Tips to Avoid Weasels in Your Next Piece of Writing
I started using the Writers Work platform several months ago mainly for the text insight features. I liked the ability to see the grade level of my writing and the fine tooth comb Writers Work uses for grammar and spelling.
While I was writing pieces for Medium, I kept noticing words highlighted in purple. PURPLE everywhere. When I hovered over the offending letters, WEASAL WORD kept popping up.
What the Heck is a Weasel Word?
Perhaps my education has failed me. How did I get this far in life and in writing without hearing this expression before? Naturally, I looked it up. What I found was not pretty.
Some people believe that weasels can suck the insides out of an egg without damaging the shell. An egg thus weasel-treated would look fine on the outside, but it would actually be empty and useless. We don’t know if weasels can really do that, but the belief that they could caused people to start using “weasel word” to refer to any term intended to give the impression that everything is fine when the speaker is really trying to avoid answering a question, telling the truth, or taking the blame for something. -Merriam-Webster
Wow, writing without substance. A shell without meaning. I like to think that I tell the truth and bear my soul, that I stare hard questions in the face and take the blame when in the wrong. I tried to comfort myself by reading posts like this and telling myself that I had no corporate agenda. Swearing that I haven’t used my words for the following:
Weasel words are phrases that are designed to sound authoritative or meaningful that lack content and true meaning. These are typically used to persuade without evidence, inform without information or to promise without commitment.-Simplicable
Feeling the descriptions of weasel words didn’t fit my work, I decided to look to my own writing for answers. I examined the content I offered in each piece including the evidence I presented, my analysis of topics and what I offered my readers. I sat back after sifting through my pieces with a bit of pride at my content. I stand by my articles.
Nonetheless, WEASEL keeps popping up as a text problem right before I go to hit publish.
A Short List of Weasel Words
Digging deeper, I made a simple list of the most highlighted weasel words in my texts:
Noticing a trend of highlighted adjectives, I thought back to the days when I was a student and not teaching writing to youngsters. My teachers encouraged me to write as detailed as possible with adjectives and adverbs to add flair.
I also remembered my strictest teacher who always highlighted in red “SWEEPING GENERALIZATION” all over my paper. She said I had a nasty habit of using many, several and few in generalizations about facts that I could have been more specific about to build a better argument.
Not wanting my teacher to come back and haunt my adult-self, I yet again went back into my most treasured writing pieces to do a quick generalization sweep. Relief swept over me when I realized that most of my “weasel words” were isolated cases that were describing me, not a generalization of other people. For example, in my article titled, “Blame it on the Hormones” I wrote:
“I was pleased to find that ‘Hormones decrees your ability to have great thoughts and arguments’ was mysteriously missing. I will admit there are several symptoms on that list I have been known to display (not the fatty mass behind the shoulder blades though, thankfully).”
SEVERAL is highlighted in green in my word document as a weasel word. I am not assuming all women are suffering from several symptoms, merely stating a fact about me without revealing the exact number of symptoms. Could I be more specific? Sure. Did I think about it at the time? Nope.
After evaluating my own work, I did find one example, also using the weasel word SEVERAL, that generalized a group of people. THIS is the type of weasel wording I want to correct and avoid in my future writing endeavors:
If you follow fitness on Instagram, you have most likely scrolled through several glute workout routines with fantastic looking women in leggings or extremely short shorts (I dare say underwear).
Of all my weasel word highlights, I found that this one above is a generalization. In fact the whole article generalizes women into three categories of gym goers with an * that there are more types out there I am sure. Not every woman does leg days in the gym or takes selfies at seductive angles. However, if this sentence was taken out of context… it would appear that I think that is the case.
The Takeaway and Words to Avoid
I have read articles on Medium lately that have generated a bit of heat with sweeping generalizations. Responses are fired with anonymous authority and sides are taken. It is part of the writing process. We test each other out to see how much truth lies behind the words. I prefer to test myself out first before putting a piece before Medium’s collective eyes.
I try to avoid or at least take note when I use:
John Spacey sums up 7 Types of Weasel Words nicely with a list of phrases to avoid as a resource.
Right before I push publish, I (creepily) hear my middle school teacher on my shoulder whispering, “Did you check for sweeping generalizations?” Now I know she was talking about weasel words too!