Weakness Words & Phrases

One of the things we too often do as writers is soften our language with words and phrases of weakness — words that we insert in attempt to sound less authoritative, but end up just cluttering up a page and too often makes us sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

  • If none of the results rolled fit the story at the moment, feel free to choose another one or make up your own.
  • GMs should have the players be brief when describing their backstories.
  • If the table begins bickering, that’s a sign of a problem. You should stop and address this.

And so on. It make seem subtle or innocuous, but then most individual choices of language are — it’s when they all add up that you see how those many choices shape the mindset around the work.

I almost universally kill “feel free to” — it adds nothing to the statement, especially when it’s an if-then surrounding a reminder of permission (like the example above). Every time “should” comes up in a document, I look it over and 99% of the time I kill them with fire, because “should” has a weird sense of ambiguity that just outright stating something doesn’t. There are other weakness words and phrases out there, but those two bits stick out in my mind.

  • If none of the results rolled fit the story at the moment, choose another one or make up your own.
  • GMs, have the players be brief when describing their backstories. (Or better yet, “Players, be brief when describing backstories.”)
  • If the table begins bickering, stop and address this.

By tightening the phrasing and removing words that communicate weakness, you achieve two things: one, you make something that’s easier to remember, because it’s tighter; two, you’re showing respect to your reader by not treating them like they need to be coddled. (This goes toward my principle of assuming your readers are smart, and should be talk to as such.[1])

What words or phrases of weakness have you encountered?

– Ryan

[1] Cynics be damned.


8 Responses to Weakness Words & Phrases

  1. John says:

    Off the top of my head, I nuke the following phrases and words with frightening regularity:

    – “Expect (to)” as in “Expect to see players needing an extra card…”
    – “Ideally”, in any context, but particularly when used as a segue from one rule to a conclusion or outcome
    – Any sentence that simultaneously directs players AND GMs to have different responses to the same event, as in “On the roll of a 6: GMs, consult Table 1C whereas players, you should be thinking of new elements to introduce.” (note the presence of “should”)
    – Any use of “may” that suggests the book’s owner/user has the author’s permission to do something.
    – Any use of “might” that casts doubt on the possibility of something being a likely result, as if the author has mapped the range of outcomes and decided the reader’s best course of action, yet still wants to be friendly and open-ended
    – Any use of “thus” to either sound smarter than the tone requires, or lead the reader to a specific conclusion without the benefit of adapting or adopting it themselves.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Man, yes. Especially “might.”

      Your “expect to” reminds me of my issue with “in order to” being a poor replacement of “to.” In fact I recall a conversation recently with a board game designer that they changed a “to” to “in order to,” which introduced ambiguity in play because some people got confused on whether there was a different order of operations.

      – Ryan

  2. Argh. The “feel free” is my constant bane. It sneaks in any time I’m not paying attention.

    I also struggle with multiple “ifs.” I’ll say “If players do X, do Y. If players do A, do B. If players do C, do D.” Bad writing that has to die in a fire.

    Thanks for reminding me that these words suck.

  3. John says:

    These words are meant to be encouraging, to show how prepared the author is, or to show the potential of whatever writing sits on the page, but they’re not actually encouraging anything other than a prescribed order of operations (often with a tone of “No matter what you think you’re doing, you’re going to end up doing it this way, so let’s just cut out this middling crap, and have you do it this way from the start.”), even if that order is buried with some smiles, nods and handshake-wankery about how novel and open something is.

    I think it comes from an expectation of wanting to sound “legit” or “professional” or even “smart-slash-professorial”, stemming from some notion that if you just lay out the rules or ideas in simple language, that it cannot possibly “be so easy” to get people excited and taking action with something you created.

    Now I just feel like I’m ranting in rented space. Sorry.

  4. Jon says:

    Anything you insert between the words of the powerful subject-verb-predicate block must overcome the clarity sacrificed to put them there.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I like that I can write a small thing (as is what I prefer to do on blog posts), and you an write something in length in response. :)

      – Ryan

  5. Josh says:

    “Perhaps” is one I see a lot.