Return of the Crutch Words

Return of the Crutch WordsThe next round of editing, and I encounter the return of the Crutch Words. All of those verbal ticks, habits and signs of sloppy writing that writers fall back on, usually devoid of conscious thought.

I have a very, very long list. My crutch words list contains 90 words or short expressions, not including ‘ing’ verbs and most ‘ly’ adverbs.

On my previous pass of 80k words, I removed somewhere in the order of 290 instances of crutch words. I’m part way through another pass and I’m taking out a similar number. That’s a massive amount of crap to include in one draft. And signs of a very poor edit the first time around. A job half done, and badly.

Patching over half-completed thoughts and half-formed sentences, the crutch words prop up the prose when what’s really needed is some conscious effort. It’s lazy, thoughtless writing that demands hard deletion or creative re-writing.

‘Ing’ and ‘Ly’

The first constructions to scan for are the ‘ing’ verbs and the’ly’ adverbs. I’m writing close third person past tense. The ‘ing’ verbs confuse matters. What tense are we in?

“And the adverbs?” he added curiously. “Take them out,” he whispered gently. “They seldom add anything of value.”

I have a specific list of two dozen or so ‘favourite’ crutch adverbs. Quickly, slowly, nearly, barely.

Was. Saw. Very. Really.

These crop up on lots of writers’ Crutch lists.

Was. This is a passive state of being, telling us nothing.

Saw. More passive looking at stuff

Very and Really. What do these add?

But that’s not all

My crutch words list is a litany of only, could, even, almost. Weak, suggestible, inconclusive, wimpy words; they mostly add nothing but verbage and detract from the prose. Mostly.

Now mostly is an interesting case, especially in the construction I just used for emphasis and qualification. And for fans of the movie Aliens.

I’ll throw sentences with every possible use of only. And most of them add nothing. The same with almost.

Don’t say something almost happened, make it happen.

By the time I get to a verb followed by ‘as best she could’ I know I’m just generating noise.

Just Perhaps

Just is also one of my crutch words. It’s a false qualifier and a weak way to add immediacy to a sentence.

As for perhaps, it’s one of my mealy-mouthed qualifiers that adds vagueness and uncertainty without actually asking a question.

Look, see, saw, think, feel, felt

Look, see and saw are largely passive actions, and we want the active.

Remember ‘show don’t tell?’ Think, feel, and felt are all telling not showing. Strike those wherever possible.

A dislike of like

Like. I didn’t think I used many similes, but they’re everywhere. In the right hands (Shakespeare) similes are powerful devices. In mine, they turn up as lazy description. Metaphor is much more powerful. Don’t make something like something else, make it that thing.

Began, started. Unless there’s something dramatic to interrupt the action, don’t begin it or start it, just DO it. Began to and started to are another pair of passive constructions that strip the energy from whatever action there is.

Should I go on?

Head Count

I used to keep a tally of my crutch words as I edited; how many instances I kept and how many I removed. OCD? Possibly. But it did quantify how badly I relied on certain words and phrases.

I’m much more likely to remove crutch words from exposition than dialog. The way most people talk is full of crutch words. There’s a natural, unstudied tone to crutch words that sound like normal speech without the um, err, and filler words of actual conversation. You can color a character weak or strong by their use or disuse of crutch words.

However… I’ve gone back to a tally list of an earlier edit. I recognise now that if the total kept is greater than the total removed, there’s a problem. I’m just not harsh or critical enough in the edit. Call it laziness or lack of basic competence. A crutch word is in the list because it is overused. Every single instance demands a good hard appraisal.

An instance of a crutch word shouldn’t just sit there unchallenged. Either delete it or write a better sentence without it. Throw away the crutches.

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