Death to weasel words. How to write a novel — part 8

WeaselWhat the hell is a weasel word? And how could there be more than one? Sadly, there are almost too many to count, and like their cuddly little namesakes, weasel words appear soft, sweet and quite unremarkable. The problem is what lurks beneath their bland exterior: boredom!

Weasel words are like watermarks for timid writers. Using them indicates that a writer lacks confidence. Who’s going to argue with you for saying a girl is “rather” pretty, or that a guy is “sort of” handsome, you know, in a wimpy kind of maybe he is and maybe he ain’t way. Oy. Spare me! Spare your poor readers, too.

Readers don’t want to deal with approximations. If your bad guy has all the clinical appeal of a junk yard toilet, say so! If your heroine is thin and pale and in need of a transfusion, don’t tell us she’s “a bit” underweight, “perhaps” in need of a tan, and “probably” anemic. Bleah! Cut to the freakin’ chase already.

cut to the chaseThe biggest problem with using weasel words is that they’re comforting. They don’t say things so much as they “suggest” them. In other words, by using them, we surrender the strength and shock value of saying what we really mean. Consider these two descriptions:

1) Glenard is a goddam vampire, but instead of sucking out your lifeblood, he extracts all your energy and leaves you not only emotionally drained but faint, frazzled and woozy.

2) Glenard is the kind of guy who leans on the strengths of other people. He’s a bit needy, and he seems to approach his friends like some kind of supplicant, begging their attention, and when he gets it, tends to absorb it.

Are we even talking about the same guy? Understand, after reading selection 1, I seriously dislike Glenard, and I’ve never even met him. After reading selection 2, I’m getting pissed at the author. Is he really so shallow he can’t see Glenard for the bottom feeder he obviously is? DPC_19365074_plusWhich character would you prefer to encounter in a book–someone who might be a slime (#2), or someone you know has deep-seated issues and will probably screw up everyone and everything around him? (#1)

If you’re not sure, shame on you! Go back and read my rant on the need for “good” bad guys. It’s here.

Now, working from the vampire analogy suggested above, do you see how weasel words suck the life out of prose? They’re wishy-washy. They waste your time and, way more importantly, the reader’s. Why? Because they muddy the water. They shroud what should be clear in needless noise. Don’t believe me? Go back and read example 2 again. Then, compare it with this sanitized version:

Howard is the kind of guy who leans on the strengths of other people. He’s a bit needy, and he seems to approaches his friends like some kind of a supplicant, begging their attention, and when he gets it, tends to absorbs it.

If you use weasel words enough, you’ll wear your readers out, and they’ll dispose of your book (or your report, or your short story, or your obit) like an overloaded diaper. That’s because weasel words are crappy. They’re useless, boring, empty, time-wasting, energy-sucking, moronic, fatuous, blobs of anti-helpful ink–or pixels, or whatever represents the currently in vogue digital equivalent of a skid mark in ones literary BVDs.

Next up: The trouble with was is….


 Second weasel photo credit: <a href=””>Eric Kilby</a> via <a href=””>photopin</a&gt; <a href=””>cc</a&gt;

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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4 Responses to Death to weasel words. How to write a novel — part 8

  1. Amanda Rillema says:

    So, maybe, what you’re trying to say is, well, um, perhaps… 🙂 Great post!

  2. joshlangston says:

    Actually, you’re sorta kinda right. Thanks for the ego-boo, kiddo! (The response to this post has been profoundly underwhelming. Guess I should’ve include naked pix or something.)

  3. Mike Johnson says:

    I am really enjoying this series, Josh, and finding plenty of food for thought here. I plan to reread them all and make some notes. Your tone and humor make the lessons palatable and fun!

    • joshlangston says:

      Thanks, Mike! I’m looking forward to getting back to our Christmas Letter project. I know I’ve let you guys down, but I haven’t forgotten about it. Maybe you’ll be encouraged to tackle a little fiction writing on your own. By the way, I’ve got a couple spots still open in my class this fall. We’ll write and publish a complete novel in 8 weeks. At least, that’s the goal. It’s called a “Novel By Committee.” Lemme know if y’all are interested. (I may also have students in absentia — participants unable to attend classes.)

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