Letting Go of Your Babies


One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.

My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.

The cuts hurt, but I exercised restraint in venting only to my mother. I didn’t have a literary agent! She agreed with me. “If you cut out ‘really’ then you’re saying he had no idea at all!” Sharing offense is the job of mothers.

Weasel words are great in everyday conversation because they soften the impact of strong verbs and can make painful statements gentler to the listener’s ear, but they waste a reader’s time.  Embrace the power of a vibrant verb. You want your reader to feel every emotion, whether your goal is to offer a sense of relief and peace through nonfiction, or bristle with anger and fall in love along with fictional characters.

In my role of agent, I sometimes edit manuscripts and point out areas needing improvement. My writers know I am partnering with them to give editors their best work. Sometimes an author puts forth a convincing reason why an element should remain as is. If so, I relent.

But a literary agent is only part of the equation. In the hands of an editor at a publishing house, the stakes increase. The editor represents the publisher, who is paying for your work and will bring the book to paying customers. Expressing outrage is not the order of the day when talking with your editor. Choose your battles wisely, if at all, and be prepared to present airtight reasons for resisting changes. This is especially true for new writers but even veterans need to be respectful of the publishing professionals the Lord puts in their path.

When you do, you will be happier, your editor will be happier, and you will have a happy agent!






19 Responses to Letting Go of Your Babies

  1. Avatar
    Janet Lee Barton June 23, 2011 at 7:12 am #

    Love the description “vibrant verb”, Tamela! This is a great post for beginning writers and for those of us who are published, too. We all need to realize that our agents and editors want to help us make our stories the best they can be and always try to take their suggestions with that in mind.

  2. Avatar
    Sandra Ardoin June 23, 2011 at 8:09 am #

    I catch myself writing those weasels at times. Keeping a physical or mental list helps them stand out in editing, but odds are I’ll see some scratched through.

    Necessary changes and suggested improvements are part of the teamwork it takes to get a book published. When the time comes, I want to be a good team player.

  3. Avatar
    Brad Huebert June 23, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    I REALLY like this post. 😉

  4. Avatar
    Ava Pennington June 23, 2011 at 1:02 pm #

    Instead of getting shorter, my list of weasel words has grown as my writing develops. Perhaps it’s because I’m more sensitive to those weak words that dilute powerful writing. I’d like to think so!
    Thanks for the reminder that editors are our friends, not our enemies. After all, the only sacred words are in the Bible. All others are subject to change!
    Now if I could only work on those pesky exclamation points! 😉

  5. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray June 23, 2011 at 3:40 pm #

    Thank you all so much for these wonderful comments. You have left me both encouraged and edified! And yes, I used the exclamation mark on purpose. 🙂

  6. Avatar
    Kathy Cretsinger June 23, 2011 at 4:11 pm #

    Well, I’m guilty. I try to stop using them, but it is so hard when you use them in everyday language. I’m trying and trying, but when I finish a rough draft, it is full of weasels. I’ll try harder next time.

  7. Avatar
    Tamela Hancock Murray June 23, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

    Kathy, you can still use them sparingly in dialogue. In fact, a certain word or phrase that would be considered too much in narrative might mark a character’s speech and make that character distinctive. Just a thought. Keep at it! 🙂

    • Avatar
      Kathy Cretsinger June 23, 2011 at 8:15 pm #

      Thanks, Tamela. After going over the first chapter of the second book, I didn’t find too many. I think Sandi Rog caught most of them in the first book.This is a good lesson for us all to learn.

  8. Avatar
    Susie Finkbeiner June 23, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    After working with an editor on my novel, I’ve learned to be calm during the cutting and slashing of a manuscript. My editor explained every cut, every word choice issue. She wanted my book to be as good as possible. That’s the best (and least heartbreaking) way to see the editing process.

    As iron sharpens iron…

  9. Avatar
    Marti Pieper June 23, 2011 at 7:43 pm #

    Once I edited others’ work, I became better at removing my own weasel words. After all, my baby looks perfect to me–but I can recognize the mistakes in yours right away. Not only does iron sharpen iron, but iron sharpens better after exposure to the fire.

    Tamela, each of your posts has impressed me. Thanks much.

  10. Avatar
    Peter DeHaan June 24, 2011 at 3:12 am #

    When I edit the work of others, I ruthlessly cull every occurrence of “very.” I will now add “really” to my list.

    When I write, I strive to make it concise, removing superfluous words and phrases. However, that it a bit harder when I am stretching to hit a specific word count.

  11. Avatar
    Sharon A Lavy June 24, 2011 at 4:08 am #

    Thanks for the reminder.

  12. Avatar
    Janalyn Voigt June 24, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    It took me awhile to enjoy working with my editor, but now I’m grateful for anyone willing to save me from myself. That’s not to say I don’t stick up for the ideas and even some of the ways of expressing them in my book. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but the story’s the thing.

  13. Avatar
    Vicki Cato June 24, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    Your article serves as a reminder to watch for those pesky weasel words that sneak into my writing. I will be watching for them as I edit my current work.

    Thank you, Tamela.

  14. Avatar
    Connie Brown June 24, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    Thanks for the reminder that scraped knees and stubbed toes are part of the growing process if a baby is to learn to walk gracefully.

  15. Avatar
    Carrie Turansky June 24, 2011 at 2:02 pm #

    Hooray for the vibrant verb! Great advice, Tamela.

  16. Avatar
    Patti Jo Moore June 25, 2011 at 10:09 am #

    Thank you for this article, Tamela. I especially needed that reminder about weasel words *sigh*.
    Blessings, Patti Jo 🙂

  17. Avatar
    Wade Webster June 25, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    This is great advice, Tamela. It reminds me of Steve’s posts about why publishers are an important player in the writing profession. This is exactly why I’ve decided to NOT go the self-publishing route. I want my work to be the best it possibly can be because it’s for God’s glory, not my fame.
    I hope to be able to work with you in the future.
    Wade Webster

  18. Avatar
    Lenore Buth June 30, 2011 at 1:12 pm #

    It’s true, we do become possessive of our own words, especially if I’ve found a fresh way to say something.

    As for weasel words, the trouble is we become blind to our own.

    I’ve found that sight improves rapidly if I do a word search for each one. Do that a couple of times and repeat as often as needed.

Leave a Reply

Get New Posts by Email

Get New Posts by Email

Each article is packed with helpful info and encouragement for writers. You can unsubscribe at any time with one click. 

You have Successfully Subscribed!