Editing Crutch Words

When we (the Queen and I) were on the cusp of completing the final draft of my fantasy novel, Storm of Divine Light, I came across an intriguing post by #WritingCommunity member, Indie Author and Editor Dan Alatorre. His blog post concentrated on the dreaded phenomenon known as “crutch words.” Just when we thought we were safe, it was back to the draft for another round of editing.

Crutchwords

What are crutch words?

They are words or expressions that an author’s brain defers to like a default setting (and therefore, they become over-used). These repeated words / phrases should not be obliterated from your writing, but rather, their frequency and usage needs to be reduced.

What do I mean by “usage”?

Word usage falls into two broad categories. First, there is description / exposition and second, there is dialog. I’ll use the word “look” as an example in exposition.

Janet flashed a stern look at him.

Occurrences like this are borderline “telling.”  You can allow about fifteen per novel; just make sure they are distant from each other.

John looked at Janet’s stern face.

Blatant “telling” and also “distancing.” Please edit (with extreme prejudice) such usage from your manuscript.

On the flip side, the word “look” seems quite natural in dialog:

John held up the old photograph. “Wow! Come over here and take a look at this.”

Proper, simple, and to the point. Good job!  Now here’s an example where I make a special effort to  avoid the word “look.”

“Hey, Janet! Amble over to my location and visually scan this old photograph and let’s see if it surprises you?”

An overzealous crusade to edit any and all occurrences of a crutch word in dialog may result in stilted, wooden, and unrealistic conversation.

In another example, you may have placed the word properly, but it appears too many times within a short space.

John held up the old photograph. “Wow! Come here and take a look at this.”

Bill glanced over his shoulder and said, “Now look, I can’t drop everything whenever you think you’ve found something important. Keep searching and we’ll look everything over later.” He huffed a breath and stared at John with a disdainful glare.

“Don’t look at me like that.” John flung the photo into a box.

Every single line of dialog is perfectly acceptable. However, “look” is used four times within five lines of text. Do not only refer to the sidebar within MS Word. When you do a search for any crutch word, scroll though and look for clusters.

Is it possible to use a crutch word to one’s advantage?

People, not just authors, have crutch words in their arsenal. Therefore, to make a character more realistic, give them a crutch word or phrase that is reflective of their personality. Remember to use it and don’t abuse it. If a particular character has a verbal crutch, don’t let another character say the same phrase or word as much.

In Storm of Divine Light, I used the word “quite” thirteen times in dialog. The main secondary character, Cyril, uses it seven times, Maynard four times, Dagorat once, and Liberon once. I gave the character Cyril the phrase “Quite right.” Maynard says the same with some frequency, but I also established that he and Cyril are peers in age, education, and social status.

How to find those crutch words

I searched on-line for crutch word lists. Although some results geared toward public speaking and therefore contained “Um,” “Ya know,” and “like.” I found enough sites to compile a general list, but then came the ultimate problem associated with crutch words in your manuscript:  finding the personal ones unique to your own brain.

You may find those elusive personal crutch words by searching for a different one. When I searched through my manuscript for “very,” MS Word also highlighted “every,” “everything,” “everyone” and “everywhere.” In this way, I discovered that “every” was one of my personal crutches. By the time I was done, I had an extensive list to scrub:

  • A bit
  • A few
  • Actually
  • Almost
  • Appear
  • As though
  • Basically
  • Beginning
  • Certainly
  • Could
  • Definitely
  • Each
  • Every/thing/one
  • Felt
  • Finally* (Obliterate this one)
  • Gaze
  • Glance
  • Heard/hear
  • Just
  • Look
  • Nearly
  • Nod
  • Only
  • Probably
  • Quite
  • Rather
  • Reach
  • Realize
  • Really
  • Saw
  • See
  • Seem/Seems/Seemed
  • Shrugged his/her/their shoulders
  • Simply
  • Slightly
  • Some / Somehow
  • Touch
  • Turn / return
  • Very
  • Virtually
  • Was
  • Watch
  • Wonder
  • Would

Remember to apply the principles of usage and frequency when hunting these buggers down.

I’m somewhat knocked out by the difference between a crutch word-cleaned draft and the preceding draft. My manuscript for Storm of Divine Light became tighter, and neater. Or shall I say more groomed?

Did you find this helpful? Did you find a personal crutch word not on my list?

Every Time You Reply, Baby Patrick Doesn’t Cry

22 thoughts on “Editing Crutch Words

  1. A good deal depends on what you are writing and how you are engaging with your readers. It is so easy to pad a manuscript with crutch words… and yet it is this very personal vocabulary that gives a writer a unique style and voice. Editing has, as you point out, needs to be done with care to preserve that voice.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Let your critique partners help find and identify your crutch words, then make a list of them and do a MS search for each after your final draft and before sending to CPs.

    As them to be on the lookout for overused words or phrases.”

    Whatever they find, address. After a while, the crutch word list gets smaller – but you’ll be adding new crutches! It never ends!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Dan! Thanks for dropping by 🙂
      Good points. I forgot to mention the probability of replacing one crutch with another. I was aware of that happening during my editing pass, because you pointed that out in your post. I used the search/find function to keep track of frequency.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I definitely recognise a lot of these, actually, and I’m, like, basically going to have to look, or at least gaze very slightly at each of my books, or a few, at least and obliterate every one, probably. 😉 Seriously, though, I’m way too familiar with these.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A most useful post. Thank you. There are quite a few on your list I recognise. I’m just about to start the third draft of my latest wip. Your list will help. (And I used one here–just.)
    One that I come across a lot when critiquing is ‘seemed’. I see it’s on your list, but it is one novice ( and not so novice) writers use a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi V.M.! Always good to see you.
      Thanks for acknowledging the usefulness of this post. When I first read about this phenomena…Oh no! Later, thank God I saw this before publishing. 🙂

      P.S. I would like to add one of your books to my reading/review list. What is your recommendation?

      Like

      • Thank you for wanting to add one of my books to your reading/review list. I’m honoured. If you like fantasy, you could try either The Wolf Pack, book 1 of The Wolves of Vimar series, or The Stones of Earth and Air, book 1 of Elemental Worlds, which is more of a YA book, I think.
        My first historical novel is due for release on December 26th, currently on pre-order. It’s called Vengeance of a Slave and is set in Britain during the Roman occupation.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Crutch words are words I’ve tried to eliminate for some time. I have my personal list, which is about the same number–though not all the same words–as yours. One I didn’t see on the list that many use is “that”. I used to be a ‘that girl’. I, too, have overused “look”. Now I average about 100 for every 100,000 words. It used to be triple that.

    Oddly enough, I find I develop new crutch words when striving to eliminate old ones.

    While the common, minor word such as “look” is easier to read multiple times in a novel and not irritate the reader, I find complicated or rare words stand out more and feel overused. Because of this, I use rare words only once in a novel unless it’s the name of something..

    Like

    • Hi Diane,
      I put glance and gaze on the list for that reason. Replacing “look” with a synonym can create another overused word. I tend to think about how the character is looking…eyed, spied, examined, scrutinized, and scanned can break things up.
      “That” is not on my list because I’m aware of it as I write. Perhaps I should’ve added it.

      Like

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