Many documents (including emails) give the appearance of saying something but don’t. Reading those documents are a waste of your time; Writing those documents is a waste of both your time and your readers’ time. Here’s how to spot the problem and, more importantly, how to avoid it.
I like the sign in the picture: It tells me everything I want to know and does it, I suspect, in the shortest time possible. It’s a useful piece of writing.
When I get an email, a document, a set of instructions or even just some helpful advice from someone, I expect it to be actually useful. As a writer I would hope that any document or email I send out (or any advice from me that someone takes the time to listen to) is actually useful to that person. In fact, in Learning Tree’s technical writing course we define technical writing as being useful: helping readers to make a decision or do something.
Often, the documents I get fail to live up to the standard we set in that course and the time I take to read the document is wasted. The most common reason that my time is wasted comes down to one common failure among writers: weasel words. Weasel words are the ones we use when we don’t know for sure what we’re talking about. We use them because, if we’re going to be honest, they give us some wiggle room – weasel words turn hard reality into a vague and hazy world where almost anything we say could be true.
The most common weasel words are modifiers (adjectives or adverbs) that allow writers to avoid tying themselves to anything definite. I haven’t done a study, but I would say the most popular weasel words are “applicable,” “correct,” and “often/probably” (you can find a more comprehensive list on Wikipedia’s manual of style). These words allow you to sound like you’re saying something without…well, without actually saying anything.
For instance, this sentence creates the impression of saying something:
When the alarm sounds, call the appropriate authority.
You have to ask: What is the “appropriate” authority? I suspect, in fact, that the audience for this sentence falls into two groups: those who know that the “appropriate” authority is (and, as a result, don’t need to read this sentence) and those who do not know what the “appropriate” authority is (and, as result, are no better off for reading this document). No matter what group you’re part of, the reader’s time has been wasted.
Another popular weasel word is “mostly”:
The project is mostly complete.
Does “mostly” mean that 80% of the project is complete? 50 + 1%? Perhaps, just all of the project except for the hard parts? All of the hard parts and only the time consuming parts left?
Any of these interpretations could be justifiably claimed as the meaning of “mostly” complete. As a reader, therefore, you’re no better off for having read this and the time you’ve spent reading it has been wasted.
People often use weasel word because they don’t have enough knowledge/information to provide more precise information. And that’s fair: simple ignorance is a reasonable cause for using weasel words. Some things are sufficiently complicated or beyond our comprehension that we can’t be specific.
But, to avoid wasting your reader’s time, the least you can do is point out your own ignorance. Rewriting the two previous sample sentences to point out that we don’t (entirely) know what we’re talking about gives these sentences:
When the alarm sounds, you’ll need to figure out what the best authority to handle the problem is and call them.
We can’t tell you when the project will be done but our feeling is that we’ve gotten over all the hard parts and now it’s a matter of implementing the solution.
While I’m willing to excuse simple ignorance, often the writers using weasel words don’t want to provide a specific meaning to the words. Instead, the writers hope you’ll make some assumption about their weasel words and replace those words with some meaning — probably some meaning that you prefer.
For example, many people might think that “mostly done” means “done soon.” Unfortunately, “mostly” could just as easily mean “most of the task done but, since the few remaining tasks are very time consuming, we’re still weeks away from delivery.” People using weasel words want you to assume “done soon” and then deliver when they can…after all, it’s not the writer’s fault if you made some foolish assumption about what they meant by “mostly.”
It’s easy to spot when you’re reading a sentence with weasel words. After reading the sentence, think of a specific example that would be compatible with the statement. This is almost always what you’d like the statement to mean. But then go one step further: Come up with another statement that is equally compatible with that sentence. And then do it again. If you can find four or five meanings that have only a small relationship with each other (like my “mostly complete” example) then you know that you’re dealing with weasel words and the writer is wasting your time.
When you do spot a weasel word, you shouldn’t assume that the person using the word is trying to mislead you. It may reflect simple ignorance or just that the writer used the most convenient word rather than the right word. When faced with a weasel word asking the author what, specifically, the word means (“What exactly does ‘mostly’ mean here?”) by return email, gives the other person a chance to fill in the missing information.
Which is the answer to how you avoid using weasel words when you do know the information: Be specific. Where, because of simple ignorance, you can’t be specific then provide examples. Rewriting my “mostly complete” sample using these strategies gives these two sentences, one specific and one with examples:
We’ve got 87% of the work done and we’ll be finished the project in two weeks.
Typically, when we’ve gotten to this point in the project, we’ve finished up in two to three weeks.
Now that’s information that’s actually useful.