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Beware the Weasel Word!

What is a weasel word or filler word?

Filler words add bulk to your writing without adding meaning. For example, if you’re writing in a rigid first or third person PoV, there’s rarely any need to write, “He saw that the light was on.” You can just write, “The light was on.” You lose zero meaning by cutting out the “he saw that.” The reader already know who is looking at the light because we know whose head we are observing events from. Another common form of weasel word is an interjection in the midst of a sentence – the friend who first introduced me to the concept explained it as, “our brains don’t know exactly what comes next so it just puts a word in as the mental equivalent of a pause or ‘um.’” And that explanation contained (at least) two such words – “exactly” and “just,” both of which could be cut from that sentence without impacting the meaning. Time words are also often filler words – there are few times where you actually need to say “in a moment;” context usually communicates the sequence of events clearly. 

Also be on the lookout for long phrases that can be replaced by a single word – for example, “cut down on” and “reduced” are synonyms. Using a single specific word, provided it’s not too obscure a word, is often a better choice.

Cutting out weasel/filler words gives your writing more punch and immediacy; bulky, unnecessary extra words form a filter between your reader’s experience of your writing and the visceral experiences that you, as a writer, are trying to communicate. Reducing their usage really strengthens a story.

Different authors have different filler words they are prone to. What counts as a filler word will also depend on context, writing style, personal preference, etc. This is especially true when writing dialog – one character’s weasel word is another’s regular way of talking. Still, there are many words that if I see them in my writing, I pause and think, “okay, do I really need that word there?”

I’ve seen a lot of posts that list specific types of weasel words (ie, filler nouns versus nonsense adverbs) but I’ve never just seen a comprehensive list of words to look out for – words that, while they won’t always be filler words, are often unnecessary and should be scrutinized when writing. 

General things to remember:

  • Be declarative. Avoid constructions like, “it seemed like” in favor of constructions like “it was.” This is your story. Be firm. Be bold. Be confident.
  • Be wary of adverbs. Generally speaking, an adverb is worth using if you’re indicating that you’re subverting the meaning of the word being modified, and unnecessary if you’re reinforcing the meaning of the word being modified. “She smiled maliciously” is a good adverb use, because saying someone smiled in no way implies they’re being malicious; “she smiled kindly” is not a great adverb use, because smiling is generally kind – this kind of usage could still be appropriate but only depending on context and character. For example, if you’ve established that your character is rarely kind, it might be important to specify that this particular smile is atypical for this character. But in most contexts, “she smiled kindly” is redundant and kindly is a weasel word that should be cut.
  • Interjections such as “wow” and “like” and “sure” in dialog are often weasel words, especially if they are repetitious with what comes after. For example, if one characters says, “Would you like to go to the mall?” and another replies, “yeah, that’d be awesome” you can cut the word “yeah” without impacting the meaning at all. Also, if you have a character nod or shake their head, there’s literally zero reason to also have them say “yes” or “no.” Pick either the word or the gesture. Yes, casual repetition like that is how people actually speak but it doesn’t make for strong writing. Ages ago I read a great article about this that has, sadly, been lost to time. The gist of it was, think of every phone call in every movie or TV show you’ve ever seen. In a “real” phone call, we start with hello and small talk, but on screen, they never waste time with that, they launch right into significant dialog because seconds are precious on screen. When writing fictional dialog, try to do the same – you don’t need to put every nuance of real-life conversation in, just enough to establish tone, and then focus on what the characters are trying to communicate. Even if your character hems and haws a lot, putting in “uh” every sentence or two is incredibly tiresome to read. Remember how quickly a reader will consume your work and give readers credit for their memory. Put in enough to convey the idea of a normal conversation without slavishly reproducing how people really talk. (this honestly could be its own entire post, but this is at least a start on the topic with a focus on how it relates to cutting out unnecessary words…). Basically: if you’re writing a conversation and having the characters say “hello” will a. be assumed and b. add nothing, don’t write it.
  • Passive voice introduces more unnecessary words than active voice. Compare: “I fed the cat” vs “the cat was fed by me.” Words are added, the sentence is clunky, and would anyone actually…say the second? Like ever? This is not to say “don’t use passive voice.” Passive voice has functions, and occasionally using the clunkier construction will also help with varying up your sentences and keeping your writing interesting. But use it thoughtfully and wisely.
  • Often, weasel words will be different in narrative versus dialog. When deciding what counts as a weasel word, always keep in mind the tone, education, world view, and attitudes of your Point of View character or that of the person speaking. One character’s weasel word is another character’s voice. (Sorry, I know this contradicts some of the above – I never said this was easy. 🙂 )
  • Redundant usage can turn a word that wouldn’t usually be a weasel word into a weasel word. This is especially true of adverbs ( “she slammed the door loudly” is redundant, and many other adverbs in place of “loudly” would be equally redundant, given everything implied by the word “slammed.”) For another example, “The powerful man lifted the heavy stone with an impressive show of strength” has multiple levels of redundancy – which you choose to keep is up to you but you don’t need to specify that it was heavy and that lifting it was impressive and that it was a show of strength. All three suggest the same thing, so only one is needed. “The man lifted the stone with a show of strength” conveys the same meaning, or you can find other ways to add the nuance without being repetitious, such as, “Muscles bulging with effort, the man lifted the heavy stone.” Same idea, less redundant – gives an idea how the man reacts, and thus more subtly communicates that the stone is heavy instead of beating the reader over the head with “HAVE I MENTIONED THE ROCK IS HEAVY?”
  • Specificity is your best friend. Don’t be vague if you can be specific. Don’t generalize when you can be specific. Don’t hedge your bets (“it was kind of like…”) when you can be specific. If you want the reader to understand and believe the thing…just say it.

Here’s a list of some common weasel words and phrases. If an entry is in bold it means I have provided a further explanation below the list. (having explanations integrated in the list made it clunky and hard to read)

A: about; absolutely; accordingly; actually; additionally; again; all; already; also; always; and; “as a matter of fact;” “as far as I’m concerned;” at least; at most; “at the present time/at the end of the day;” audible

B: back; basically; to be ~ing; to begin; “being ~”; to believe; both; briefly; but

C: certainly; clearly; closely; completely; “cut down on”

D: definitely; down

E: each; either; entirety; even; exactly; extremely

F: fact; fairly; to feel; finally; “for all intents and purposes;” “for the most part”

G: “going to do ~”

H: to hear; hence; herself/himself/themselves/myself; his/her/their/my own

I: ignored; “in a moment/second;” in addition; increasingly

J: just

K: kind of; to know

L: like; literally; to look

M: maybe; momentarily; mostly; much

N: nearly; no; “not long after;” now

O: obvious; of; often; once more; only

P: pretty; probably

Q: quite

R: rather; to realize; really; right

S: to see; seriously; silently; slightly; so; some; somehow; somewhat; “soon after;” sort of; to start; still; suddenly; surely

T: that; then; to think; though; thus; together; totally

U: to understand; up

V: very; virtually

W: to wonder

Y: yes

Explanations:

Audible: eg, “the door closed with an audible click” versus “the door closed with a click.” if your character heard the noise, it’s already audible. Using both is redundant.

to be ~ing: eg, “I’ll be going to prom” versus “I’m going to prom.”

to begin: eg, “They began to sing” versus “They sang.”

“being ~”: eg, “they were being active” versus “they were active.”

to believe: eg, “I believed I’d found the perfect dress” versus “I’d found the perfect dress.”

to feel: eg, “She felt the pain as the needle pricked her” versus “The prick of the needle was painful.”

“going to do ~”: eg, “we’re going to try to go to the park” versus “we planned to go to the park” versus “we went to the park”

to hear: eg, “He heard her say his name” versus “She said his name.”

herself/himself/themselves/myself: can often be cut if it’s clear that the action being done applies to the PoV character.

ignored: eg, “he was annoying, so I ignored him.” “To ignore” means “refuse to notice or acknowledge.” Having a character say they ignore something is to have them explicitly notice or acknowledge the thing in question. While it can work contextually, it often reads weirdly. 

to know: eg, “I know we talked about this” versus “We talked about this.”

to look: eg, “They looked and saw the sunrise” versus “They watched the sunrise.”

no: see “yes,” below.

of: eg, “I jumped off of the ledge” versus “I jumped off the ledge.”

once more: that an action or behavior is repeated is usually obvious from context, and language explicitly indicating a repeat is best used to lampshade that the repeat was intentional by the author instead of accidental

pretty: eg, in the sense of “the sky was pretty clear,” not in the sense of “she was pretty.”

to realize: eg, “I realized there was no solution” versus “There was no solution.”

said nothing: there are a lot of similar constructions to this (eg, “didn’t reply,” “couldn’t answer”) and they’re almost all unnecessary. Unless you’re aiming to lampshade the silence, it’s better to indicate that someone said nothing…by simply not having them say something.

to see: eg, “I saw the man jump over the fence” versus “The man jumped over the fence.”

silently: eg, “she padded silently across the room” versus “the padded across the room.” If something is silent, it’s best communicated by simply not having the thing make a sound.

to start: see “to begin,” above.

that: in many contexts “that” adds no meaning. For example, “She wanted to know that he cared” versus “She wanted to know he cared.”

to think: eg, “She thought he looked cool” versus “He looked cool.”

to understand: eg, “He understood the water was wet” versus “The water was wet.”

very: there are some excellent lists of synonyms for “very + ~word,” single words you can use, eg, “very big” versus “enormous.” Here’s one such list.

to wonder: see “to think,” above.

yes: this is a strange one, but frequently in dialog it’s not necessary to have a character explicitly say yes or no – it’s often clear from context – and including the yes/no reply and then giving an explanation that reiterates that is often clunky and unnecessary

References and Further Reading:

Remember, this is not meant as a hard and fast list of “words to not use.” Writing is about context; in some contexts these will be the correct words to use, and in others, they will be inappropriate. The key to dealing with weasel words is to make sure you use them at times they add meaning to what you’re writing and to cut them when they do not add meaning. Learning to recognize the difference is difficult and takes time, but gets easier with practice and is well worth getting good at. One of the quickest ways to really improve your writing is to read it with a critical eye, learn to recognize which of the above you over use most (everyone has different ones they tend towards…mine are “though” and “just.”) So go to it – read those sentences, figure out which words add meaning and which don’t, and pull out the red pen!

Good luck, fellow toilers!

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Meet Weird Story Starters

Everyone dreams of meeting their special someone, but the world is awash with meet-cutes, and even meet-uglies, so here – have a prompt list of meet weirds, just in time for Valentine’s Day!

  1. “Do you believe in love at last sight?”
  2. “Pick a card – any card…no, not that one!”
  3. “No offense…full offense…but your dog would be way cuter if it weren’t peeing on my leg.”
  4. “No way, I grabbed that bouquet first – it’s mine!”
  5. “I see you’ve noticed my unusual companion…no pictures, please.”
  6. “Excuse me…I know the line ‘are you an angel cause you look like you fell from heaven’ is trite, but could you get up please? You’re kind of crushing me.”
  7. “Why are you stealing all of those bread sticks?”
  8. “Your dog is staring at me like it remembers me from a past life.”
  9. “Oh, yeah, ‘cause you sure look like you’re getting some nightly!”
  10.  “What do you mean, they vanished into thin air?”
  11. “Are you a devil? Cause you’re setting me on fire. No. Literally. Stop.”
  12. “I don’t give a fuck about Valentine’s Day. Move or be obliterated.”
  13. “Look, I’ve already gotten fired today – I’ve got nothing left to lose!”
  14. “I can’t tell if you’ve actually got tentacles, or if I’m hallucinating again.”
  15. “You know, instead of pointing out that I’m drenched, you could have offered to share your umbrella, asshole!”
  16. “That is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen in my life – and I work at a baby animal rescue.”
  17. “No, I said turn left, not ri– hell, I think you just broke my nose.”
  18. “Mx., while the Fire Department does help with pets who’ve climbed trees…that is unmistakably a cactus, so please excuse my language when I say, respectfully: what the fuck?”
  19. “Please, I’ll pay anything, but I need a ride pronto – it’s my sibling’s wedding in ten minutes and I have the rings!”
  20. “You…shall not…PASS…oh, fuck, okay, you pass, just put that thing away, it’s pointy! Are you trying to kill me or something?”