Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ten Words You Should Kill Before They Murder Your Writing

I’m going to take a detour around the self-publishing topic to provide a list I promised a fellow volunteer at the Surrey International Writer’s Conference last week. Julian, this post is for you!

I first learned about this kind of word list from Angela Hunt in a workshop at Mt. Hermon Writers’ Conference. She told us we should avoid “weasel” words, and pointed out that they pepper our writing if we don’t deliberately work to avoid them.

In the world of non-fiction, words are termed “weasel” when they blur the truth—when they are used either to deceive the reader, or to protect the writer from having to defend his or her statements. In fiction writing, I think they should be called weasel words because when we use them we weasel out of the writer’s responsibility to choose words carefully.

We do have a responsibility, as writers, to choose our words carefully, but there’s a more practical reason to concern ourselves with weasel words. David Michael Kaplan says: “Any words that aren’t working for you, are working against you.” Eliminating weasel words instantly makes the writing more effective. It’s well worth the time it takes to use that trusty “find” tool to ferret out every one of these pesky critters (Why does that phrase make me think of Randy Ingermanson?)

Words I work hard at avoiding fall mainly into four categories: they are either unnecessary, vague, overused or weak. My actual list of weasels is 40 words long, but I’ll start here with my ten favourites:

1. Very: Absolutely (;-)the worst offender. Very overused (;-), and unnecessary 99.9% of the time.

2. Many: In the category of non-specific words showing (or not showing) amount. Others are several, most, few, etc.

3. There: When used to begin a sentence. See my May 12 blog post, In the Doghouse.

4. Was/were: Because they usually denote passive voice.

5. Thought/realized: Indicate telling, not showing. If you’re in your POV properly you won’t need to mention that your character is thinking or realizing. See post Deep Point of View, October 6, 2008.

6. Felt/seemed: Same problem. They’re words that show state of being, rather than action. Show the feelings and impressions whenever possible.

7. Quite: A vague qualifier, in the category with almost, kind of, and my personal favorite: a bit.

8. Thing: Why not say what the thing is? It’s more specific, and therefore more vivid. Something, anything are also in this family of words.

9. Vast: An example of any word that indicates hyperbole. Unnecessary exaggeration. Extremely, hugely, minutely, absolutely are other examples.

10. Actually: One of the words David Kaplan lists as equivalent to the “uhs” and “wells” and “you knows” in conversation. Actually, this might be the worst one!

I’ve been checking out Kaplan’s book as I write, and have rediscovered "Chapter Nine: Revising Your Prose for Power and Punch." I’m going to re-study that chapter and go back to my manuscript one more time. He’s got a better list of words and says all I’ve been trying to say much better.

Get his book: Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Rewriting Fiction.

P.S. Interesting note on weasel words from

"Though the imagery of the term suggests that it implies the concept of a weasel as being sneaky and able to wiggle out of a tight spot, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language says that the term actually comes from the weasel's ability to suck the contents out of an egg without breaking the shell; thus, weasel words suck the meaning out of a statement while seeming to keep the idea intact."


Brayden Hirsch said...

Great post - most of them are pretty well-known as words not to use, but a couple of them, I'd never thought of before.

By the way, I'm still waiting for that first chapter of yours. Looking forward to reading it over for you.


JSL said...

Haha. I've been looking forward to this ever since you mentioned it. I was excited to read it to see the words I've been using that are unneccesary and harmful drivel. As Brayden said some of them are the first ones we all think of, but it still doesn't hurt to be reminded. I went that opening scene keeping your tips in mind and got it down to about half the length it was. So thank you!!! :D