‘I could see her looking at me, as she readied herself to tell me about my overuse of weasel words in the nicest possible way. I felt my face tighten as I braced myself for the impact of her words.’
‘She looked at me, ready to tell me about my overuse of weasel words. I braced myself for the impact of her words.’
Recently I had the good fortune of meeting with Perth writer Louise Allen. I had won a manuscript appraisal as part of the Twitter #authorsforfiries auction, which saw me handing over the first 10,000 words of my novel.
It’s a luxury at the best of times to be able to sit with a fellow writer and talk about nothing but your own writing, but to be handed a mirror to hold up to your work, to identify the flaws, is equally valuable.
Louise made the following comment about the paragraph above:
“you could do away with ‘Isabelle watched’ and go straight to ‘Isabelle’s mother studied the image.’ The reader knows Isabelle’s watching, because it’s in her POV. It removes a step between the reader and the action, and brings the reader into the story more.”
Weasel words are the fodder of the new writer, adding extra words thinking it deepens our writing (it doesn’t) or adding layers that end up removing the readers from the story.
Taking Louise’s sage advice I turned my gaze on another recently finished manuscript, determined to make sure I hadn’t repeated my sins.
Turns out I’m prolific with my use of weasel words. Hundreds of them peppered my novel like a 1980s Pepper Steak. Unfortunately for me, your use of weasel words is a bit like a golf score, you want it to be as low as possible.
I did a search and find on the following phrases and was shocked by the numbers I saw:
51 instances of ‘I looked…’
23 times I wrote ‘I could hear’
93 cases of ‘I could see’ and ‘I saw’
127 instances of ‘I felt’
And a whopping 274 times I used ‘just’.
It took a couple of days and some seriously strong coffee but I managed to remove about 80% of all my weasel words. The effect of course is to cut the parachute strings and drop the reader directly into the story.
You can’t remove all instances of these phrases. Sometimes the word is fulfilling an actual function and not just bad writing.
I felt my face turn pink = bad
I felt frumpy in comparison = fine
I just stared up at him in adoration = bad
Perhaps he’s only now just discovering who he really is = fine
I could see that she was uncomfortable = bad
I tried to sit up so I could see him better = fine
I saw Adam purse his lips = bad
My face went red as I saw huge boxes of condoms on the table = fine
I could hear the smile in his voice = really bad
I could hear the rush of air as the paramedic pushed the needle into her chest = fine
I plan to continue writing the same way I always have, letting the words flow through my fingers without censorship. But now I have a weapon in my editing arsenal, and before I even consider hitting send or publish – I will be doing a search and destroy on my weasel words.