How to reduce hesitant language in fiction

When is hesitant language used in fiction writing?

Hesitant or uncertain language is common when an author lacks confidence in their writing. This lack of confidence can result in writing shrouded with words that don’t express the author’s true intention. Authors often feel awkward at saying what they really mean and are reluctant to be assertive. They also want to avoid annoying the reader so use hesitant language and weaker words to soften the blow.

Authors should not feel the need to apologise for what they have written. The important thing is to get to the point and say what is really meant! This is an opportunity to be bold and assertive and say what you want to say. It is a chance to say what you might not have the confidence to say in real life!

Hesitant language can reduce the impact of the text and leave the reader on the outside rather than immersed in the story. Hedge words or tentative language are other terms that are used to describe uncertain writing.

Examples of hesitant language

A few examples of hesitant words are lited below.

  • at least
  • almost
  • appeared to
  • could
  • generally
  • hoped
  • maybe
  • might
  • more or less
  • perhaps
  • pondered
  • possibly
  • potentially
  • seemed
  • somehow
  • thought
  • usually
  • wondered

How can I make my writing less hesitant?

Deleting hesitant or weaker words

Often, simply removing hesitant words can improve the text.

She thought the book was more or less finished.

The book was finished.

Desmond somehow thought that he was right again.

Desmond was right again.

At least he had the chance to go to the pub tonight.

He had the chance to go to the pub tonight.

He frowned. Perhaps the accident could possibly be an omen,

He frowned. Was the accident an omen?

Perhaps and could possibly be are adding unnecessary waffle here, so removing them and recasting as a question creates intrigue.

Stronger verb

Changing a weaker verb for a stronger one is often a solution.

It had seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was a good idea at the time.

Swapping had seemed for was gives a more positive statement.


Recasting the sentence can reduce uncertainty and bring the reader closer to the viewpoint character.

She thought back to last night’s speed dating. She potentially had three dates lined up.

Last night’s speed dating had been fun. She had swapped numbers with three people. But did she want to meet them all again?

The second example puts us firmly in the viewpoint character’s mind, and we are no longer wondering why the three dates are potential. There is less distance between the reader and the viewpoint character.

Using stronger verbs and adding in free indirect thought

Adding in free indirect thought along with a stronger verb creates a tighter sentence filled with intrigue and tension.

Jas thought she might go to the cinema tonight.

Jas made her mind up. She would go to the cinema tonight. By herself.

Jas is the viewpoint character, so we are in her head. By including free indirect thought, the reader knows Jas has been thinking about going to the cinema and has now decided she will. And saying she is going by herself creates intrigue.

Sally pondered whether James really did love her.

Sally gazed at the traffic jam in front. Did James really love her?

The details of Sally’s surroundings help us imagine being stuck in a traffic jam and how it gives time for thinking.

She looked in the mirror. She was generally happy with how she looked.

She looked in the mirror and grinned. Not bad. Not bad at all.

Showing the reader her reactions rather than saying she was generally happy is more immersive.

Avoiding viewpoint drops

Viewpoint characters cannot know what is going on in other characters’ heads, so just removing tentative words does not work.

Ceri stared at the man in front of him in the queue. He seemed to be anxious.

We know the other man seems anxious but, as Ceri is the viewpoint character and we are in his head, we don’t know how the other man is feeling. Seemed is an appropriate word as from Ceri’s viewpoint the other man does seem anxious. He could even seem unwell. If we remove seem and say he was anxious, we are dropping viewpoint as we cannot be in the man’s head and know his thoughts and feelings. We can only report what we see. Just as if we were in a supermarket queue and watching someone in front of us.

By showing the man’s behaviour rather than saying he is anxious, we can see for ourselves (along with Ceri) that something is not right.

Ceri stared at the man in front of him in the queue. He shuffled from foot to foot, glancing around and mopping his face with a grubby handkerchief. Something fell from his pocket and clattered on the supermarket floor. Ceri looked down and froze. It was a small handgun.

When is hesitant language OK to use?

Becoming aware of how easily and frequently hesitant words are used is a good start. Using hesitant language isn’t wrong but reducing uncertainty will make writing stronger.

However, there are situations when hesitant language is appropriate.

Character personality

Hesitant language can make characters look weak or ineffectual even if they are meant to be bold and assertive. Obviously, if a character has a meek and mild personality, hesitant language will be appropriate.

Using our example of Jas from earlier, in the first sentence Jas comes across as dithering about going to the cinema. This could indicate she is prone to being indecisive. The second example shows her as being confident and decisive.

Jas thought she might go to the cinema tonight.

Jas made her mind up. She would go to the cinema tonight. By herself.

In dialogue

In dialogue, hesitant language is perfect if a character is prone to rambling, as in the first example.

‘I thought perhaps we might go out tonight, dear, if you fancy it. Maybe to that little restaurant you seemed happy with a few weeks ago. Or was it longer than that? You know, that place by the river.’

The second example shows the character is bold and assertive.

We’re going out tonight. I’ve booked a table at that splendid restaurant by the river.’

Acting out of character

Consider the example below.

Kevin appeared to be drunk.

Kevin was drunk.

By changing appeared to be to was, we aren’t wondering if Kevin is drunk. But, if Kevin has been taken ill, he could appear drunk, with the apparent drunkenness being symptoms of something else. The recast below shows that to someone watching, Kevin did appear drunk, but it’s out of character for him.

Kevin appeared to be drunk. He staggered and swayed from side to side and his face was dripping with sweat. But Simon knew that he didn’t usually drink at lunchtime. Something was wrong.

When the viewpoint character is speculating

Chloe looked at the photos of her wedding. It seemed a lifetime away now but it was just three years.

Olaf glared at Maureen, the accounts clerk. How many more questions? He only wanted a £20 payment authorising. She was acting as if she was personally paying him.

In brief
  • Using hesitant language isn’t wrong but reducing uncertainty will give the reader a more immersive experience.
  • Deleting, using stronger verbs and recasting can all help to make language more certain.
  • Free indirect thought is an excellent way to make the prose more interesting and add intrigue.
  • Hesitant language can be a way of showing personality traits if characters are prone to dithering or lack confidence.

Work with me

I’m Clare Black, a fiction book editor based in Stockport, UK. I help independent authors prepare for publishing by fixing the important details and improving the readability of their books. I specialise in crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, but I am happy to consider other genres. I am a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

I offer various packages to help indie authors get published and would love the opportunity to discuss your book and how I can help you prepare for publishing.


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