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Exercise #14: Hunting Weasel Words
Alexander Chee, Garth Greenwell, Karin Tidbeck, Brandon Hobson, Wendell Mayo, Gabe Durham
This month marks the one-year anniversary for this newsletter! It’s been a truly sustaining practice to write to you each month, and I’m so thankful for all the positive responses I’ve received and the many pieces of published writing I’ve seen come out of the exercises. I’ve enjoyed writing these letters even more than I thought I would, and I’m excited to see what I can make for you in year two.
This month’s exercise is the first one I’ve written by special request: Alexander Chee reached out to ask if I’d ever published an essay about my revision tactics surrounding “weasel words,” something I’d posted about on Twitter some time ago, probably while I was finishing Appleseed. I hadn’t, and so here it is: this month’s exercise is one of my favorite late-stage tactics. I hope it helps you as much as it’s always helped me—and if it does, stay tuned, as there’ll be a longer, more involved version in my craft book Refuse to Be Done, when it comes out next year.
As always, if you write something you like using this month’s exercise, feel free to tell me so. You’re also welcome to pass this prompt on to others, if you’d like, either by forwarding the email or sharing the link on social media. If you do, know that I appreciate it.
Be safe this month, be kind to each other, and good luck with the exercise!
What I’m Reading:
“Making Meaning” by Garth Greenwell, in Harper’s. Greenwell’s essay in Harper’s is one of my favorite pieces of criticism I’ve read recently, and I can’t recommend it enough. Consider it this month’s required craft reading. Here’s a favorite bit, as a taste: “When I consider the subject matter of a work of art, or its political or social context, I want to talk; when I consider its form, I want to contemplate.”
The Memory Theater by Karin Tidbeck. Karin Tidbeck is one of my favorite writers, and this new novel is set in the world of two of my favorite stories from their debut collection Jagannath, “Augusta Prime” and “Aunts.” I’ve only just begun the book, but Tidbeck’s work is always endlessly inventive, and I’m so excited to see where their latest goes.
The Removed by Brandon Hobson. I’ve been looking forward to Hobson’s next novel since the day I finished Where the Dead Sit Talking, and I’m thrilled it’s finally here. It’s got one of my favorite covers of 2021, and it wastes no time in getting started: “The day before he died, in the remote town of Quah, Oklahoma, Ray-Ray Echota rode his motorcycle down the empty stretch of highway, blowing past rain puddles and trees, a strong wind pressing against his body.”
Exercise #14: Hunting Weasel Words
I’d be hard-pressed to definitively decide what the most discouraging aspect of writing is, probably, but certainly one of the hard parts is that for most of the time I’m drafting and revising a novel, the prose doesn’t read as cleanly as what’s in the books I have on my shelf. There are usually a lot of reasons for this—the story is still in flux, the book needs a stern cut, etc.—but sooner or later there comes a point where those other problems are mostly solved. Even then, my novel isn’t usually as tight as it seems others are, despite how hard I’ve worked on my sentences. So what’s wrong?
I used to have a lot of difficulty identifying what was happening at the level of my prose, once I’d reached this late stage. On one hand, there often wasn’t anything technically wrong with it—I’d been attentive to sound and rhythm, it was grammatically correct, the spelling and punctuation checked out, and so on—but it also somehow wasn’t good enough. When I first started submitting stories to literary magazines, I ran into a similar confusion: my stories kept getting rejected, but I couldn’t identify the gap in quality between my prose and what was being published in the magazines I read. Now, there were probably lots of problems with my early stories, but I’ve also come to understand that one of the issues was the difficult-to-name but easy-to-feel empty words that took up space in some (most? all?) of the sentences, which I now call weasel words, a phrase I’m pretty sure I learned from my friend and editor Gabe Durham.
Weasel words are the empty calories of sentence writing, little bits of filler that, while technically correct, either don’t add anything meaningful or prevent you from writing the best sentences you can. Some of them can be simply deleted, while others will need to be replaced with something better; doing so will make your fiction more concise, more interesting, and more unique.
An example of how this worked, from my writing education: when I was in grad school, one of the first things my professor Wendell Mayo showed me—in one of those stories that was getting a lot of close-but-not-quite rejections—was how in many cases the word “that” could simply be deleted without changing the rest of the sentence in which it appeared. Taking out as many “that” usages as you can causes the prose to read a little faster, without your having to do anything else, and as soon as he taught me how to take “that” and a handful of other similarly unnecessary words out of my prose, those stories got accepted in good magazines.
At least some of the time, it turned out I didn’t have plot or character problems, only unnecessary drag at the level of the prose.
If that sounds like too easy a fix to make such a big difference, here’s another example of the same effect, but at a different scale: When I did my weasel word search in the manuscript of my novel Scrapper, I deleted 800 uses of "that," none of which would have been a deal breaker for someone reading my book. But you add them all up, and those 800 “that” usages were altogether three full double-spaced pages.
In a 300-page novel, my unnecessary “that” glut would have been an entire percentage of the book.
And of course “that” isn’t the only weasel word I overuse. Here are some others I search for in my manuscripts, during the very last stages of revision:
finally, suddenly, always, sometimes, again, really, even, still, like, something, anything, everything, thing, mostly, almost, surely, perhaps, maybe, at last, quite, then, and then, of them, of the, once, else, just, merely, seem, large, huge, big, wide, great, long, massive, giant, enormous, vast, tiny, small, little, hard, soft, weak, thick, thin, strong, strange, weird, think, understand, wonder, know, find, very, every, grin, smile, shrug, nod, look, see, watch
This is my likely incomplete personal list, and yours might be very different. But hopefully it’ll give you a good place to start in your own revision, and you can easily fold in your own weasel words as you go, if you already know what they are.
Your exercise this month is to hunt and exterminate as many weasel words as you can in a draft of a story or essay or chapter you’ve already written. The easiest way to do this is to use the Find function in whatever software you use to look for one word at a time, moving through each instance of each weasel word, deciding whether the word can be cut or improved upon wherever it appears. If you gave up the weaker word for another, what else might happen to the sentence? What possibilities appear, once you start looking, and how can you take advantage of them?
You may be shocked at how many instances of some of these words are in your manuscript: I always am! Getting rid of them will take some time, but keep at it. As you work through the weasel word list, you will inevitably find other things you might like to tweak or adjust or cut or revamp, which is ideal: this process is one of the ways you can trick yourself into getting one more revision out of a story you’ve already revised a dozen times.
A hint: while the basic Find function in Word (Cmd-F, on my Mac) works fine for this, the Advanced Find and Replace pane (Cmd-Shift-H) is even better, because it’ll list all the usages in the manuscript in order, letting you quickly see how many there are, how frequent they are, and where they appear. (There are a lot of other uses for that pane too, but I’ll save those for another exercise.)
I’ll make two predictions about the outcome of this process, if you give it the time it takes and do your best to improve what you find to improve. The first is that your manuscript will be significantly shorter when you’re done, without your cutting a single scene or image or idea. The second is that what you have left on the page will almost magically read much closer to what you see in other published books or stories or essays, in so many difficult to name but definitely felt ways.
The most difficult part of revising well isn’t usually the will to do the work, but knowing what work to do. This weasel word hunt is one of the surest ways I know to improve my work in its final stages, and I hope you’ll have similarly successful results with it.
Good luck! See you next month!
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Matt Bell’s next novel, Appleseed, is forthcoming from Custom House in July 2021. His craft book Refuse to Be Done, a guide to novel writing, rewriting, & revision, will follow in early 2022 from Soho Press. He’s also the author of the novels Scrapper and In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, as well as the short story collection A Tree or a Person or a Wall, a non-fiction book about the classic video game Baldur’s Gate II, and several other titles. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, Conjunctions, Fairy Tale Review, American Short Fiction, and many other publications. A native of Michigan, he teaches creative writing at Arizona State University.