When I’m writing a first draft, I use certain words and phrases far too much, trying to capture the image and tone in my head for the page. Some scenes play out like a movie in my mind’s eye and I end up too prone to minute stage directions, to expressions that qualify and prevaricate and waver where no such words are required. Sometimes, common grammatical functions in speech are a disservice in their written form.
When I edit other people’s work (which I do from time to time) I’m relieved to find that I’m not the only one who uses all that unnecessary verbiage.
But those extra words – those weasely, prevaricating, wishy-washy words that don’t add to the story, or worse, drain it of energy and impact – still need to be edited out.
Not every single example meets the Red Editing Pen of Death, though. Like all words, they are useful and important in their correct time and place. The test for me is usually – can I take out those extra words without changing the meaning? Does the sentence have more impact/more truth with or without them? If deletion is an improvement, out it goes.
But what are these weasel words, exactly, and why do they make such a difference?
Words and expressions like: just, rather, probably, maybe, possibly, perhaps, a little, a bit, kind of and sort of all serve to diminish the intensity of the words around them. And sometimes that’s exactly what you want – particularly in speech, or in a person’s direct thoughts, because humans tend to tippy-toe around some ideas and prevarication is exactly what you want to convey.
But a lot of the time, that’s just you, the writer, not fully committing to the idea. Here are a few example from my most recent novel-in-progress, Ravenfall.
- James sort of shrugged. –> James shrugged.
Really – what is ‘sort of’ about lifting your shoulders?
- Gabriel hugged him a little harder. –> Gabriel hugged him harder
Hugging is happening. Degrees of huggage hardness are not important at this point.
Suzannah Windsor recently wrote a blog about eliminating filter words, bringing my own focus closer to verbs about perception that can put distance between the character and the things they experience. Verbs like think, feel, look, see, sound…
- Michael in fact sounded far from astonished to hear from his brother. –>
Michael was in fact far from astonished to hear from his brother.
Saying that he only sounded unsurprised might suggest it’s a front. But Michael’s well used to his brother’s random and sporadic phone calls.
- He felt the skin along his spine, his neck, his scalp, crawl with apprehension. –>
The skin along his spine, his neck, his scalp, crawled with apprehension.
He’s not simply feeling it; it’s actually happening to him. Remove the filter and his reaction is more immediate.
In speech we often use filler terms at the start of sentences – commonly ‘there are/is/were’ or It is/was’. Most of the time, however, in these contexts ‘there’ and ‘it’ don’t refer to anything else. They don’t stand in for a known noun (though perhaps that’s coming up later in the sentence). Often, they only exist as a way to begin a sentence and they’re only putting more words between your story and your reader.
- There are days when the shell is very thin. –> The shell is very thin on some days.
Shorter, more direct, and it goes to the subject more quickly.
- There are other interpretations to be placed on your visions. –>
Other interpretations can be placed on your visions.
Once more we are right into the heart of it, without the ’empty calories’ of a phrase with no direct reference.
Useless Extra Moments
I have a terrible tendency to say that someone ‘paused a moment’ or ‘considered for a moment’ or ‘waited a bit’. Frankly, pausing is already obviously only for a moment, so why weigh it down with more moments?
He paused, she considered, they waited – none of them need a second longer or any refining of their activity.
English is a funny thing. One reason it has such range is our habit of adding prepositions to verbs to make whole new verbs. Pass up, pass out, pass something out, pass away and pass by all have very different meanings. These structures, called phrasal verbs, are really useful. Most of the time. But the difference between sit and sit down is minimal. Are you adding prepositions to verbs that don’t need them?
Also, sometimes characters look up or down or over or across at other characters and things, but the preposition isn’t always useful or necessary. If everyone is always looking up at everyone else, how can you tell who is the shortest?
All of us have our own writing tics. I tend to write people as nodding, turning, smiling, sighing and frowning way too often, so I search for those terms too, deleting any that are unnecessary or otherwise implied. They only get to stay if they indicate a shift in mood or status or their reaction needs emphasis.
The Weasel-Word Edit
When I have my first draft down and solid, I read it again and jot down words that are clearly overused, along with my regular weasel-word list. Then I search my word file. The number of times a word appears can be a huge surprise. I almost halved the appearance of ‘a moment’ from one draft to the next, and people only do a third as much frowning now.
Never Say Never
As you can see, I didn’t eliminate frowning or moments (or any other words or phrases on my hit list) completely. People are rarely so crisp in speech, so some of these terms still appear in dialogue when it’s appropriate to the character, situation and mood. A good deal of scowling, frowning and blinking still occurs. The story is full of vampires, werewolves, precognitive dreams and a flighty artist. Scowling, frowning and blinking are inevitable under the circumstances.
Don’t blanket-delete words from your list, because every word, no matter how weasely it sometimes appears, has its place in the scheme of things.
I’ve included a list of the words that I have on my weasel-word edit list. Perhaps it can help you to tighten up or polish your manuscript. The list isn’t definitive, so add your own tics and linguistic bad habits, and cross off the sins you don’t commit.
- a moment, a while, a little, a bit, sort of, kind of
- just, rather, pretty sure, fairly, some, still
- perhaps, maybe, probably, possibly, really
- there are, there were, there’s, there is, it’s, it is, it was, does+verb
- look, like, feel, felt, sound, seem, think, wonder
- nod, smile, blink, sigh, frown, scowl
- up, down, over, across, around
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.