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No matter what project you work on, no matter how many books you have finished or how many stories you have started, every writer uses crutch words. Individually, crutch words are nothing special. It is their frequency and repetition that earn them a special distinction, and knowing what your own crutch words are is an important step for becoming a better writer.
Before we talk about how to identify and remove them from your stories, it’s worth noting that crutch words serve an important function. In the middle of a writing session, it doesn’t matter if the words are flowing seamlessly or if you’re fighting for each and every one. In either case, crutch words are go-to’s so you don’t get bogged down overthinking how to express a thought through words. They also serve to quickly capture extra details, which you can evaluate later (during read-throughs) as being necessary, or not, for readers.
Dictionary.com defines crutch words:
Crutch words are words that we slip into sentences in order to give ourselves more time to think or to emphasize a statement. Over time, they become unconscious verbal tics. Most often, crutch words do not add meaning to a statement. Actually is the perfect example of a crutch word.
Adding to that definition, crutch words as writers use them usually take two forms.
We consume a lot of media, whether it be books, television, or movies. There can be an almost unconscious associating of certain behaviors with certain emotions. This goes beyond the obvious ones – like eyes brimming with tears or shaking with rage – and are developed over time as we find our own ways to express the emotions of our characters through words. One writer I’ve worked with tends to use raised (or arched or perked) eyebrows as an added emphasis on what their characters are feeling at a given moment. This is especially true during longer exchanges of dialogue. My own characters look around excessively, or peer into each other’s eyes, which are often unnecessary details. Other common examples include: stretched, flexed, frowned, squinted, peered, pointed, etc.
Complex and yet overly Simplified Descriptors
Words like decadent, laborious, undaunted, colossal, are equal measures beautiful and intense. There are times where their use would be entirely appropriate, but sometimes it can be too easy to reach for these sorts of words. All writers have the habit now and then of being overly dramatic in their writing. Capturing something complex in a single word can help point readers toward thinking something is important, but that should not always be done to the exclusion of more deliberately showing them.
How to Spot a Crutch Word
- Make use of a tool (like http://www.wordcounter.com/ or http://www.writewords.org.uk/) to analyze your writing and list frequently occurring words
- Complete a read through specifically on the lookout for repetitive words. You can use a speech to text program to hear them, which might help. And/or, ask beta readers to keep an eye out for them (beta’s like when they have something specific to be on the lookout for!)
Common Crutch Words
- remarked, stated, commented, etc
- each and every (as a phrase)
- happily, sadly, darkly, etc
- looking, staring, squinting, etc
- focus on (as a phrase)
If you ever have occasion to write when you are tired or distracted, crutch words will more frequently pepper your draft. Although your writer-specific crutch words can and will change over time with each writing project you do, identifying them is important. Removing such words is even more important because it will make your prose cleaner, lighter, and will help keep your readers centered inside the story.
Your first few drafts of any single writing project will often reveal different crutch words. They’ll become more apparent every time you evaluate your writing, especially when you can do so more as a reader than a writer. Keep a running list that you can consult whenever you work on a new project. Odds are there will be more than a few that are repeated across manuscripts. It’s impossible to completely stop using crutch words in early drafts, but experience in spotting them can help you keep them to a minimum before a full read-through.
Descriptor-type crutch words tend to vary project to project more than the character-based crutch words. This can make them harder to spot until you have most of a draft complete. Careful attention during a read-through is your best bet for spotting them, even if the draft isn’t finished.
What are your most troublesome crutch words? Does your favorite author have a crutch word that you’ve spotted in their prose? Do you have any tips for other writers looking for ways to identify their own crutch words? What was your word-offending crutch word in your latest project? The comments are always open.