Friday, May 6, 2011

Weak Words Need to "Grow a Pair"

As authors, you write because you have something to say. It can be a difficult battle to convince an audience that what you’re saying is important; the last thing you need is to trip yourself up by using wimpy language.
While recently working on an instructor’s manual, I started to notice that the authors were undermining their expertise—and therefore the incentive to use not only their manual but also their textbook—by consistently using weak words: some, somewhat, rather, quite, and a bit, to name a few.
Authors tend to use words such as these because they are not comfortable stating an idea as an absolute; while this can be appropriate, these words are often over-used with the adverse effect of making an author sound—yes, I’l say it—wimpy.
To illustrate: notice how the second sentence in each of these says the same as the first but sounds stronger and more authoritative.
Students somewhat have a problem writing rather long research papers, and it might be a bit helpful to have them start sooner rather than later.
Students, we find, have a problem writing long research papers, and it is helpful to have them start the process by week three of the semester.
How does one “somewhat” have a problem? Either you do have a problem, or you don’t have a problem. How is something “a bit” helpful? Either it is helpful…or it isn’t. And, finally, when is “sooner rather than later”? The authors, instead of offering specific, concrete advice, give themselves an out for offending readers, but in the process they water down their writing and their advice.
I can somewhat see your point, but you are a bit overzealous.
I can see your point, but you are overzealous.
This example really shows how the weak words water down the point the speaker is making; both serve as “back doors”—the somewhat to avoid agreeing with the other person and the a bit to avoid offending the other person. While they may serve a purpose in heated verbal arguments (among friends, for example, or between two married people), they have no purpose in effective, concrete writing.
If as a writer you are uncomfortable writing something without using weak words, it is better to not write it at all. Help your writing “grow a pair” and abolish weak words!

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