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A few years ago, I read a statistical analysis of best-selling books. The stats showed that, on average, bestselling books had fewer words per sentence than books that sell poorly. In other words, the longer the sentences, the lower the sales.
Bestselling authors know that good writing is more like sculpting. A sculptor removes unnecessary marble to reveal the image underneath.
In writing, the removal of unnecessary words is called “writing tight.” Becoming a good writer means learning to identify unnecessary words and sentences and cutting them.
Tight writing takes courage because as your writing becomes clear, it can rub people the wrong way.
No one is offended by an unclear sentence, but neither are they transformed by it.
So, how do you write tight?
To find out, I interviewed Angela Hunt. Angela is a Christy-Award winner and best-selling author of more than 150 books in multiple genres. Her books have sold more than 5,000,000 copies worldwide.
What are weasel words?
Thomas: Angela, you talk about weasel words. What is a weasel word in relation to tight writing?
Angela: Your book is like a beautiful garden. You’ve planted all the ideas you want. But weasels can get in and uproot everything. They make a mess, eat the roots of your plants, and destroy everything you’ve worked to create.
Weasel words destroy the desired effect of your story, scene, or sentence.
You could also think of them as extra parts.
If my car needed a new battery, I’d take it to the mechanic. If, when I returned to pay, he said, “I put in a new battery and $250 worth of unnecessary parts,” I would be angry.
I don’t want to spend $250 on something I didn’t need. Plus, those extra parts would clog my engine and destroy my car.
Writing tighter is better.
Thomas: As the old saying goes, “Good writing is not adding until there’s nothing more to add. It is subtracting until there’s nothing more to take away.”
Does every writer use the same weasel words?
Angela: Every writer uses certain weasel words. You can remove weasel words, or you can replace them with better words.
Writers also have their pet weasel words. For instance, I just found a new weasel word that I’ve been using for years that I could easily cut.
The word is sat or sitting. “I sat at the table and waited for George.”
Who cares if I’m sitting at the table or standing by the table. It’s better to say, “I went to the kitchen and waited for George.”
If you want to indicate you’re sitting at a table for a crucial reason, leave it in. If the reader doesn’t have to know you’re sitting, cut the phrase.
Thomas: Weasel words are a problem for many authors because, in school, they were graded on their essay’s word count.
When I was in middle school, we got an assignment to write 800 words about Christopher Columbus.
The point of the assignment wasn’t to hone your writing skills. The point was to prove you read an article about Christopher Columbus.
If you write everything your middle-school mind knows about Christopher Columbus, and your essay is only 600 words, you have to make a choice. Do you read and learn more about Christopher Columbus so that you have more to say, or do you turn every and into as well as, thereby bloating your writing with unnecessary words?
My high-school writing instructor took the opposite approach to word count. He’d give the assignment with a 1200-word limit. He taught us to write well by reducing the word count and focusing on tight writing.
A sitting character is passively waiting for something to happen to them, and that makes the scene boring. A character who stands to have a conversation is more active and requires fewer words to describe.
Angela: Donald Moss says you should cut any scene where someone is drinking coffee, taking a shower, or riding in a car. Nothing happens in those scenes. The only exceptions are if your character is struggling internally or having a heated conversation over coffee.
If Joe is drinking his coffee and nothing is happening, cut the scene.
Thomas: Write the scene so that your characters are playing chess while they talk. The moves on the chessboard can reflect what your characters are saying. Your scene will be more interesting than if they were sitting and drinking coffee.
Create a character who wants to do more in life than sit and drink coffee because that doesn’t make them special.
Angela: That’s a big-picture way to cut out a whole weasel scene.
Hacks for Finding Weasel Words
Here’s my secret to removing weasel words:
Make a list of common weasel words and your personal weasel words. Use your find-and-replace feature to replace the word in all capital letters.
On your next pass through the draft, that word will stand out. It’s the literary equivalent of the word blinking at you saying, “Evaluate me!”
Is it a passive verb? For example, “The cat was on the table.” That sentence says nothing except that he’s on the table. But readers today are from a video generation. We “see” a book like a film in our minds.
You can cut was and replace it with yawned, barfed, or reclined. Each of those verbs gives your reader something to see in their minds. Otherwise, the cat is just existing.
Thomas: All “be” verbs—am, is, are, was, were—are suspect. Was is the worst. Was doesn’t make a sentence passive, but it’s attracted to passive sentences like flies are attracted to dead animals.
When searching for weasel words, you can also turn on Track Changes and replace every was with was. Track Changes will highlight every occurrence so you can change them on your next pass.
Angela: If you’re writing in the present tense, you’ll search for is and are. I also search and replace were.
The littlest weasel word is it. It can be good, bad, or weak.
“She wore a blue dress. It had flowers on it.”
Do you have to rack your brain to figure out what the last it refers to? That is a good it because the reader does not have to wonder what it stands for.
“It is hard to get a driver’s license.”
That’s a weak it because what does it refer to? The sentence is weak because the reader must stop and think about what it is.
If the sentence starts with it, kill that sentence, and think about what you’re trying to say.
You mean to say, “Getting a driver’s license is a challenge.”
Dialogue is the exception. People talk with lazy English, so let your characters speak like real people. But cut those its in narrative or nonfiction.
Thomas: In nonfiction writing, weasel words involve adding too many exceptions or failing to make a strong statement.
Weasel words and phrases in nonfiction include:
- In some cases
- As you know
- I feel
- I think
- I came to a realization that
Statements of the Obvious
Angela: Statements of the obvious, also known as “no duh” statements, can be weasel words.
Thomas: I love pointing them out while watching poorly written movies or shows. Lines like, “As you know, Bob, we’ve been brothers for years.”
Angela: That’s a dialogue rule because you shouldn’t have your characters tell each other things they already know.
- “He stood to his feet” becomes “He stood.” What else would he stand on?
- “She clapped her hands” becomes “She clapped.” What else can she clap with?
- “He rose from his chair” becomes “He rose.”
- “He scratched his head with his hand” becomes “He scratched his head.” If he did something weird, like scratching his head with a fountain pen, you can say so because that’s odd.
You can also cut directional adverbs.
- “He stood up” becomes “He stood.”
- “She crouched down” becomes “She crouched.” A crouch is a downward pose, so “crouched down” is redundant.
- “He nodded his head in agreement” becomes “He nodded.” A nod is an agreement. What else will you nod except your head?
- “She reached out and accepted the trophy” becomes “She accepted the trophy.”
I published a trilogy early in my career. When the books went out of print, I got the rights back and sold them to a different publisher.
I had learned a lot about writing in the intervening years, so I asked if I could edit the books before they went to print.
I cut 10,000 words from each book by removing weasel words. I didn’t change a word of the plot or cut any description. I cut 10,000 weasel words from each book.
Thomas: Those extra words could have been one reason the book went out of print. After years of practice and study, you learned how to write tighter and make the books better.
That’s why the ninth commandment of Novel Marketing is “Thou shalt not publish thine first book first.” Your first book is full of weasel words, but your eyes aren’t trained to see them yet.
If you’re willing to set it aside and work on a second book, the second book will advance your skills.
When you return to your first book, you’ll discover there’s a good story among those weasel words, and you must chisel the unnecessary words to reveal the beautiful story.
Angela: Another weasel word is that. When I edit, I’ll put my finger over the that on the page, and if the sentence makes sense without it, I cut it. If it contributes to the meaning, I leave it in.
Miscellaneous Weasel Words
- Started to
- Began to
- There was
Started to …
Why say “He started to eat” when you can write “He ate”?
In fiction, everything occurs in story-time. Suddenly has no import. You can communicate suddenly more effectively by writing in a loud noise or a sharp movement.
There was …
I read a writing craft book, and the author called there was and there is expletives. I think of an expletive as a word that shouldn’t be spoken in polite society. But in this sense, an expletive is a phrase that means nothing.
Thomas: Let me interrupt you to reiterate an underlying point all authors should consider. Angela Hunt has won the Christy Award, written 150 books, and sold 5,000,000 copies of her books, and she’s still reading books on craft.
Good writers are always improving their craft.
I want to encourage writers to embrace the fact that you’ll never feel like you’ve arrived. Be continuously hungry to improve your craft. I know you’re already improving because you listen to the “Christian Publishing Show” and read our blog posts.
Angela: I pride myself on writing a clean manuscript. I’m good at cutting weasel words. But Jerry Jenkins edited one of my manuscripts; and in several places, Jerry wrote, “Resist the urge to explain” (RUE).
Here’s my original, followed by Jerry’s recommendations:
“When he reached Fosses, Josh breezed through the door, paused to warm his hands at the electric fireplace, and nodded a greeting to Isabella.”
Jerry deleted “a greeting” because when you nod to someone, you are greeting them.
Further in my manuscript, Josh is at the nursing home where his mother lives; and he finds his mother with a nurse. I wrote:
“Smiling, Josh left Sherry with his mother and went to the community room where several residents were watching Shrek Two on TV.”
Jerry deleted “left Sherry with his mother” because if he’s leaving the room, he’s obviously leaving the nurse with his mother.
There are certain things you just don’t need to say.
Thomas: That’s why everyone needs an editor. The find-and-replace feature is a great editing hack, but it wouldn’t have marked those sentences. You needed a fresh set of eyes trained to look for unnecessary phrases.
Jerry Jenkins ruthlessly edits those phrases in his own writing, and he can easily spot them in somebody else’s.
Angela: He used to be a magazine editor. Magazine article writers get paid by the word. I joked with Jerry and said, “You’re so good at this because you didn’t want to pay for extra words.”
He is exceptionally sharp. Everyone’s work needs a sharp editor and another pair of eyes.
Thomas: I learned to tighten my writing back when Twitter only allowed you 140 characters per post. Writing a complete thought in 140 characters is restrictive and requires work. I had to identify weasel words, and it became a great writing exercise.
The exercise isn’t as useful now that you’re allowed 280 characters and people chain tweets together. But once upon a time, before Twitter became toxic, writers learned to cut characters and write better sentences.
What are your thoughts on using adverbs and pronouns?
In my experience, they’re modifying the other word because you picked the wrong word in the first place. Instead of replacing the wrong word, we’re tempted to add words to fix it.
Angela: I used to teach writing to third graders, so we worked on eliminating adverbs.
Instead of saying, “He walked angrily,” I asked them what it’s called when someone walks angrily. What are they doing?
My third graders would answer, “He stomped.”
Instead of saying, “She said softly,” we write, “She whispered.”
In each instance, you exchange a wimpy verb for a hunky verb. Fix the verb instead of adding adverbs.
Thomas: You’ll decrease the number of words per sentence, making the writing faster and more entertaining. Plus, using better words will transform the sentence.
Good writing is hard work.
In your first draft, you can vomit all the words onto the page; but eventually, you have to torture the sentences until they confess their wimpy words.
Angela: Sometimes, high-school and middle-school English teachers want kids to be creative, so they applaud adjectives and adverbs. But the creative writing you did in school is not professional writing.
Professional writing uses strong nouns and verbs.
Scrivener has a feature that will highlight all your adverbs, adjectives, or pronouns. I just used the feature on a scene this morning.
Most of my adverbs were too and too much. Those don’t drive me crazy like -ly adverbs.
The worst place to use -ly adverbs is in speaker attributions, like “she screamed angrily.” What is a scream if it’s not angry? Those make me want to claw my eyes out. They’re bad.
Thomas: Adverbs, adjectives, and pronouns do have a place in good writing; but they can make your writing bloated. Good writing requires clarity, brevity, and beauty, although the order of priority may shift depending on your genre.
If one of your adverbs serves the higher purpose of clarity, brevity, or beauty, keep it. If your adverb replaces the five additional words you’d need to communicate the same concept, then let the adverb stay.
Every adverb must justify its use in the sentence. To say “Christopher Columbus was very, very courageous” adds nothing to your meaning. He was courageous.
Angela: I cut almost every very except those that appear in my dialogue. Even in our dialogue, adults don’t often use very. It’s almost childish. Exclamation points also come across as amateurish.
Dull Weasel Moments
Don’t waste words on dull moments like this: “I pondered the problem for an hour, then began to type.”
Why would I include “an hour” when I could say, “I gave the problem some thought and began to type.” The revised and shortened version is more active.
I bought back rights to three books I published early in my career. In each manuscript, I searched for words like “paused” and “hesitated.” I had people pausing and hesitating on every page. I had a bad habit of writing those words.
Another example of a dull moment is, “I stared at him for a long moment, then looked away.” How was that moment longer than any other since they’re all 60 seconds?
“They decided not to go to the store but to the beach.” Why do we need to know they didn’t want to go to the store? Just say, “They went to the beach.” It wastes emotional energy and words on things that aren’t happening.
Less Is More
Saul Stein gives this rule: “One plus one equals one-half. Resist the urge to pile on.”
Sometimes we get in the writing groove when the words are flowing; and we write, “He was tired. His bones ached. He was so tired he could have fallen off his chair. He could have fallen asleep standing up.”
We wax eloquent on how angry, sad, upset, or disappointed a person was. Look at your phrases, choose the best one, and dump the rest.
When I find those collages of description in my writing, I remember that “one plus one equals one-half as effective.” Each added phrase makes the other phrases less effective. If I add three phrases, they are each one-third as effective as one would have been alone.
Thomas: That rule applies to descriptions too. If somebody walks into the room, don’t describe the windows, carpet, couch, and cushions. Pick one of those details and let the reader fill in the rest with their imagination.
If you say the carpet was dingy, they won’t picture an ornate sofa on the dingy carpet.
Angela: When you describe a place or person, keep it moving. Instead of writing, “She walked into the room and noticed the curtain, the carpet, and blah, blah, blah.”
Keep the action happening while you’re describing the room. “She walked into the room and took a seat on the faded couch by the window. ‘Would you like tea?’ Ms. So-and-So said, handing her a delicate china cup and saucer.”
Keep the action going.
If you describe a man with a scar on his chest, the scar and your description must have a purpose in the story. Don’t tell us a character had four moles in the shape of a heart on her chin and then not remark on that later.
Details Exist for a Reason
Thomas: The whole idea of weasel words can be distilled to a single concept. Your words, sentences, and scenes must accomplish something in your story. They need a reason to exist.
Weasel words don’t have a reason to exist in your final draft, but they can serve a purpose in your first draft.
Sculptors take off big chunks of marble before they chisel fine details. The big chunks were necessary for the sculpture to exist in the first place, but they were unnecessary for the final product.
It’s the same with writing. If you wrote six reasons why your character was tired, you could have all six reasons in your first draft. When you’ve been writing for two hours, you don’t have the energy or time to decide which of the six is the strongest.
When you return to your draft with fresh eyes, you’ll see that reason number three gets to the heart of his fatigue, and you can cut all the other reasons.
Think of these weasel words as a stop-gap, but don’t leave them in the final product.
Angela: If you must use a dialogue attribution, use said. It’s as invisible to the reader as the. We don’t even hear it or see it.
If you only have two people in the conversation, once you establish who speaks first and who responds, you don’t need speaker attribution. Sometimes you can use a physical move.
He walked toward the desk. “Come here.”
Obviously, “he” is the one speaking.
Be careful that you don’t write physical impossibilities.
“You’re so cute,” she smiled.
You can’t smile those words. It doesn’t work.
If you are a novelist writing a scene in one character’s head, you don’t have to say, “he thought.”
Tom walked into the room and looked around. The place had changed a lot since he was last here, but Tom’s portrait was still over the fireplace, and he was still a rascal, he thought.
The “… he was still a rascal” comes straight from Tom’s head.
Imagine a camera outside of Tom’s head. Tom walked into the room and looked around, and the camera on his head saw that the picture was still on the wall. Then the camera peeks into Tom’s head and tells us what he was thinking “… and he was still a rascal.”
To include “he thought” marks you as an amateur. You don’t need it. It also shows you don’t understand how point of view works.
Thomas: You wouldn’t even need to use italics.
Angela: Nobody writing contemporary fiction is using italics for inner monologue anymore. You just write what the character is thinking because you’re in that person’s head.
Track Down the Weasel Words
Thomas: You’ve written a book titled Track Down the Weasel Words. How can we learn more?
Angela: Track Down the Weasel Words covers all the material we’ve talked about. You can read it in an hour. It’s from my series Writing Lessons from the Front, and it’s available on Amazon in Kindle and in paper.
It will just help you get a handle on self-editing. No one is a perfect self-editor, but the more you practice, the better you become.
Thomas: Authors can read your book then put it into practice in their next writing session; or they could write a short story without any weasel words. Everyone gets better with practice, but deliberate practice like that will be more meaningful and effective.
Angela: Strunk said it best. “Omit needless words.”
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