What are Weasel Words?
At some point in your fiction writing career, you’ve likely come across the term ‘weasel words.’ If not, you will. Writers use the term ‘weasel words’ to mean words a writer can eliminate to improve their writing.
However, when I first started writing, every weasel word list I came across was different. And not only were they different, but some weasel words seemed to behave differently.
For example, almost every weasel word list includes the word ‘just.’ Eliminating ‘just’ from a sentence trims your word count:
Example: I just can’t wait to leave.
Fix: I can’t wait to leave.
But ‘was’ also appears on these lists, and you can’t always cut ‘was’ out:
Example: He was sore.
Cannot become: He sore.
So what should a writer do with the weasel word ‘was’? Is ‘was’ even a weasel word?
When I was learning to write, I collected all the weasel words writers suggested ought to be cut and sifted through them. I tried to discover why writers bothered to search out weasel words since eradicating them without thought would result in my writing sounding stilted or nonsensical.
I soon realized not all weasel words indicate places to trim word count. Sometimes they serve to indicate writing craft problems, and fixing those problems might actually add to the story’s word count. Correcting these issues can strengthen a story by enhancing the fictive dream (see definition in back of book) authors want to immerse their readers in.
Since searching for weasel words can help authors catch storytelling weaknesses, it’s a handy way to self-edit. Knowing the rules that govern different types of weasel words will help you decide whether or not something needs fixed.
Once I figured out the underlying problems particular weasel words indicated, I categorized the words and expanded the lists to help me self-edit my fiction. (I only search out weasel words that make a decent impact on my writing. A few other types of weasel words can invade writing, but I won’t discuss them in this book. Searching for them isn’t worth my time when it will do nothing but cut ten or twenty words from a manuscript.)
In each section of this book, I will explain what writing weakness each type of weasel word indicates and give examples on when to remove those weasel words and when to leave them alone. Sometimes an unnecessary weasel word should remain in the story to prevent pacing, rhythm, characterization, voice, or ambiance problems.
Don’t let the rules and lists paralyze you. Don’t get stuck agonizing over every weasel word you find. Instead, recognize that weasel words can help you find weaknesses in your writing, but also know that excising all the weasel words can hamper the sound and rhythm of your voice. Learn the reasoning behind the rules, but don’t let following the rules steal the breath from your story.
Since this is a book about weasel words, any I use will likely pop out at you. You might be tempted to go, “Aha! She doesn’t follow her own rules!” And you’re right. Sometimes I break them, often because following a rule keeps it from sounding like me, but I make that conscious decision…and sometimes those weasel words just plain sneak back in. I don’t want my manuscript to be bloated with them, so I check them.
You might find you like my example sentences better than my fixes. Since your voice is different than mine, such differences of opinion are perfectly acceptable. Let the rules hone your work, not cripple your voice.
It’s not necessary to stop writing your first draft to deal with weasel words, but the more you learn to recognize them and deal with them in editing, the more you’ll quit using them in your drafts.
Many weasel words fall into multiple categories, so don’t be surprised to see a weasel word in one category and realize it’s also causing a problem in another.
At the end of this book, I will show you how to search for weasel words in groups so you can deal with one list at a time with a single click of a button. This way you won’t lose editing time clicking the “Find” button over and over again. Word’s and Open Office’s macro capabilities and Scrivener’s search collections make this easy.
If you’ve never heard of a macro or a search collection, don’t despair. I will lead you step-by-step through the macro and search collection building process. They do take a few hours to set up, but you can purchase the macro codes or Scrivener template from me if you’d prefer I do the work for you. Either way, once finished with this book, you’ll be able to use weasel words to help you self-edit with just a click of a button.
If you choose to set up the macros or Scrivener template yourself, I provide tips to help you set up the search mechanisms at the end of many weasel word sections. These tips should make your weasel word editing easy.
Now, let’s get to the different types of weasel words and see how each should be handled.
Caveat: I write fiction in the past tense so my weasel word lists contain past tense verbs. If you write in the present tense, you will need to change your verbs to present tense. You might choose to include both tenses if you write in both or write in past tense but use a lot of direct thought in present. The codes and templates I make available for purchase contain both tenses and third person pronouns.
Useless Weasel Words
The first set of weasel words we’ll look at are the easiest to deal with. These words are weasels because they tend to add nothing to your story but word count. Most of the time, your sentence will work fine without these words. However, you don’t want to eradicate them without thought. Sometimes you might want to keep them for reasons I will explain.