Monday, April 5, 2021

How to Avoid Weasel Words When You Write

By Kristen Hogrefe Parnell @khogrefeparnell

By night, I write novels, and by day, I teach English online to ninth graders. One of my joys is when students realize my desire is not to be overly critical but to help them express themselves as clearly and effectively as possible. During one such session, a student thanked me for my detailed comments but said he didn’t understand why I highlighted certain words on his essay. 

“Do you see how you’ve used the word ‘thing’ multiple times in this paragraph?” I asked. “Instead, try using more specific or descriptive words to say what you mean.”

“Oh, yeah, I guess I do tend to overuse that one.”

“It’s one of your weasel words, and we all have them,” I said. “The key is to be aware of them.”

“Weasel words,” he repeated. “Huh, I’ve never heard it put that way before, but it makes sense.”

Although we writers have long since graduated high school and college, we probably still have words that “weasel” their way into our writing more than they should. The good news is that there are simple solutions to this problem.

#1: Know what they are.

If you’ve been writing for any amount of time, you’ve probably noticed a pattern of pet words or phrases. Perhaps your character “gasps” every other page. At one point, my editor kindly pointed out that my heroine “rolled her eyes” so much that it made her unlikable.

These words can also be adverbs, like “really” and “very” that simply aren’t necessary, or adjectives that “tell” instead of letting the description or dialogue reveal the information organically. 

Regardless of which weasel words reappear on your page, keep a running list of words you notice yourself overusing and save it somewhere so you can refer to it often.

#2: Forget about them.

This piece of advice seems to negate step one, but we can’t focus on our weasel words when writing our rough drafts. If we do, we will get lost in the mechanics and lose sight of the story or message we’re trying to tell.

When drafting, focus on story. We’ll have time to weed out the weasel words later.

#3: Edit them out.

Sometimes, “weasel words” can even be acceptable misspellings. For me, I tend to type “image” when I mean to say “imagine.” A spell check won’t catch this mistake, because both are correctly spelled words.

The good news is that you can easily edit out mistakes like this. If you write in Microsoft Word, here are some easy steps to follow:
  • Under the Home tab, choose “Find” and then “Advanced Find.”
  • Type in a word or phrase you might be overusing.
  • Choose the “Reading Highlight” option. You should then see the option to “Highlight All.”
  • Word will then tell you how many instances were highlighted.
  • At a glance, you can see how often you’re using the weasel word per page or per chapter and then make revisions.
  • To remove the highlighting, follow the previous steps and choose “Clear Highlighting.”
Okay, I’ve confessed my weasel words. What are some of yours, and do you have any other tips for dealing with them?


Kristen Hogrefe Parnell is an award-winning author and life-long learner. An educator and mentor, she teaches English online and is an inspirational speaker for schools, churches, and podcasts. Her young adult dystopian novels, The Revisionary and The Reactionary, both won the Selah for speculative fiction, and she is working on several new projects, including a romantic suspense novel. Kristen and her husband live in Florida and enjoy sharing their lake home with family and friends. She blogs at where she challenges readers to find faith in life’s everyday adventures.


  1. In college, I had a debate instructor who was forever working to get us to weed out the "weasel words." That was the first time I had heard the term, but it has stuck with me ever since. Great advice for every writer, not just beginners or high school students! Thanks for the reminder

    1. My pleasure! I agree that writers of any age or stage have to be mindful of these words. Blessings to you in your writing!

  2. You're right, we all have them. One of mine is "turn." I always seem to write a characters turns to another before speaking. So bad. Once I pegged it as a weasel word, I leave them during drafts. It helps me see the characters acting out a scene. Then in my second draft, I chase them all away with new action beats. I have others, too, but that's one of my worst.

    1. Thanks for sharing your example! That is such great advice to wait until your second draft to deal with them. :)

  3. As a proposal writer for many years, I thought I was the "Master of Weasel Words" Ms. Kristen. I defined them as words strung together in an attempt to fill an information gap that sounds intelligent, but together only ramble on to fill space and provide no real value. Or as the comedian George Carlin used to say; "He looks intelligent; ahhh, he's full of beans!" :-) We all have to watch out for those weasel words. Have a wonderful day ma'am. Too guard against "weasel words" in my Christian writing, one of the editing tasks I do is to keep a list of them and then do a word count to see how many times I use them.

  4. I like that definition and appreciate your sense of humor when dealing with words we overuse. :) We certainly do all have to watch out for them. I hope you have a wonderful day as well, and thanks also for sharing your editing tip!

  5. I never heard the term weasel words but I have several of them. My characters "feel" too much.
    Great post, Kristen!

    1. You're so welcome. Thanks for sharing, and I wish you all the best with your writing!

  6. I appreciate your insight and will be definitely checking for these words now. Thank you!

  7. My pleasure! I'm glad you found these ideas helpful. Blessings to you in your writing!