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Dec 13 / Michael Schottey

Weasel words: As I see it, the best way a column might be written by some people

Some of the best writing advice I ever received was actually advice for giving speeches. “Tell people what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them—and never, ever  apologize for your opinion.”

I keep that advice in the back of my head as I sit down to write any column. With that advice, I never lead with an anecdote or a calendar alert and I never struggle to wrap up a story. I’ve also learned how to state my opinion without trying to “weasel” out of it.

Along with the aforementioned advice, the inspiration for this Textbook post is a Wikipedia link someone sent me. In writing its 21st century encyclopedia, Wikipedia has struggled with citizen writers who are afraid to look like experts.

Wikipedia has gathered most of the offending language into a post labeled Weasel Words, and I love it!

You should avoid these types of Weasel Words in your writing. Some of these come from the Wikipedia article and others from the internship program. If you have any specific questions, please leave them in the comments.

  • Generalizations: any statement or phrase that avoids quantifying your opinion should be left out of your writing. “Some experts say” or “It could be said” makes your opinion wishy washy. “One could say the Indianapolis Colts are a bubble screen team” is less forceful than “The Indianapolis Colts are a bubble-screen team. They run it X percent of the time.”
  • Vague Generalizations: Important enough for their own category are generalizations that state an opinion with no supporting evidence. “Andrew Luck is a great quarterback prospect” doesn’t tell your readers anything they don’t already know, so you’ve just wasted seven words. Tell your readers how great he is and why he’s that great. If you’re not ready to do that, don’t bring up the topic.
  • Passive Voice: Back when I was writing for letter grades, the rule was to always use the active voice whenever possible. As I grew up, the passive voice became allowable and quickly became a rhetorical crutch. I really like Wikipedia’s example of “Mistakes were made.” How weaselly is that? Chances are your reader knows mistakes were made. Tell them exactly what the mistakes were and who made them.
  • Middle Voice: The middle voice may be the easiest, and therefore laziest, writing convention in the English language. “There are three quarterbacks playing better than Tom Brady.” Doesn’t tell me much, but uses lots of words to do it. Instead, tell me which quarterbacks are playing better than Tom Brady, or simply say “Tom Brady is the fourth-best quarterback in the NFL this season.” And then explain why.
  • Appeal to self: “I think,” “In my opinion,” and “I believe” are never needed in a column. If you scroll up toward the top, your name is already on the byline! Consider that byline one giant “THIS IS MY OPINION” over your entire article. Your reader assumes that, so why wouldn’t you? Not only is it wasted, but it’s also weaselly. Fundamentally, it says that you believe your opinion may not be correct and your reader should just dismiss it as only an opinion.

Remember, you’re taking the time to write. Your goal shouldn’t be to place your opinion out there in the hope that someone might agree with you. Convince them!

Grab them by the proverbial throats with a lead that tells them exactly what you want them to be convinced of. State your opinion unapologetically with plenty of supporting evidence and without

qualifiers. Finish by reminding them exactly what you believe and why they should believe it too.

  • Austin Green

    Awesome post, Schottey. Falls under the “shit, I’ve been doing this” category.