Sooner or later in the process, every author faces editing the ‘crutch’ words. These are the habitual words or phrases used like crutches to prop up one’s prose. In speech, we rarely notice them; in prose, they become a hallmark of poor writing. Top of the list? Like, seemed, look, decide. And adverbs. Mostly.
Every editor has a list of crutch words made up of industry favourites, personal bugbears and those specific uses particular to an individual author. Read a text closely and often, you may notice a repetition of certain words or constructions. Repetition itself will bore the reader, even if they don’t know why. Egregious repetition shows up like a nervous tick and is likely to annoy the reader.
Crutch words crop up for several reasons:
- As ‘filler,’ often in the first draft, when we’re rushing to get words on the page, promising to ‘fix it in post.’
- Out of habit, leaning on our favoured stock words to link, qualify, or shore up our prose.
- Out of desperation, when we’re not entirely sure what it is we want to say.
Crutch words encourage loose, baggy, woolly and less specific prose. In speech, they give the speaker time to think and to keep the tone informal, without detracting from the sense or meaning. In prose, we want to be more, not less specific. Crutch words often accompany poor sentence construction and poor sense construction.
Pick Up Thy Bed and Walk
There are three remedies for crutch words:
- Substitution. Swap out the crutch for a more specific or accurate synonym.
- Delete. You can straight away delete a lot of crutch words without detracting from the text, if not actively shorten and clarify it.
- Re-phrase or re-write. Underneath every sentence creaking with crutch words, there’s a better, shorter, clearer, more elegant sentence fighting to get out. You just have to think about the sense, intention and value of the sentence in order to re-write it the way it needs to pay off.
Even in manuscripts of many thousands of words, every sentence has to justify its inclusion and contribute some value toward the whole text. Crutch words highlight the sub-par sentences that reduce value and clarity. They are a flag demanding attention in the edit.
The Judicious Exercise of Choice
Inclusion on my list of crutch words doesn’t automatically remove every single instance; there’s a judicious act of choice in editing the crutch words in my prose. ‘Like’ is perfectly valid for similes, as long as the simile itself is appropriate and earns its keep. ‘Look’ has its place in the right context. “Marto looked down at his boots” signifies exactly the nervous, awkward and slightly guilty action of a man lying through his teeth.
I strictly ration ‘realized,’ ‘feel,’ and ‘appeared.’ I’ve banned ‘suddenly’ because something that happens suddenly should just(!) happen.
While narrative and description should be the focus, there is a difference between these and dialogue, however. People speak in fillers, cliches and repetitions all the time. The deliberate use of crutch words will delineate certain characters; it is fine to keep them. Other characters become stronger when you remove their crutch words making them more eloquent, active and persuasive. Which words are appropriate for each character?
Actively Avoiding Procrastination
We want our prose to convey action. Crutch words such as ‘look,’ ‘decide’ and ‘begin’ are all prose forms of procrastination. They seldom get anything done.
I don’t want my entire cast of characters ‘looking’ at each other repeatedly like the build-up to the gunfight in a Spaghetti Western. Don’t just ‘look,’ do something. And don’t merely decide to do it, get on and do it.
“He decided to go to the mall.” And? Is there something else? No? Then do it: “he went to the mall.”
This is where crutch words get entangled in passive voice, when we really(!) want to write in active voice as far as possible. Active means just(!) that; direct, engaging, clear. Don’t ‘decide to’ do a thing, do the thing. It’s like ‘he began to’ do a thing. Unless there’s some interruption, why not just do the thing?
(Don’t) Lean on Me
Editing the crutch words might seem(!) like a tedious task, but it pays dividends, improving the quality of the final text.
There are text analysis tools that will generate a word cloud showing you the most overused words. I prefer to work through my personal list so I can fix them in context.
For example, on my list scanning for look/looked, I removed seventeen instances and kept five. I removed all five instances of ‘considered.’ I’ve re-written a number of sentences for brevity, clarity, and active voice. Sometimes whole paragraphs.
Throw away the crutches. You know it makes sense.