Weasel Words in Our Writing

Wordsworth, the Wordy Weasel

Weasel words invade our stories when we’re not looking.

What are they?

According to Wikipedia, the expression first appeared in Stewart Chaplin’s short story Stained Glass Political Platform (published in 1900 in The Century Magazine), in which they were referred to as “words that suck the life out of the words next to them, just as a weasel sucks the egg and leaves the shell.”

Our job is to locate those unnecessary words and get rid of them.

Following are three categories of weasel words I’ve identified.

Words that lack clarity or introduce ambiguity

a bit
a few/few
a little
a lot
about
absolutely
actually
almost
approximately
arguably
awfully
barely
basically
close to
exactly
extremely
fairly
finally
just
kind of
like
literally
many
most
nearly
occasionally
practically
quite
rather
really
several
severely
slightly
some
somewhat
sort of
surely
truly
usually
very

Solution: Be precise.

Examples:

Before: She had a bit of a crush on Johnny Depp.
After: She had a crush on Johnny Depp.

Before: The tree was approximately ten feet tall.
After: The tree was ten feet tall.

Before: She was kind of interested in seeing the movie.
After: She was interested in seeing the movie.

Words that slow the action

all at once
began to
eventually
immediately
just then
might
often
proceeded to
started to
suddenly
then

Solution: Get into the action.

Example ~

Before: Just then Tyler began to rev his Porsche’s engine.
After: Tyler revved his Porsche’s engine.

Words That Tip off Telling and Make for Shallow POV

appeared
decided
felt
heard
knew
mused
realized
seemed
thought
wondered

Solution: Show and Use Deep POV

Example ~

Before: Emily realized she was late for work and knew she had to kick it in high gear.
After: She was late for work. Time to kick it in high gear.

* * *

These lists aren’t complete. Other words can sneak into our stories and weaken them. I’ll mention some more on Friday.

In sharing the lists, my goal isn’t to induce panic and send you to your WIP freaked out about every word choice. What I want is to help you identify weasel words you might want to eliminate when you’re performing your self-edits.

Not every word on these lists needs to be removed. In some cases, one of them might be the best choice. That decision is up to you. You know your story and what works best with your voice.

Here are four posts I found helpful when researching weasel words:

* * *

Are there certain words in these lists that cause you problems?

Do any of the words on the lists surprise you?

What words would you add?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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21 Responses to Weasel Words in Our Writing

  1. Lori Benton says:

    I recognized many of those weasel words! That’s a great checklist Keli for a final draft. There are a few words on that list I’ve used sparingly, but purposefully, because they fit a particular character’s voice. I try to weed them out of every other character’s POV though, to make the distinction.

  2. Gina Conroy says:

    Seeing that I have 6,000 more words to cut on my WIP, I’ll need to go over there weasel words AGAIN! Hoping to find several I haven’t cut yet!

  3. It’s those pesky “ly” words and more. Great list. I must print these off and keep them posted by my desk!

  4. Wendy says:

    Bookmarked this. Excellent reference!
    ~ Wendy

  5. Olivia Newport says:

    Recently I edited another writer’s work and needed to reduce the word count by about 30 percent. Rather than cutting any of his ideas or thought process, I accomplished the goal by clearing this kind of clutter. If a word is not doing something in a sentence that no other word does, then why is it there?

  6. Jessica says:

    Yep, these are annoying words! I can usually spot them but like you said, sometimes they’re okay to use. Thanks for the reminder here! Also, I didn’t know the origin of the weasel term. Very interesting!

  7. I like the way you show the before and after, Keli. This is what makes the difference between telling and showing. You are showing us the difference. Thank you. Blessings to you, Keli…

  8. Keli, these posts are (very) valuable to us writers. Thanks for the amazing job of bringing the information to us. I will be referencing them often when writing hoping they become second nature. They will won’t they?

  9. Adverbs are my weasel words!

  10. Ella says:

    What a timely post! I am just about to embark on my first round of edits to my novel. I started with chapter 1 last night and winced every time I came across one of these (and there were many!). But that’s what first drafts are for, right? I am going to bookmark this post. When it comes time for me to do some major fine tuning of the document I’ll use Microsoft Word search capability to find these words and eliminate them.

    Now if I can just figure out a way to root out those pesky LY words from my writing!!!

  11. Tana Adams says:

    Love this list! I hope to find all these words in my books and remove them!

  12. Sherrinda says:

    I love this post and pasted it into my OneNote Notebook for editing. EXCELLENT information here! And I loved how you had the before and after examples. I am more of a visual learner and it is helpful to see the problem and how to fix it.

  13. Thanks for this excellent post, Keli (it’s a keeper!!). ~ I’ve noticed lately that I tend to use the word “so” quite a bit – – not sure why. 😉 I appreciate these examples you’ve included, and feel certain I’ll refer back to them!

  14. Joanne says:

    Keli,

    I’m still learning this. But, I did know the word “Just” was a no no. Maybe that’s why I cried when I discovered it was in the title of my book. Grrrrrr…..

    But, the one I use way too much is “like”. Thankfully, I use the find and replace feature!

  15. Thanks Keli! I just did a search and found so many!!

  16. Keli your checklist is very helpful! I’m editing two WIPs right now. Off to do a search for these words. I know they’ve weaseled there way into my writing at times and now I am going to get rid of them!

  17. Actually – ‘a bit’ or ‘quite’ or ‘rather’ – and similar ‘unnecessary’ qualifiers contribute ‘quite’ ‘a bit’ to writing in more subtle English speaking societies. Such qualifiers take some of the sting out of reading the more direct style of writing used in less subtle English speaking societies.

  18. Suzanne says:

    Excellent article, Keli! Thanks for the link to my set of posts on weasel words too.

  19. Brittany says:

    I have “starred” this in my google reader. Thank you for the tips! Also, I think I may have to buy one of those weasels to put on my desk. Maybe he will remind me to keep out all of those unnecessary words!

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