Tuesday, November 07, 2017

Weasel words

by Rick Blechta

I have a good friend (and excellent editor), Cheryl Freedman, who is kind enough to look over the final versions of my novels and novellas before they’re hustled off to the publisher. Early on she took me to task for my use of what she calls “weasel words”, meaning words or phrases that add a “waffle factor” (my term) to my writing.

“First, come out and say what you want to say. Do it directly. There’s no reason to beat around the bush. Second, this tendency you have gets irritating after awhile.” That last part really caught my ear. The last thing any writer wants (except for internet trolls) is to be annoying.

In looking over her page-by-page remarks, I had to agree Cheryl was 100% correct. I did weasel far more than I should, and it would get irritating after awhile. But I also pointed out that sometimes ambiguity is needed in a novel, especially in a crime novel. “If you actually wish to inject some ambiguity into dialogue or description, there are better ways of doing it,” were Cheryl’s wise words.

Overnight I became a convert (zealot?) and now I ruthlessly throw this junk out of a manuscript long before Cheryl gets a peek at it. Example: the minute I see the words “sort of”, I know I’ve done it again.

But because I’m more attuned to weasel words, I notice them more in day-to-day life. As you might expect, politicians are champions at using them, closely followed by corporate heads, PR flacks, journalists, etc.

However society as a whole has succumbed to this sorry trend, as well.

Take death, for instance. People seldom “die” anymore, they “pass on”, “pass away” or just “pass”. What’s wrong with saying someone died? Someone dying is not a pejorative. Face it, “pass away” is just a euphemism for dying, so why not come out and say that in the first place?”

People who work in stores are now known as “sales associates”, likely in an attempt to make them feel more important in the company. They’re not. Work at a big box store and you suddenly become a “team member”. You’re not. In both cases you’re likely a low-level employee who’s generally expendable, underpaid, and probably not full-time, either.

Those are just two examples of how “weaseling” has become part of everyday speech. In the end it doesn’t make anything clearer or even more kind.

Be like Cheryl. Don’t weasel!


Sybil Johnson said...

I admit that I use weasel words a lot in my writing as well. I'm more attuned to it than I have been in the past. The only place I think weasel words would be appropriate in a story is in dialog.

Rick Blechta said...

I was appalled that I was using them all over the place. Fortunately, Cheryl brought this up several books back and for that I am very grateful. In looking at earlier novels, though, they were getting worse as I went along.

Another thing she said was this: "It makes you look as if you aren't confident in what you're writing, and that ain't good."

She has a way with words, our Cheryl does...

Sybil Johnson said...

She certainly does.

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

I agree that there is no place in writing for weasel words, as Robert Louis Stevenson once said, we must cut the "twaddling" and leave "all the dullness out".

Rick Blechta said...

But I'm so good at writing twaddle. In fact I argued with my wife about naming our first born Twaddle.

It didn't go well for me...

Marianne Wheelaghan said...

Ha ha ha ha ;)