By Elizabeth Jacobson
I had written for years as teen and (very) young adult before I went on kind of a “forced hiatus.” I stopped having the time to write – at least that’s what I told myself. What really happened was that I stopped making the time, but that’s a different story.
One of the results of this was that, for a long time, I didn’t outgrow some writing habits that I had made as a teen. Another result was that I never had a true beta reader who could point out those bad habits until I was much older.
Now, let’s be clear. I am by no means saying that high schoolers and college kids are bad writers. Quite the contrary. Some of them are stellar.
I am saying that, at that age, I was not stellar. So, when I started writing in earnest again a few years ago, I had some weird habits that I had to break. Some of them I could see immediately. Simplistic explanations of why plot points happened were no longer acceptable. Character interaction needed to be more nuanced. Good stuff.
What flew under my radar were the “little things.” The problem with this is that a little thing can become a big thing when it happens over and over.
Such as weasel words.
Boy, do they happen over and over.
A weasel word is a word that sneaks into your writing, over and over again. It’s similar to when we say “like” and “um” over and over as filler when we talk. We don’t even register that we said those words – they just pop out. Weasel words “just pop out” when you’re writing.
My two weasel words are “suddenly” and “seemed,” and it took beta readers to point this out to me. I was reading my drafts over and over, completely blind to their existence as they sat in my sentences, quietly and patiently undermining my prose.
Now, you might think that once someone has pointed your weasel words out to you (I promise, you have at least one, so get someone to look at your writing!), you’re golden. You know what to look for. Awesome. You just won’t put that word in.
Here’s the thing. That probably won’t work.
A weasel word is often a symptom of a larger problem. You can’t just back up and not put that word in, because often there is a subconscious reason why it’s there to begin with. Even if it is a weasel word, it is serving some kind of purpose in your prose. Otherwise, you would have noticed it yourself when you read through your draft.
To illustrate this, let me walk you through the reason why my one of my weasel words was, well, what it was.
Suddenly is a very common weasel word. Writers place it in a sentence to indicate swift action, or that a character is surprised by something. And, on the surface, it seems that it does that. When I went to delete all my “suddenlys” from my draft, I was left with a very large problem. Now, nothing felt immediate.
But neither could I have a final draft that included tens if not hundreds of instances of the word “suddenly,” utilized every time there was action.
There was something I hadn’t yet realized about writing, the reason why I was using “suddenly” over and over: action and immediacy do not only flow from word choice. They also flow from sentence structure. Good writing allows for a balance of those. I’ll give you an example of the sort of thing I was doing, and I’ll overuse “suddenly,” and words like it, for effect:
She instantly staggered back, and her opponent’s laugh rang in her ears as she wiped sweat from her brow. Suddenly, determined, she stepped forward and picked up the ping-pong ball. She stood there, waiting for an opening, before, in a swift motion, she threw the ball into the air and served.
My sentences here are draggy. By this, I mean that they are uniformly long. This gives prose a “slow” feeling. But, I’m trying to write a tense moment. So, I’m relying on words like “suddenly,” “instantly,” and “in a swift motion” to convey the intensity.
It doesn’t really work, especially not when you use this tactic over and over for your entire novel. So, let’s try it again, keeping in mind that sentence structure has a large effect on intensity and action.
She staggered back, wiping sweat from her brow. Her opponent’s laugh rang in her ears. Determined now, she stepped forward and picked up the ping-pong ball. Waiting for an opening, it was only another moment before she threw the ball into the air and served.
This flows more quickly. Many of the sentences are shorter, creating a snappy rhythm. Note that you may read that all sentences in an intense or action scene should be short. I disagree. Just maintain the rhythm. If a longer sentence can fit in there and not disrupt the rhythm, use it.
Now, there’s actually one other thing that we can fix. Remember when I said that good writing flows from a balance of sentence structure and word choice? Let’s add a few more choice words to this scene that focus on emotion. Emotion can add both immediacy and depth to a scene.
She staggered back, wiping sweat from her brow. Her opponent’s laugh rang in her ears. A hot flush burned in her cheeks, and she grit her teeth as she stepped forward and picked up the ping-pong ball. Waiting for an opening, it was only another moment before she threw the ball into the air and served.
I changed one thing, and it did lengthen the middle sentence. But, I bet you feel like you understand or relate to this girl a little more now. I bet you can visualize and “feel” the scene better. Instead of telling you that she was determined, I told you how she felt determined. She flushed with embarrassment and grit her teeth in anger – this girl does not want this to happen again.
When you find your weasel words, you need to determine why you are using them. They are, more often than not, a poor substitute for deeper or more gripping writing. “Unlearning” to use your weasel words can be a difficult habit to break, as many habits are. But, I promise your writing will be much better for it.
Do you have any weasel words in your writing? Do you know the reasons why you use them? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments below!
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.