I learned of the term “weasel words” from writer Matt Bell, who thinks he learned it from Gabe Durham. In any event, it’s becoming part of the writing lexicon and what it means, in the creative writing sense, is different than the dictionary.com definition—“words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous or misleading.”
Although the words may be ambiguous and may in fact mislead, it’s rarely because of intention on the part of the writer. In fact, these words tend to sneak in unnoticed until an editor marks them in red or, better, a writer sets her mind to seek and destroy them during her self-editing process.
What are they? Here’s a useful definition from Matt Bell:
Weasel words are the empty calories of sentence writing, little bits of filler that, while technically correct, either don’t add anything meaningful or prevent you from writing the best sentences you can. Some of them can be simply deleted, while others will need to be replaced with something better; doing so will make your fiction more concise, more interesting, and more unique.
A great example of a weasel word is “that.” It’s a word that is often necessary (see what I did there?) but sometimes needless, like in this sentence:
that they might be coming for Christmas.”
Intensifiers like “really” and “very” are common weasel words. As are the mitigators “quite” and “a bit.” These little varmints slip in unnoticed during the drafting process and need to be rooted out before a piece is sent out for publication.
<aside> Many of the weasel words that make their way into my blog posts get to stay. Am I a hypocrite? Am I lazy? Well, maybe and maybe. But I like some of my blog posts to lean closer to the way I talk, a little bit relaxed with less of a polish than something I’d submit to a literary magazine. </aside>
Some weasel words are pests to us all and some will be specific to the individual writer. Most of us have words we overuse, and if you’re wanting to continue to write better sentences, it’s not a bad idea to start keeping a list of yours as you notice them.
Here’s a partial list of mine:
that, really, very, kind of, almost, just, rather, sometimes, seem, mostly, merely, quite, something, then, slightly, completely, much, probably, so, began
When you’re doing your final edits, use the Find function to search for every instance of the word and ask yourself each time if it’s needed. If you can cut it, you might want to. Or maybe the situation demands a re-write. But not every time! Sometimes you’ll want to keep the word. In these cases, you’re not dealing with a weasel at all but a perfectly appropriate little animal just doing its job :).