Weasel words – they sound nasty don't they? Weasel words are those pesky interlopers that blunt your copy and prevent it from being the delightful, razor sharp communication that it can be. They cast doubt on claims and are used most when writers are on shaky ground or simply don't have all the facts.
There are different types of weasel words.
Group one; the qualifiers
Some like 'often' 'almost' and 'probably' are used to cover your back, diluting an assertion so that it can't really be challenged. Listen to how using them, weakens these claims:
'We often get good feedback from customers.'
'You probably won't find a better price in town.'
'We almost always win the best customer service award.'
It is tempting to use these little words to help you 'almost' make claims but readers have got wise and a weak assertion like this will barely raise an eyebrow and certainly won't engage your reader.
That doesn't mean you should throw caution to the wind and make wild claims that can be shot down by any passing competitor or troll (as online trouble makers are known).
Think instead of assertions you can make, confidently, with the minimum of fanfare but maximum impact.
3 times winner of Best in Show
Voted safest car in its class by Which Magazine
The first bagless vacuum cleaner
The only water buffalo herd in Wales
80% of our customers come and stay a second time
Who said? Nobody said.
Another group of weasel words is used deliberately to fudge the issue of who is the source of opinions, statistics or claims. Like this:
'It is said that women prefer shopping online to watching the news.'
This device side steps the need to provide evidence for claims. By using 'it is said', the writer is avoiding a strong, attributable claim. While not the worst crime in writing, it is good to be aware that this is undesirable. The way to avoid this is to voice opinions or get hard facts.
'In my experience, women prefer shopping online to watching the news'.
'In a poll conducted by Amazon, out of 1000 women surveyed, 80% said they preferred shopping online to watching the news.'
'Some people', 'many' and 'experts'; these again suggest an authority but again don't really mean anything. Using these, is a way of being deliberately vague, making weak claims that can't be challenged.
You can't argue with
'Many people love to visit Wales'
'Experts say you should floss daily'
'According to Visit Wales, in 2009, 8.95 million visitors from the UK stayed in Wales',
'A 2008 University of Exeter study showed that people over 40, who flossed daily had 30% fewer gum disease problems.'
The specific, attributable information in the second examples is far more compelling and delivers something of interest. The first examples are so vague and obvious that they become almost meaningless and certainly don't add anything to your copy.
Last and worst
The final use of Weasel words (and my personal favourite) is the use of euphemisms.
'we're letting her go'
When you mean:
'we're firing her'
Prevalent in the corporate world, these words try to disguise the harsh reality and protect reputations. Nobody is fooled. In sales copy writing euphemisms won't help your cause. Stick to the facts, clear and simple. Tell it like it is.
Where does the term come from?
The term refers to a weasel's habit of sucking eggs. These words suck the life and verve out of writing and leave it at best dull and at worse meaningless.
How can you avoid them?
Being aware of their presence is the first step to avoiding Weasel words creeping into your copy.
You could develop your own Weasel Word Check (maybe Microsoft would like to develop a tool). For those looking for distractions, you could start a Weasel Word Competition. See how many examples you can find in a given month and post the best ones on your wall.
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