t change the sound of the dialog, take it out and enjoy less verbiage.

Weasel Words and Character Voice: Take a character’s voice into consideration before omitting or rewording weasel words. Consider Cassie’s final response in the examples above: “Totally.” While “totally” is a weasel word, replacing it with something like “yes” would completely change her voice. If eliminating a weasel word compromises a character’s voice, don’t do it.

Ready to trap some sneaky weasels now? It’s easy. Simply use MS Word’s Find and Replace feature to search for each word, then determine which weasels should go and which should stay.

Your turn:

What are your thoughts on weasel words? Are you strict or lenient with them? Can you think of other times when weasel words should be retained?

6 Responses to “How Writers Can Trap Sneaky Weasels”

  1. Dave November 18, 2015 at 1:22 pm #

    “Consider these two sentences: “The dog was on the bed” and “The dog lay on the bed.” The second sentence is not only more active, but it’s also more specific.”
    And also incorrect. It should be, “The dog lies on the bed.” or “The dog is lying on the bed.”.

    • cslakin November 19, 2015 at 6:49 am #

      Actually, Dave, the example is correct. It’s the past tense. The dog lies on the bed. Yesterday the dog lay on the bed. That’s made clear by the comparison to the passive “the dog was on the bed.” All too often writers will use something like this for past tense: “The dog laid on the bed.”

      • Jackie Weger November 20, 2015 at 8:57 am #

        I’m laffin’ because I will do anything to avoid, lay, lie and laid for fear of getting it wrong. My dog is gonna huddle on the bed, hog the pillow, or curl up in the middle of the bed and snore like a strangled frog. I challenge myself to hold “ly” words to no more than one per chapter–even in dialogue. I often lose the fight, but I try.

  2. Karen MacDougall November 19, 2015 at 8:33 am #

    Great post. More words to ‘seek and destroy’! And good point about knowing when to leave them in.

  3. Clive Gill November 20, 2015 at 8:04 am #

    Great article with helpful comparisons!
    Thank you.

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