Writer’s Insights: Weasel Words
All writers have them. They go by many different names. You may not even notice them at first. They pretend to be your friends, but they’re not. They’re actually your worst enemies.
No, I’m not talking about inner demons. I’m talking about weasel words.
No, these words aren’t literal weasels. (Although your writing might be cuter if they were.) They’re words a writer relies on over and over again, often without even realizing they’re using the word so frequently.
You might also hear them termed “crutch” words. They’re the words you lean on. Sometimes, they’re more than a single word, expanding into a phrase. I call them “weasel” words because they tend to be not only repetitive but also extraneous. They weasel their way into your writing.
Identifying Your Weasel Words
As I said, every writer has weasel words and/or crutch phrases. They’re usually rhetorical devices you employ to make your writing sound more florid, artistic, or educated. You’ll use them over and over again. You use them so frequently, you’re immune to them. You scarcely notice them.
That’s the other aspect of weasel words that makes them so sinister. It can be very difficult for the writer to pick them out. A reader or editor usually has no trouble; we read the word or phrase over and over again until we’re ready to scream and throw the book at the wall. “Stop. Using. That. Word!” we shriek.
The first step any writer needs to take is identifying their weasel words.
How to Spot Them
The best way to spot your weasel words is a twofold process. First, set your writing aside for a spell. The longer you can leave it, the better. You’ll approach the piece with “fresh” eyes when you return to it.
The second step is to actually read your piece. Don’t skim it or scan it. Read it very carefully, as though you were a new reader approaching it. Patterns of use should begin to emerge. (If they don’t, be sure to pass the piece to another set of eyes before assuming all is well and fine.)
Occasionally, you’ll get tripped up in your own writing. Something will trigger, pulling you out of your writing flow. You’ll pause and realize this is the second or third time you’ve written this word or phrase in a few pages. Scrolling up, you begin to notice it more. You’re using it everywhere.
How to Correct Weasel Words
Once you’ve spotted your weasel words, you can begin watching out for them. The best method for “correcting” them is just not to use them in the first place. This is sometimes a challenge, especially since many of them become effectually reflexive. Attentive writing is one way to cut down on usage.
Attentive editing is the next step. Even if you’re paying attention while you’re writing, you may not be able to eliminate usage entirely. You might not even catch most instances.
Keep a thesaurus and a dictionary handy. Experiment with different sentence structures. Reading can help you here, since it introduces you to new turns of phrase you can incorporate into your own writing.
What Are My Weasel Words?
I have a few, actually! The first one I was alerted to was “that.” Since then, I’ve been trying to remove or reduce my use of “that” in my writing. In most cases, it’s a completely extraneous word. It’s particularly common for academic writers to overuse this word. Having worked on many academic texts, I had picked up a few of the “tics” of more academic writing. I was often constructing sentences such as, “You know that means that …”
In most cases, I could eliminate both uses of the word “that” in such a sentence. In about a hundred percent of cases, I could remove at least one of them. When it came down to it, there are relatively few instances where I need to use “that” at all.
As I worked through more academic texts, I noticed other authors doing the same thing. This one is relatively common, so keep an eye out for it in your writing.
Looking, Staring, Glancing
Another of my tics is common for writers of all stripes, particularly novice writers. Almost all “how to” manuals for writing warn against this one. You’ll see these words on lists of “most overused words” and whatnot.
My characters do a lot of looking, glaring, staring, and glancing, both at each other and at the world around them. Now, that’s not unusual really. Human beings are very visual creatures (those of us who can see, at least). Our vision is probably the sense we rely on the most when it comes to interpreting the world around us. Touch is next, followed by hearing, smell, and taste. (We’re really bad at those last three.)
I blame television and movies for this one in particular. These are visual mediums, which incorporate silences and longing looks with more elegance than the written world. Think about how many times and how many different ways a movie or TV show illustrates a character’s emotions by showing their expression. They’re often looking at something: Maybe they furrow their brow to glare at a friend, or maybe they look at their shoes to convey shyness or sadness. Maybe they look off into the distance.
The difference is I don’t have to tell you “Molly looked off into the distance and sighed wistfully, and Everett glared at her because how dare she sigh like that!”
Those of us who’ve grown up with movies and TV and their particular (visual) brand of storytelling often reflect it in our writing. That doesn’t mean we should be allowed to get away with it, however.
My approach to “correcting” my overuse of these words is threefold. First, I’m looking for more synonyms and stronger verbs (what happens if I say a character peers down at their feet or peeks at a classmate, rather than looks at them?). The second step is to find different ways of phrasing similar actions: Perhaps a character turns their head or averts their eyes. Finally, the last thing is to remove these phrases altogether. Maybe there are other actions my characters can take to convey the same things. Maybe nothing at all needs to happen.
“For a Moment”
The last weasel word on my list for discussion today is actually a crutch phrase. I often use the phrase “for a moment.” Characters stare at each other “for a moment,” they’re silent “for a moment,” and so on and so forth.
For the most part, this is deadweight in my writing. I add it to put a time limiter on the action, but it’s not usually very useful for the reader. It doesn’t tell them much. And when I start using it over and over again, it becomes repetitive and boring. Worse, it means readers could probably put a stopwatch to my story, counting up the minutes to figure out approximately how long it takes a conversation to elapse. If it’s too short or too long, it will seem unrealistic.
So, what to do? Most of the answer here is simply to excise it. I don’t need these extra words dragging my writing down or slowing the reader down. It can be difficult to catch them, but for the most part, editing will help me rid myself of them.
What Should You Do?
Every writer has weasel words. You’ll catch on to one, work to remove it, and realize you’ve glommed on to another phrase or word in the process. All you can do is keep working to spot, find, and eliminate or reduce weasel words.
A good edit is almost always the cure. Attentive writing will help you limit the occurrences in the first place, but attentive editing will be the most helpful thing you can do.
The other thing? Don’t panic. You’re in good company. Recognizing and rooting out weasel words and crutch phrases are part of a writer’s work, and we’re all right there with you.