Bird Face Wendy

Things relevant to reading, writing, publishing or marketing teen fiction.

Avoid Body Language Weasel Words–Enter for a Chance to Win a Free Edit

on January 27, 2016

I enjoy the study of body language and never thought I’d suggest anyone avoid mentioning a character’s body language in fiction. But if that body language description is ordinary and overused, it’s a weasel word or phrase as harmful to the quality of the writing as any other.

If it can be misinterpreted, that’s even worse.


Image courtesy of Morguefile free photos

In the first draft of a manuscript, I often depend on the verb “smiled.” I’m in a hurry and don’t stop to think of a better description for such a common action. Critique buddies are quick to point out that failing, for which I’m grateful, and I correct the problem on the revise. Or I mean to. Reading over my releases, I still see more instances of “smiled” than I am comfortable with.

You may think, what’s wrong with “smiled”?

As far as body language goes, a smile can convey a lot of things in addition to happiness: deception, nervousness, physical discomfort, romantic or sexual interest, pleasure over someone else’s pain. The meaning of the smile changes when used in context with other body language–movement or position of the eyes or brows, positions of the hands or limbs, or whole body stance.


Image courtesy of Morguefile free photos

Besides, a reader may just-plain-get-tired of reading the same word or phrase over and over. I once edited a political thriller for a gentleman, now deceased. All of his characters—protagonist, antagonist, and minor characters alike—“smiled broadly” or “grinned broadly” no matter whether they were happy about something good or evil or perhaps experiencing a different emotion altogether. After the first few instances, all I could picture in my mind was someone with a big, stupid, toothy grin on his face each time I encountered either phrase. If I had been reading for pleasure, I may have discarded the book.

Merriam-Webster online defines a weasel word as “a word used in order to avoid being clear or direct.” In other words, the use of a word to deceive. For writers, add this definition: a lazy word used because we are unwilling or unable to create a better description. In a way, that’s deceiving—perhaps misleading or cheating—our readers.

Each writer owns a personal set of weasel words—those words used as a crutch to fall back on when we are tired or in a hurry or not at our creative best. In addition to “smiled,”  search your manuscript (or a published novel!) for body-action verbs such as “walked.” More than you would’ve guessed, right?

Choosing more precise body language description reveals much more about a character, his emotions or intentions, and a scene or setting’s mood. As a reader that’s important to me, particularly at the opening of a scene.

Is there a passage from your work in progress that contains a weasel word or phrase to convey body language? Which emotion or intention of the character would you like to express in a better defined and more creative way?

My gift to one reader of this blog post: Subscribe to my newsletter from my website to enter for a chance to win a free body language weasel word hunt-destroy-replace edit of any single 3,000-word segment from your fiction manuscript. After the end of February, I will contact the winner using the email address you provide when subscribing.

10 responses to “Avoid Body Language Weasel Words–Enter for a Chance to Win a Free Edit

  1. This is a great post, by Cynthia Toney. Good sound advice.


  2. Janetta Fudge-Messmer says:

    Body language is a biggie. In print, especially referring to eye’s rolling (exam) always makes me laugh. But face to face. It is definitely misinterpreted. Thanks for the reminder to watch for this in our manuscripts.


  3. Ada Brownell says:

    Great post. I am finishing a first daft of a historical romance today or tomorrow and I’d love to win an edit of a chapter or whatever you’re offering. I


  4. lol – the “grinned broadly” made me laugh. I’d definitely be seeing that guy with the huge smile every time I read that, too. 😉 I think it’s fascinating how some phrases bother one person and yet seem perfectly fine to another. Or are okay but only in certain contexts. “his arm snaked (or wound) around her waist” – that always makes me visualize the dentist scene in Horton Hears a Who with Ned McNodd running around with floppy arms.


  5. Sorry it took so long to announce here–I announced it in my newsletter earlier this month–that we have a winner! She has been notified. Thanks to everyone who participated. Please follow this blog and continue subscribing to my monthly newsletter for updates, special book offers, and opportunities like this one!


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