Grammar Gremlins: Weeding Out the Weasels

I believe the first thing I ever bought from Amazon, long ago when on line shopping was new and all books were made of paper, was a short book, hardly more than a pamphlet, called The 10% Solution: Self-editing for the Modern Writer, by Ken Rand. (Amazon, which never forgets anything, tells me that I ordered it on April 2, 1999.)

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I still have that little book (a newer edition is available on Amazon as an ebook), and much of the advice in it has stuck with me. Rand (who passed away in 2009) wrote radio ad copy, humor columns, science fiction short stories, and at least a couple of booklets on writing. His watchwords were “Accuracy, Clarity, Brevity,” in that order, and his editing advice concentrated on cutting the length of any piece by ten percent.

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Rand offered no advice on plot or characterization. His ten percent method focuses entirely on words, and on using what was in 1998, when the book was published, the relatively new ability to search for specific words (or, in the case of adverbs and gerunds, syllables) on the computer. His object was to apply the rules of accuracy, clarity, and brevity to prose in any form, and changing “she was running quickly” to “she raced” accomplishes that, even if it might take more than one step (searching for “ly,”, searching for “was,” etc.).

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What brought The 10% Solution to mind, and off my keeper shelf, was Rand’s discussion of “wishy-washy” words—what I think of as weasels—headed by the word very. He also mentions about, many, several, and like, and my copy has even, much, just, rather, that, and at least penciled in. Another category of weasels are those that insinuate themselves into the point of view of our characters: thought, felt, seemed, saw, and so on.

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Google the phrase “weasel words,” and you’ll find list after list of words to avoid; some of them will jump up and wave at you, all too familiar friends. Making your own list of weasels is well worth the effort.

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When I googled “weasel words,” I found the definition “words or statements that are intentionally ambiguous or misleading,” including those all-too-famous attributions “people say” and “clinically proven.” News people, sales professionals, corporate spokes persons, government representatives, just about every group these days (and no doubt for centuries past) has its specialized list of weasel words.

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But we’re writing fiction, making it up as we go along, yes, but that calls for neither ambiguity nor deceit. We may be “telling lies for fun and profit,” as Lawrence Block put it forty years ago, but we want our prose to be sharp and clear, never slowing the reader down or undermining her confidence in our story with weasel words.

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So watch for those words that don’t mean anything. Dump an adverb when you can use a stronger verb. If a word isn’t pulling its weight, kick it to the curb. Cut your prose by ten percent and see if it doesn’t read smoother and faster.

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Coming attractions: next month, Pacing Weasels.

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