Don’t Be A Weasel: Own Your Ideas. Let me start didactically (before backing off just a bit): Weasels use the passive voice. Weasels use adverbs.
“Mistakes were made.” Wow. If ever there were a transparent evasion of responsibility for screwing up, this is it. I googled the phrase to identify who said it, and found an entire Wikipedia entry on the subject, with far too many politicians quoted as cheesing out with this phrase than I can devote space to identifying. The phrase is classic evasion in the passive voice. While it acknowledges error (almost always under circumstances in which error is undeniable), it deflects blame from the speaker. Now, this is not the place for me to expostulate on my belief that almost every politician who has used this phrase would have gotten into a whole lot less trouble simply by fessing up. That is a matter of public relations, not writing. My point here is to you as a writer. If you believe in what you are writing, write it. Write it directly, not passively.
The passive voice is a bête noir of writing stylists everywhere. I’m not necessarily jumping on the bandwagon that condemns the passive voice for, well, its passivity. Sometimes passivity is what you want. I’m more concerned here with your communication. If you use the passive voice to express your thoughts and opinions, it will be unclear to your reader that in fact these are your thoughts and opinions. Try this one: “There is an argument that the earth is round.” (OK, flat earthers, step aside.) What is a reader to make of this? It certainly posits the existence of an argument. But whose argument? What does the writer think, what is he or she trying to convey about the argument? Its mere existence? Well, in some circumstances it might be adequately revelatory to identify the existence of an argument. But if I’m reading a paper on the shape of the earth, I would sure like to know what the writer thinks. Passive voice deprives me of this.
Verbs unmodified. And while we’re on the subject of weasels . . . . What is with adverbs? Generally I don’t like them. Truthfully, they don’t usually add a whole lot, at least expressly, to the meaning of a sentence. Candidly and frankly speaking, they tend to be ways of softening what you are trying to say. And that, absolutely, is really a problem. It’s a problem in writing and in speech that I think translates to our social and interpersonal relations: People don’t like to be direct.
Why not? Because they don’t mean what they say? If that’s the case, they shouldn’t say it at all. More likely, I think, adverbs are used as a means of conflict avoidance. Soften the opinion, soften the directness, and you are less likely to invite disagreement and debate. But is that actually useful (especially if you are writing and – in a rare difference with speech – physically removed from your readers, so conflict – at least immediate conflict – is impossible)? Adverbs drive me nuts. (OK, I frequently use them myself, but I have been trying really hard to give up that habit.) And they drive me nuts because their common use obscures the strength of a writer’s (and speaker’s) thoughts. Adverbs keep the reader guessing.
It’s worth reiterating my main point in Chapter One; speak well, write well. If you use a lot of adverbs in your (weaselly-, conflict-evasive) speech, this tendency, like all of your other oral tics, will find its way into your writing.  So as you work to improve your speech that will improve your writing, perhaps you should consider stepping up to your opinions and stating them directly.
Now look. There are plenty of times when you want to qualify what you write, times when you want to soften an assertion, provide for the possibility of alternatives, give space for other points of view. If this is what you meant to do, say it! There is nothing wrong with writing: “This is what I think, except for . . . .” Or: “This is what I think. Other people think differently. Here is why I think I’m right.” Or: “This is what I think based on my research so far. Further research might lead to different conclusions.” In each of these cases I, the reader, can know precisely what the writer thinks, how strong the writer’s beliefs are, and as a result can determine whether I agree or disagree. Straightforward qualification is just that – it is not weaselly. I, as reader, cannot know what weasels think.
Adjectives Are Like Caviar: Use Sparingly. In the beginning was Hemingway. OK, maybe not in the beginning. But Hemingway really created the modern spare and direct kind of writing I’m advocating here. Read A Farewell to Arms. Count the adjectives. Or, again to quote Mark Twain: “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Adjectives are the cockroaches in the dark corners of your writing. They are crutches. They fill space. They distract. They attempt to deprive the reader of independent thought. They clutter. They strain to infuse the vapid with meaning. Phew.
OK, so perhaps I’ve overstated the case. I don’t say that you can’t ever use adjectives. What I will say is that, when you do use them, think about them as you would any other word, and consider why you are using them and whether they are necessary, by which I mean, whether they add to what you already have written. Adjectives are the refuge of the bad writer precisely because they come so easy.
As a practical matter, I would advise that you write your first draft without adjectives. This will take some thought and self-monitoring. When an adjective creeps in, as inevitably it will as the words flow from your fingers, stop and delete it. Or go back and delete all of your adjectives once you have finished your first draft. (Don’t worry – you won’t forget them. One of the problems with adjectives is that, like an annoying tune, they remain stuck in your head.) Read your work adjective-free. You now have nowhere to hide. You will readily see if you have said something worth saying.
When In Doubt, Keep Them Out. You may start to add some adjectives back – carefully, intentionally, and sparingly – only after you engage in the rewriting exercise that follows, on a second or third rewrite at the earliest. And, when you do, be mindful of how you use them. Make sure they add something to what you are writing, something that the reader would not otherwise understand from what you have written. If they don’t, keep them out. If you’re not sure whether they add or not, they don’t. Really. I have yet to hear a reader of anybody complain about the absence of adjectives (except perhaps in bad Hemingway imitations.)
Avoid Quotations. “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.” Well, I’m not always in agreement with Ralph Waldo Emerson, but he was spot-on here. Quotations are the refuge of the cowardly and the lazy. Cowardly, because using someone else’s words lets you avoid owning your ideas (weasly, again). Lazy, because it precludes you from having to take complex ideas and present them in your own words. Probably for these reasons, a lot of really poor writing is characterized by the overuse of quotations.
Now, I never say never (or at least almost never). There are certain times when quotations are necessary or desirable. You will note that I (ironically) began this admonition to avoid quotations with a quotation. But you have also seen quotations – often extensive – throughout this book. These quotations serve as examples, and it is perfectly ok to use quotations when you are using them to exemplify or illustrate a point. Related to this is the analysis of quotations – which I’ve also done. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for example, to engage in a literary critique without using some quotes.
Quotations are also acceptable when you are telling a story that requires the use of somebody else’s words. In Chapter [ ] I will give an example from Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson. Johnson’s own words (and the words of contemporaries) were necessary in order for Caro to develop the characters and show them as they were. This is why novelists write dialog – it more powerfully expresses their characters than mere description could. Nothing that Caro could have made up would have been as powerful as the quotations.
Finally, quotations are fine if they are famous – or at least uniquely appropriate – and you are using them for color. That’s how I use the Emerson quote at the beginning of this section. But, again, this should be done sparingly or your writing will look silly and mannered.
 There is a parallel in speech about which I shall rant for a moment. How many times have you asked somebody a question to receive the answer: “I’m not sure.”? Literally, that means that the speaker is not certain of the answer. But what does he really mean? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Why doesn’t he say “yes” or “no?” Perhaps because he thinks the answer will make you unhappy. So he dissembles. Does this help answer your question? No, of course not. The same uncertainty with which you began remains. Is it communication? Obviously not, except for the possible conclusion that the speaker doesn’t want to communicate. Conflict-avoidance phrases tend not to further the enterprise of communication.
 Sorry – another rant on misuse. When did ”verbal” and “oral” come to mean the same thing? People regularly use “verbal” when they mean “oral.” Get it straight.