Crutch Words

I like to nod, then look at that, or so it seems.

Anyone who reads drafts of my writing–my agent, my editor, my critique partners–may know already the significance of that strange sentence. Even readers of this post who have never picked up one of my novels may detect the dull drag of filler. They may realize, as my go-to readers know with certainty, what the words ‘like,’ ‘nod,’ ‘look,’ ‘seem,’ ‘then,’ and ‘that’ have in common. These are the six words that I overuse.

We all have words we lean on when we write. The reasons we think we need them are varied, but most of the time, we don’t need them at all. Still, we lean on them so heavily they cause a metaphoric limp in our sentences. I think of them as crutch words.

My six words slow my writing down. They take up space and get between my reader and the story. Your crutch words likely do the same.

One of the final stages of revision for me is getting rid of as many instances of my crutch words as I can. To do this, I follow a four-step process:

1. I copy and paste my whole novel into a word frequency counter, like this one. This results in a count of all the words in the document, so I can see exactly how many times I use each word.

2. I review the list, making sure the most frequent words (aside from articles, pronouns, and conjunctions) are character names or key concepts. I make a sub-list of any words that I already know I have a habit of overusing, and I keep an eye out for any new crutch words.

3. I open my document in Word and use the ‘find’ command to search for each occurrence of each of those words.

4. I assess each use of each crutch word. I make the careful decision to leave some of them as is, but I take most of them out.

Taking them out is often a simple matter of deleting. Sometimes I can replace the overused word with one that does a better job of conveying my meaning. Sometimes I need to rewrite the sentence.

As I go through this process, I try to figure out why I overuse these particular words. If I can understand what leads me to lean on certain words, I can work to repair those weaknesses and eliminate the need to lean at all.

For instance, I use ‘like,’ as many of us do in speech, to hold whatever follows at arm’s length. I’m reluctant to say boldly, ‘This is the most beautiful snowfall I’ve ever seen,’ so I soften the statement with the addition of a filler word, ‘This is like the most beautiful snowfall…’ I’m sure you recognize the construction. Very occasionally, there is a place for this sort of syntactic hedging-of-bets in fiction, but in nearly every case, I remove ‘like’ and often revise to do a better job of owning whatever I’m saying.

I’ve also come to understand why I lean on ‘look’ and ‘seem.’ Both of these words articulate elements of a character’s viewpoint that should be implicit. I don’t need to say, ‘Adam looks at Shelby and sees she is worried.’ I can just say, ‘Adam sees Shelby is worried.’ Obviously, he’s looking at her.

Many of the words I overuse are essentially notes to myself that I failed to take out of the text. They are like illustrator notes. Maurice Sendak might have included the bracketed instruction [Max romps with the Wild Things,] but he didn’t need to keep that sentence in his text because the illustration successfully depicts what the sentence says. The same thing is true in a novel. [Adam looks] is me telling myself what’s happening, but if I’ve written what follows well, I will have successfully illustrated the action and don’t need to include the comment.

In the manuscript I most recently revised, I found that, though I still lean too heavily on ‘nod,’ a word that rarely does any good, I have significantly reduced my reliance on it. This small victory comes from being mindful of my crutch words and eliminating them as I go.

It may never be possible to discard the crutches altogether, but the four steps described above strengthen the gait of my sentences, making them strong enough to carry my readers along.

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