by ALICE E.M. UNDERWOOD, Feb 16, 2017
Get out the pruning shears: a big part of good writing is good editing. And a surefire way to give your writing a confidence boost is to eliminate words that weigh down your writing and make you sound uncertain.
We call these weasel words. Like weasels, they’re not necessarily bad on their own. In fact, they’re kind of cute. But weasels are known for escaping situations (ever heard of someone “weaseling out” of something?). Plus, if you’re a rabbit, they’re deadly.
Weasel words won’t kill you (or rabbits). But you’ll still be safer if you avoid them. So give your writing a confidence boost with these tips for cleaning up your writing.
Get rid of these dirty habits
1 . Weasel words – Specifically, weasel words are qualifiers that might make you sound sort of like you’re not sure of yourself. Or maybe like you’re trying to create a little wiggle room. For example:
Sort of, kind of
Let’s try that again. Weasel words are qualifiers that make you sound unsure of yourself, like you’re trying to create wiggle room.
Don’t get us wrong: in some cases, you need these words. But if you want to convey an idea or make an argument, remove words that make your readers think of slimy politicians trying to avoid stating something directly. Maybe it can make a difference.
No, really: it makes a difference.
2. Adverbs. Like weasel words, adverbs aren’t evil on their own. They’re like seasoning: a little goes a long way. Who wants pasta with more pepper on it than cheese?
Stephen King wrote in his book On Writing:
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
We’re not going to bring devils and brimstone into the picture, but we do strongly recommend that you seriously think about taking out the adverbs, unless you actually need to significantly modify an idea.
Oh look, it happened again. Here’s that sentence without the padding: we recommend taking out the adverbs unless you need to modify an idea. Stronger, right?
Here are some of the most common do-nothings in the adverb world:
When you catch yourself using one of those words, read the sentence to yourself without it. If it doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence in a significant way, axe it.
3 .“There is” and “there are”
There is nothing more boring than a sentence that starts with “there is.” In other words, sentences that start with “there is” are boring. In other words, write interesting sentences. Constructions that start with words like “it,” “here,” or “there,” followed by a form of the verb “to be” fall into the category of empty filler words.
Instead, try to start with yourself or a subject—or better yet, a verb—to focus on the action and the idea. After all, there are so many interesting writing styles out there. Er, that is, emulate interesting writing styles to keep your prose powerful.
Replace these signs of weakness
1. Excessive Punctuation
Sure: sometimes a colon, semicolon, or other fancy punctuation—dashes, for example—can help you get a point across; it’s elegant and convincing.
But often, shorter sentences are better. If your writing feels weighed down by long sentences crammed with lots of punctuation, try taking out some of the extras in favor of sentences that are short and sweet.
2. Too many negatives
Yes, that goes for your mood, but it also goes for your writing. If you’re finding lots of instances of “shouldn’t,” “can’t,” “don’t,” and other variations of “not” in your writing, try to diversify by picking a verb that doesn’t require the word “not.”
You shouldn’t use negatives in your writing.
Use positive words in your writing.
Now there’s a boost to your writing style and your mood.
3. Excessively fancy words
Fancy words are fun. They make us feel smart. They remind us that we took the SAT, and despite the tribulations of the egregious experience, passed with equanimity and aplomb.
It’s a bit much. Sure, a 50-cent word here and there can help you convey ideas precisely—for example, “with equanimity” is a lot more specific than “doing a good job and staying calm.” But don’t just toss in the big guys to make yourself sound smart. Your writing will be clearer and more powerful if you use them sparingly. After all, you can have too much of a good thing.
4. The word “thing”
Really, just destroy that thing.
Pretty much every time you use the word “thing,” you could pick another word that is more specific and precise.
Take these examples:
I’m trying to strengthen my writing with things that sound better to an audience.
I’m trying to strengthen my writing by gearing my style toward a target audience.
See? Rewriting can be a powerful thing.
Follow these key rules
1. Make verbs stronger
In other words, strengthen your verbs. That just about covers it.
2. Think about icebergs
You know, the tip of the iceberg. It’s an idiom that means a small or visible part of a much bigger issue, and it’s how Ernest Hemingway thought about writing as a whole. Here’s the idea in his words:
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg [sic] is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.
The metaphor: the dignity of writing is also due to slashing what you want to say down to what you need to say. Maybe one-eighth sounds extreme, but even if you have a different fraction, the rule stands: show, don’t tell, and if you’re showing, show it in a shorter way. Whether you’re writing fiction, nonfiction, or something that defies definition, it’s a good rule of thumb.
3. Listen to George Orwell
In an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” he defined six rules of writing. If they worked for the author of 1984 and Animal Farm, they may just work for you. Here they are now:
1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
There you have it: keep your writing simple, brief, active, free of clichés, and to the point.
But Orwell gives you a little bit of leeway: if something sounds “outright barbarous” (in simpler terms more in line with his own rules: brutal, uncivilized, or bad), you might just have permission to break these rules. Which leads us to our final guideline:
4. Use your own best judgment
These rules will help you maintain clean, clear prose that argues, convinces, or portrays efficiently and powerfully. But there are always exceptions: sometimes a grandiloquent word best serves your purposes, or the word “thing” really comes in handy. You don’t have to treat these rules like a religion, but if you keep them in mind when you’re polishing your writing, you’re likely to have a more powerful product. Even the weasels can’t argue with that.