Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Crutch Words

By David E. Sharp

Words make lousy crutches. Not only will they not keep you from hitting the floor if you're wobbly on your feet, they will also annoy your readers if you lean too heavily on them. In the editing process, crutch words are almost as invisible to writers as comma infractions, but they are vastly more irritating.

Even bestselling authors are not immune. I have only to find a new beta-reader if I want to hear, "Gosh, you're really fond of the word "dodecahedron," aren't you?" Who would have thought that three-dimensional geometric figures would come up so frequently in a dystopian cookbook?

How do we keep those crutch words from ruining our manuscripts?

Step 1: Admit You Have a Problem

Crutch words.
You never see them till it's too late.
Your dependence on the word "literally," is ruining your life and destroying your relationships. With your readers, I mean. You're probably not going to get fired over it.

Unless you're a journalist or something. But you are figuratively burning bridges with your readership. And I can't sit here and watch you do this to yourself!

Great! Now that's out of the way, let's move on.

Step 2: Identify Your Crutch Words

Actually, this is the hard part. Crutch words wouldn't be crutch words if you actually knew what they were. Of course, you'd avoid them if you actually had any clue how to find them! And they're sneaky. They can take on different actual parts of speech. How do you figure out what your crutch words are? Actually? 

No worries. There are ways to root out those irksome repetitions. For example:

Behold the habitat of the deadly
crutch word. See how it blends with
its surroundings waiting for the
opportune moment to strike!
Reading Out Loud: My ear catches discords in my otherwise beautiful prose far more quickly than my eye. Composition has a musical flow to it that we're already trained to key in on. I don't catch everything this way, but I can sift out the brunt of it.

Plus, once you annoy yourself with your own crutch words, you're that much less likely to be blind to them.

Beta Readers: Beta readers show up a lot on these kinds of lists. That's because they catch lots of mistakes. Including crutch words. Grow yourself a thick skin and put your manuscript out there. You'll be surprised what people find.

Technology: Get some algorithms on the task. There are several programs you can use to point out all your shortcomings as a writer. Isn't that great? Specialty word processors like scrivener can compile some word stats for you, but if you don't have one, you can use It's nifty! In fact, it can tell you that a full 22 instances of the phrase, "crutch words" takes place in this article on crutch words. It can also tell you that I haven't said "dodecahedron" nearly enough.

Step 3: Destroy Your Crutch Words!
Take that, crutch words!
You're not gonna muck up my sentences!

Show no mercy. Especially if your crutch word is "mercy." Rip those crutch words out of your manuscript like they were crutch words in a manuscript. My next blog post will be on coming up with better comparisons. :/

Throw them down a food disposal and blot them out of your dictionary. Then make sure that whatever you replace them with doesn't become a new crutch word. Truly.

Step 3-Addendum: But Don't Go Nuts.

I'm free! I'm free!
I'm actually free
I'll never say...

I just said it, didn't I?
Okay, you don't have to get rid of every utterance of your crutch words. But you should get rid of most of them. Especially the crutch words that don't actually add anything meaningful to your sentence. You've got a brilliant story to tell, and you should tell it through crisp, tidy prose. Sprinters don't show up to tryouts with crutches. Neither should your book!

Don't send it out into the world limping.

For more on finding your crutch words, check out:

How Crutch Words Weaken Your Writing

297 Flabby Words and Phrases that Rob Your Writing of all its Power
-In case you want a heavy-duty list.

43 Words You Should Cut from Your Writing Immediately
-Or maybe you just want a list of the usual suspects.


Nancy Riley said...

Thanks for the advice. I'm part of a local writing group and we read each other's work aloud. As you noted, that helps identify those pesky crutches. What about misuse of synonyms and contractions?

Ronda Simmons said...

I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who overuses the word dodecahedron. One can sometimes get away with calling it a pyritohedron but you've got to be super careful about the symmetry of the structure. OK?

I agree with Nancy Riley, my critique group has helped me begin the 12-step process of ridding myself of crutch words. Turns out I overuse OK. Who knew?

Thanks for pointing us to word, I just ran a quick check on an old document of mine and discovered some interesting information. Definitely a site to bookmark and use often!

April Moore said...

Spot on, David. One of my crutch word is "some." Last night, my critique group found not just some of them, but a lot of them! Thanks for the great links, too.

David Sharp said...

Nancy, that's brilliant that you read each other's work aloud. In addition to catching errors, you get to see how somebody else interprets your tone and where they naturally place the inflection. I'll bet that helps you fine tune your writing a lot. I suppose reading aloud would also help you determine where you should or shouldn't use contractions. I'm not clear on how one would misuse synonyms, but maybe you could do a guest spot for The Writing Bug on it. We're always looking for guest bloggers... (shameless plug).

Ronda, I'm so happy there are other geometry nerds in the world. I'm glad you're getting some use out of the word counter. One of my crutch words is "all," and I was completely blind to it.

Thanks, April. It's funny how frequently we can use a word and not realize it. Aren't we glad for critique groups who can point out all our flaws? :)

Kristin Owens said...

What's a dodecahedron?

Good article.

David Sharp said...

Hey, Kristin! Glad you liked the article.

A dodecahedron is a three-dimensional shape with twelve sides. It's also the most unlikely candidate for a crutch word I could think of.

Thanks for commenting!

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