Monday, June 20, 2022

Those Wascally Weasel Words

 by Jan Drexler

Weasel words are the worst, aren’t they? The hardest part about them is that they sneak into our writing, and we don’t even see them when we read!

One culprit I struggle with in my writing are “thought” verbs. You know, “knew,” “wondered,” “realized,” “remembered,” “felt,” etc.

In preparing to write this post, I did a search for some of those verbs on my most recent book, The Sign of the Calico Quartz. I found a LOT of them!

The word “knew” was in that manuscript thirty-four times. Some of those occurrences were in dialogue and I accept no responsibility for those – blame the characters! But the others? They could be changed to something stronger.

Let’s look at these sentences: 
By morning I was beginning to feel normal again and ready for a cup of Wil’s coffee. But as soon as I started down the stairs, I knew I was out of luck. No delicious rich coffee smell wafted from the kitchen.

How can I change that to get rid of those weasel words, “feel” and “knew?”

First, I need to change my mindset. I recently read in an essay that “Thinking is abstract. Knowing and believing are intangible. Your story will always be stronger if you just show the physical actions and details of your characters and allow your reader to do the thinking and knowing.” (Nuts and Bolts: “Thought” Verbs by Chuck Palahniuk)

Did you catch that? “…allow your reader…” When I use a verb like “knew,” I’m spoon-feeding my reader. And when I do that, what happens to that person’s experience? Where is the give and take between the reader and the author when the writing fails to demand that the reader take part in the conversation?

Let’s take those sentences apart and rework them.

“By morning I was beginning to feel normal again and ready for a cup of Wil’s coffee.”

Emma is heading down the stairs on her way to the kitchen. She craves a cup of coffee. Not just any coffee, but the dark, rich, slightly bitter brew the chef makes every morning. Can I capture those thoughts of Emma’s and paint a picture for my readers?

I caught a glance of myself in the mirror as I left the room. My hair: combed. My clothes: not wrinkled or backwards. My smile: bright and chipper. As normal as could be. Except for one thing. Coffee.

Okay, I’m happy with that. I exchanged the word “feel” for narrative that invites the reader to use their imagination. What about the rest of the paragraph?

“But as soon as I started down the stairs, I knew I was out of luck. No delicious rich coffee smell wafted from the kitchen.”

On the top step I took a deep breath, anticipating the sweet aroma of Wil’s coffee. By the third step I could taste the rich notes of the slightly bitter brew. I pushed open the kitchen door, licking my lips as the dark liquid spilled into my cup, releasing its fragrance. I took a deep breath. And stopped. The kitchen was in shadows. No Wil. No breakfast cooking. I flicked my gaze to coffee maker in the corner. Unplugged. Cold. Empty.

Changing my writing in this way isn’t easy. In fact, it probably took me ten times as long to rewrite these sentences as it did to write them in the first place.

Because of that, this exercise isn’t for the first draft. This is the kind of rewriting to tackle during revisions. The first draft is to get the story down. The revision process is where you make your story sing.

Are you up for a challenge? Find a sentence in your own writing that needs to be revised. Then examine it word by word. Rewrite it as if you’re seeing it for the first time. Rewrite it as if you’re in your character’s head. Rewrite the action step by step. Then put it together in a way that induces your readers to see the actions or thoughts of your characters as if they’re experiencing it themselves.

That is the ultimate “show, don’t tell.”

Share your challenge with us! Did you rewrite a sentence from your own story? Post the before and after in the comments to be entered in the drawing for an e-book copy of The Sign of the Calico Quartz!

Emma Blackwood’s favorite pastime is solving literary murder mysteries…until the body in her living room makes everything a little too real.
When Emma comes to the Black Hills to work at her Aunt Rose’s B&B, the Sweetbrier Inn, she is hoping for a quiet break from the corporate treadmill. But she hadn’t expected murder and intrigue to mar this peaceful setting.
As she wades through too many clues to identify the murderer, she soon finds that the culprit isn’t stopping at only one homicide and may even have placed Emma herself on the list of targets. With the help of her friend Becky, and a deputy sheriff who grudgingly lets them join in on the investigation, Emma tracks down the killer. But will it be in time to save the next victim?


  1. You know this is a great lesson in writing conversationally.... without conversation. Those internal thoughts and reactions that allow the reader to really get into the character's mindset. It's like quick repartee with character v. character but internal which delivers the punch better. And it's effective in first person and third person..... Jan, thank you for this lesson and reminder!!!!

    1. I'm always surprised whenever I'm reminded of a simple (not so simple) technique like this - cutting out weasel words always makes our writing stronger!

  2. Jan, this is brilliant. It also threads its way into "show don't tell" and "deep POV." And your rewritten examples are perfect. I want a cup of Wil's coffee!
    When I first started trying to write fiction, it was still acceptable to use "he thought" and "she thought." Now we know better, and we have much better books.
    I'm in rewrite mode for my Lexington and Concord book and will probably come back to this post.
    I'm also working on the dialogue, especially between Him/Her. Although this is a bit earlier than Regency, I'm going for that Regency-style repartee, where you say what you don't mean in order to express what you really do mean. If THAT makes any sense.
    Jan, congratulations on starting a brand-new genre!
    Kathy Bailey
    Your Kaybee
    Working on sparkling repartee in New Hampshire

    1. You'll have to follow the link in the post to read the entire essay by Chuck Palahnuik!

      And that dialogue tweaking sounds fun and challenging. I'm looking forward to reading the book!

  3. Wow! Your re-write had me worried about Will.

    1. Thanks, Michelle! I noticed that, too. It gave the paragraph a bit of a suspenseful edge that is missing in the original.

      It's well worth the time to work on those revisions!

  4. A timely reminder! I keep a list of weasel words and try to eradicate them before I turn a manuscript in to an editor!

    1. I have to add to my weasel word list all the time. It seems like I'd learn not to use them, but nope. I'm thankful for the "find" feature of Word, though!

  5. What a great post! I struggle with these words, too. And I also need to search for "was" to make sure I'm using active voice.

    1. Great point, Dana! It's so easy for the passive voice to creep in when we're not looking!

  6. Good points, Jan! Your rewrites made the whole story and pacing stronger. This part of writing is definitely left to the revision state ... no losing steam when creating!! (Audra)

  7. Good stuff, Jan. The deeper we can get into a character's head, the more personal it feels and the more readers will relate/attach/want to keep reading!

    1. I was amazed at the difference when I took the time to work around those two weasel words!

  8. Great post, Jan. Weasel words are the worst for me. I went through my WIP to see if I could find something to fix. I put in just two of those words. Realized came up 19 times and knew came up 105 times! That doesn't begun to look at other weasel words. It seems very daunting. But I know what I need to work on. No need to put me in the drawing. I already have the book and am reading it now! Hope to finish today or tomorrow!

    1. I had a bit of a moment when I searched for those words and found so many. And this is one thing I've never had an editor mention (and I've had several editors.) Just a reminder that it's up to us to make our writing as strong as it can be - editors catch other potential problems!

      I hope you're enjoying the book!

  9. You provided a great example, Jan! Loved the blogpost!


If you have trouble leaving a comment, please "clear your internet cache" and try again. You can find this in your browser settings under "clear history."