Grammar for Fiction Writers: Busy Writer's Guides Book (2014)
Part II. Knowing What Your Words Mean and What They Don’t
Chapter 9. Weak Words
Weak words are words that don’t pull their own weight in a sentence. Most of the time, they’re useless. So useless, in fact, that, by taking them out, you make the sentence stronger.
At first this might seem like a strange chapter to include in a grammar book. Technically speaking, there’s nothing wrong with weak words. But this is a book on grammar for fiction writers, and so one of the things we have to look at in terms of grammar is tightening up our writing and bringing it to life by removing useless words from our sentences.
In this chapter, I’m going to break weak words down into three categories:
Weasel words that you should try to remove whenever possible.
Helping and state-of-being verbs that you should try to replace with stronger verbs.
Unspecific words that you should try to replace with more specific words.
Weasel words are the easiest to deal with because, 90 percent of the time, we can simply remove them from the sentence and all will be well. Even when you can’t remove them, though, they’re a sign of weak or generic writing, and we should try to find a way to rework the sentence.
Let me give you a couple examples.
The night was very cold.
You could simply take the very out.
The night was cold.
But one could argue that there’s a difference between cold and very cold. This is a good example of how weasel words lead to generic writing. By removing them, we’re forced to find a more descriptive way to show (rather than tell) what we’re writing about.
The night air bit her skin and froze her breath the instant it left her lips.
That says very cold, but it does it in a stronger way because it allows the reader to feel it by bringing back memories of times they’ve felt this degree of cold.
Other weasel words to search for include almost, approximately, began, big, down, important, just, many, nearly, pretty, quite, really, started, that, very, and well.
The one thing you want to watch out for is that you don’t delete any of these words without looking at them in context first.
For example, there’s a difference between a character who says…
“I’m ready to go.”
And a character who says…
“I’m almost ready to go.”
HELPING AND STATE-OF-BEING VERBS
Helping verbs include may, might, must, be, being, been, am, are, is, was, were, do, does, did, should, could, would, have, had, has, will, can, and shall.
State-of-being verbs include is, am, were, was, are, be, being, and been.
We want to avoid these verbs as much as possible in favor of stronger, more active verbs, but we also want to avoid them because they can indicate telling rather than showing.
One of the most common mistakes I see in the work of newer writers looks like this…
He was walking down the street.
They do it because they want to give the impression of an ongoing activity, but in fiction, it’s unnecessary. Instead you’d want to write it this way…
He walked down the street.
By removing the was verb and replacing it with the stronger walked, you’ve described the same thing for the reader, but you’ve done it in a tighter, more active way. The best part is that it’s usually a simple fix in these cases to remove the weak verb.
Helping and state-of-being verbs require more work to fix when they’re used to tell rather than show something. I can’t go in-depth into showing vs. telling in this book (if you want more on that, check out my book Mastering Showing and Telling in Your Fiction), but let me give you an example so you can see how helping or state-of-being verbs can be a red flag that you might be telling rather than showing.
Telling: She was ugly.
In this example, we’re telling the reader that she’s ugly, but they don’t know what about her makes her ugly. Ugly is a subjective term. What’s ugly to one person won’t be ugly to another. There are also different degrees of ugly. When we tell the reader that a character is ugly, we don’t give them anything to picture in their minds. Here’s one way we could show this instead.
Showing: Richard couldn’t stop himself from staring at the button-sized wart in the middle of her forehead. Even if she didn’t want it removed, couldn’t she have at least plucked the hair?
One or two carefully selected details will dynamically show us that a person is old or ugly, cruel or a flirt. Moreover, showing also gives us insight into the point-of-view (POV) character. What our characters notice and how they choose to describe it says a lot about them. Richard finds the woman’s wart ugly. Another character might not have even noticed it.
Both weasel words and helping and state-of-being verbs could have been included under unspecific words because of how they tend to tell rather than show, but I broke them up because of the slight differences between them. In this section, I want to focus on words that are weak specifically because of how vague and generic they are.
Get (and its forms) isn’t always wrong, but you want to be careful because it can lead to confusion. It means “to receive,” “to take possession,” or “to obtain.” However, some people also use it in place of have.
Let me show you how this becomes a problem.
I got five dollars.
Does this mean “I have five dollars,” as in “I currently possess five dollars”? Or does it mean “someone gave me five dollars”?
To avoid vagueness like this, you should rewrite your sentence.
Grandpa gave me five dollars.
I have only five dollars to my name right now.
As you go through your writing, don’t assume that your got sentences are clear. Make sure they are.
Like got, things isn’t wrong, but we often use it as the lazy way to escape putting in the work to define what we mean by things. Things could stand in for problems or reasons, which are two very different things.
When your character says, “I have things to do,” what does she mean? Does she mean she has errands to run? A house to clean? A doctor’s appointment? The only time you should have a character saying they have “things to do” is if they’re being intentionally vague, such as if they don’t want their girlfriend to know that they’re planning a surprise proposal. But even then, why not have them give a more specific excuse?
How many times have you written something like this?
He moved across the room.
Grammatically, there’s nothing wrong with this sentence. The problem comes from its vagueness. It doesn’t give the reader a clear picture of the way your character is moving.
Look at these three possible types of movement.
He shuffled across the room.
He stalked across the room.
He sauntered across the room.
In each sentence, we have him moving across the room, but they’re extremely different types of movement. Don’t leave your reader guessing.
Both took and looked fall into the same category as moved.
She took the letter from him.
This doesn’t show us what’s happening.
She snatched the letter from him.
She delicately plucked the letter from him using only her thumb and forefinger, as if she were afraid contact with it would contaminate her.
Two different emotions are behind those ways of taking the letter.
Here’s the one I see most often in my editing work.
She looked at him.
But how did she look at him? Was it a furtive glance from the corner of her eyes as if she didn’t want to be caught? Was she glaring? Was she giving him an I-dare-you-to-try-it look?
None of these unspecific words are technically wrong, but you’re shortchanging your reader and yourself.