REVISION TRENCHES: Weasel Words

Posted: February 14, 2018 in Writing
Tags: , , , , ,

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I recently completed a major revision to my daughter’s and my current manuscript.  This wasn’t the first; experience tells me it won’t be the last.  However I did something during this last revision that I’ve never done before.

I systematically eliminated a wide range of “weasel words.”

wea·sel word
noun
1) a word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position. 2) a vague qualifier that weakens one’s writing, used to avoid making direct statements. 

EXAMPLES:
    saw
    noticed
    heard
    thought
    knew
    touched
    wondered
    realized
    watched
    looked (or looked like)
    seemed
    felt (or felt like)
    could
    decided
    sounded (or sounded like)

Spotting weasel words (also referred to as “filter words”) in your own work is difficult.  It takes a particular mind-set.  And even when you have that, it fades quickly when you read your own stuff.  I had to keep re-learning what I was looking for, because — in my case, at least — adding these words into my writing was an organic part of my style.  Far from waving red flags, they tended to fade into the background as I read, because they were a part of my voice.  

Compare these two paragraphs:

Sarah felt a sinking feeling as she realized she’d forgotten her purse back at the cafe across the street. She saw cars filing past, their bumpers end-to-end. She heard the impatient honk of horns and wondered how she could quickly cross the busy road before someone took off with her bag. But the traffic seemed impenetrable, and she decided to run to the intersection at the end of the block.

Sarah’s stomach sank. Her purse – she’d forgotten it back at the cafe across the street. Cars filed past, their bumpers end-to-end. Horns honked impatiently. Could she make it across the road before someone took off with her bag? She ran past the impenetrable stream of traffic, toward the intersection at the end of the block.

See the difference? All the talk about “showing, not telling” and “active voice, not passive voice” is really about this.  Sarah felt a sinking feeling is passive.  The writer is telling you that she had a sinking feeling by turning the verb “sink” into a description.  Sarah’s stomach sank is active. “Sank” is the verb.

I can’t speak for other writers, but for my part, I developed these kinds of weasel phrases as a way to avoid using “was.”  Somewhere in the dim past of my writing career, someone told me (or I misunderstood) that “was” was passive and/or boring, and that I needed variety.  So She was hungry became She felt hungry. What I taught myself to do was to trade one passive verb for another passive verb.  Instead, I should have taught myself to write Her stomach rumbled.  

BE AWARE, the words above are not evil. You aren’t expect to never use them.  Sometimes “felt” or “saw” or “realized” is exactly the active verb you want.  But not always.  A simple find and replace is not going to work.  Use find/replace to locate each time you used any of those words, but judge every case individually.

The moment my eyes were opened was when I read a comment by a very helpful critique partner, who finally explained what others had simple noted as “wrong.” Here’s the life-changing comment I received:

I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that guy in the Hawaiian shirt was really an ogre.

I spotted him through the dusty window, leaning against the sign that advertised our shop and gnawing on a big, greasy turkey leg. He had long hairy arms and a hook nose and one big eyebrow all the way across his forehead.

I like your description of the ogre. Very vivid. However, I notice your writing sometimes slips into a mode of filtering the action through the MC’s eyes. So she does a lot of “spotting” things and “glimpsing” things and “seeing things.” This creates a bit of distance for the reader because we are reading about what the MC sees, rather than seeing it for ourselves. For example if the paragraph were changed slightly:

I wasn’t sure how, but I knew that guy in the Hawaiian shirt was really an ogre.

He was just outside the dusty window of our little shop, leaning against a lamppost as he gnawed on a big, greasy turkey leg. Didn’t anyone notice his long hairy arms, hooked nose and that giant eyebrow that stretched all the way across his forehead?

In the example above the reader is the one seeing the ogre (in essence, we become the MC). This creates a closer POV, rather than saying “I saw him…” Because in that case the reader is seeing the MC…and then the MC is seeing the ogre. That’s filtering and it creates distance from the character.

There are several ways this could be fixed.  I went a slightly different direction in my final edit, making “gnaw” the active verb:

Right outside the dusty window, he gnawed on a big, greasy turkey leg and leaned against the sign that advertised our flower shop. He had long hairy arms and a hook nose and one big eyebrow all the way across his forehead.

Here are a few other examples:

NOTICED:
I started to climb in when I noticed there wasn’t any place left to sit.
I started to climb in, but there wasn’t any place left to sit.

WATCHED:
I sullenly scratched my sunburned arm and watched little flakes of my pale skin fall off.
I sullenly scratched my sunburned arm. Little flakes of my pale skin drifted down like snow.

FELT:
I felt a smile slowly lift my mood as I thought of Dad coming home tomorrow.
My mood slowly lifted as I thought of Dad coming home tomorrow.

The other great thing about this process is that I cut very nearly 1,000 words from a 64,000 word manuscript.  That’s huge.  I found that once I got firmly into the mindset of spotting these weasel words, I started seeing other examples of filtering outside of this list, just places where I could tighten and improve and make the action more up-front. This is always a good thing. Eventually, I hope to be able to alter my voice to avoid weaseling when I write, so I don’t have to work so hard to remove them later.

I recommend you put your manuscript through this regimen, regardless of what stage you are in.  It’s like putting your manuscript on a diet and toning its muscles. You’ll find afterwards that you story is leaner and has more energy.

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Comments
  1. K.M. Allan says:

    Fantastic post! This has shown me how much I also rely on my characters ‘seeing’ things rather than describing things in a more immersive way for the reader. Will definitely be using this advice for future edits. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sandra Coopersmith says:

    Wonderful and very useful post!

    Like

  3. Excellent post, John. The example paragraph you give with Sara is really well done. Perfect illustration of how filtering sneaks into our writing. You can really hear a huge improvement between the before and after version. Much closer voice, a more immersive experience and the pace is snappier.

    I can see you really took this concept to heart and worked hard to incorporate it in your story. Hard to change something like that in our writing, particularly after we fall into the rut of using it too often. But from the sound of it, your story is way better off for it. Good job.

    Someone once told me the way to really know if you understand a concept is if you can clearly (and simply) explain the concept to someone else. You’re obviously there.

    Nicely done.
    JD.

    Liked by 1 person

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