Weasel Word List

Weasel Words:

One editing pass I do on each of my books is to look for different kinds of weasel words–words that are generally useless or words that indicate possible problems. (I make a Macro to highlight them with one click.) I do not simply delete them but check if they are needed or causing problems. Rewriting or deleting makes the manuscript better probably 80% of the time.

Here are my lists. I start with the categories most likely to cause me the greatest rewriting and then move down the lists.

POV Distance Check – (When writing in deep POV, these words  often alert you  when you’ve written shallow POV aka Telling vs. Showing.)

could, felt, heard, saw, knew, realized, wanted, thought, noticed, seemed, decided, looked, understood, considered, believed, appeared, watched, smelled, touched, wondered, recognized, wished, supposed, idea

Emotional Telling Words(Same idea as the POV Distance Check words. These words are often used when writing shallow POV or telling instead of showing.)

anger, angry, relieved, relief, felt, despair, anxious, doubt, fear, nervous, panic, scared, shock, upset, worry, worried, uncertain, excited, excitement, confident, sure, certain, happy, glad, mirth, joy, elated, elation, pleased, satisfied, concern, depressed, dread, sorrow, distress, hope, frustrated

Passive Sentence Structure Words – (Unless the word “was” is used as a linking verb, it’s likely better to rewrite the sentence actively. “Had” can often be deleted.)

was, wasn’t, were, weren’t,  had, there was, there were

-ing  –  (This indicates a past continuous verb tense that could probably be best tightened to simple past. i.e. “was playing” to “played”)

Timing Check(These words cue me into the possibility that I have written my MRUs incorrectly or a convoluted sentence structure.)

as, while, since, when, before, after


She and He – (I highlight these to make sure I don’t have a bunch clustered together.)

It – (I replace “it” with its referent if at all possible and if not, make sure it isn’t vague.)

Your, you’re, its, it’s, their, they’re, there, whose, who’s – (I check them all out to make sure I used the right one.)

Repetitive Check(I find myself using these words too often, they are probably different for everyone.)

eyes, sighed, nodded, shrugged, gaze, found, oh, shook, well, swallowed

Useless Word Check – (These words often don’t add anything to the story but word count.)

about, just, really, started, began, all, again, very, that, any, so, then, rather, some, only, almost, like, close, even, somehow, sort, pretty, well, back, up, down ,anyway, many, real, already, own, over, ever, be able to, still, bit, far, often, also, enough, quite, maybe, one of, thing, mostly, most, in order to, off, out

Adverbs – (Adverbs are likely unneeded or a stronger verb would be better)

-ly – (Set the find feature to only highlight word endings by choosing “Match suffix” when you expand the find and replace box.)

Sentence Starting Conjunctions (I search for these with the box “Match Case” checked to see if I unnecessarily started my sentence with a conjunction.)

And, But, Or

20 Responses to Weasel Word List

  1. Pingback: How to Make Microsoft Word Highlight a List of Words in a Document with One Command « Melissa Jagears – Author – Reviving Romantic Hope

  2. melissajagears

    Glad you liked it. I recalled when I first started writing that newbies would ask what these “weasel word things were” and you’d get a smattering of words from different people, but there wasn’t a real comprehensive list. AND trying to explain why the word “wondered” and “just” were both weasel words, well, I decided to make myself a comprehensive list. Over time, I’ve added a few that I’ve realized weren’t on anyone’s list that I found.

    And thankfully, the longer I write after killing these many times over, the less I see of them! 🙂

  3. Virginia

    We’re all coming over here from someone mentioning this in the 1k1hr site. Weasel words now has a list. Reference point- Melissa’s blog.
    P.S. I haven’t been here since you revamped. VERY NICE! Did you do this yourself?? So truly beautiful.

    • melissajagears

      Thanks, Virginia, yes I did it myself. I wanted it to sorta match my Index, but wanted this site on WP instead of blogger where it was……spending time tweaking websites is one of my many procrastination methods. 🙂

  4. Neil Larkins

    Saw your comment on Rachelle’s blog on Books and Such. Great list and I am so guilty. Now I can reduce my 26,000 word short story to..um. Three words. Back to work.

  5. Laurean Brooks

    So…what’s left? LOL. Seriously,(Oops! an “ly” word), you covered a lot of ground here. Thanks for for the list. I saw several of my “repeat” words in it.

    Let’s see. After I cut all these words from my 80,000-word ms, I should have about…40,000 words left. LOL.

  6. Joyce

    I also found this list through Books & Such. Have written a post linked here to remind myself of this helpful information when the time comes. Need to write the words first 🙂 Thanks, Joyce

  7. Neil Larkins

    Hi, Melissa –
    I made a comment to this list a few weeks ago and now have a second thought about several of your weasel words: was, wasn’t, were and weren’t. I’d been working on my memoir and went back to see how many of those words had worked into the text. Plenty! Yet when I tried to edit them out or replace them with more acceptable words, I became stuck. I could take out a few but not nearly as many as I’d hoped. Then a couple weeks ago in a recent issue of Readers Digest I read a memoir article by Ann Patchett. Titled “The 11-Year Engagement” it was taken from her book, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. I learned that Ms Patchett has written eight bestselling books (none of which I’ve read) and became surprised as to how often she used the words was, wasn’t, were, and weren’t. The story is filled with the words so much that it seemed she had no concern as to their frequent appearance. This discovery puzzled me. I wondered, is it OK to use those words that often in a memoir, or is it OK once you are a famous, multi-published author? I’ve concluded that perhaps your inclusion of these words in a weasel list is not warranted. Or am I wrong? Your comments. Thanks.

  8. mjagears Post author

    Neil, I added more description to my lists to help people figure out why they should edit the word, so look back up top again to see if any of that makes things clearer for you. 🙂

    “Was” and the others can be perfectly acceptable in a book. But there are often stronger ways to say something.

    He was eaten by zombies.
    would be better as
    Zombies ate him.
    Making this sentence active.

    She was looking at a magazine.
    would be better as
    She looked at a magazine.
    Making this sentence less wordy and more immediate.

    He was beat.
    Would be better as
    He slumped in his chair, his head hitting the headrest with a thump.
    That “was” was as a linking verb, grammatically that would be a perfectly acceptable, non-wordy way to use “was,” but it’s telling. So I rewrote it as a showing sentence.

    As to best-sellers getting away with lazy writing….yes, that happens, but as a newbie trying to break into a market, gain an agent or editor interest, why give them any reason to reject you. They won’t care if Stephen King does it, they already have King and he has millions of followers that will buy his books printed on kleenex. It’s your writing they’re going to be inspecting with a fine tooth comb looking for reasons to reject. 🙂

    These lists are not “get rid of all these words!!!” it’s “check all these words because they often indicate weak writing and make the decision”

    Hope that helps, Neil.

  9. Neil Larkins

    It’s helped more than you know, Melissa. I’d printed out that list and intend to keep it nearby. Thanks…and for confirming my assertion that established authors get away with what we newbies cannot. Keep up the good work.

  10. Melodie Harris

    Great post, Melissa. Thank you! I have never had anyone show me how to create a macro in Word. I look forward to doing that.

    In case you’re wondering how I found this post, I too found a link to you from the Books & Such blog after someone had linked that post from middlegradewritersers.com. I recently Goggled middle grade writers and that site came up and referred to Rachelle’s post on B&S.

    I just (just seems to be one of my fav weasel words) started studying the industry this past spring, and I’m sure I’ll be accessing your site more. Thanks for such clear explanations. Your tact & kindness with Neil’s request above was impressive. Best wishes.

    • mjagears Post author

      Glad you found me, Melodie! Have fun building your macro, it really is kinda fun. And good luck with your middle grade books, one of my crit partners writes MG. Glad to have you come back anytime. 🙂

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