What are your crutch words?

By Carol / July 15, 2013 /

What words do you lean on?

I’m deep into editing my novel this month. Searching for the best words to create people and places readers will see and remember. Eliminating cliches. Working for copy that is fresh and tight. In the process, I discovered I have two crutch words – words I use without realizing it. Words I lean on, I fear, because they’re so easy.

Look at these sentences from my manuscript. Can you guess the words I mean?

  • Sometimes Liddie just wanted to shout, “Get on with it!”
  • She imagined that women who lived in cities did not spend their days hoeing weeds, gathering eggs or milking cows.
  • I just know if I stay on the farm, Mama and Papa will insist I marry a farmer.
  • Papa said that when Fred left like that, it just proved his point.
  • I really thought after Illinois got the ball rolling with their vote last year that we’d see more progress in Iowa.
  • Thank heaven and the suffrage movement for the fact that girls have choices these days.
  • It was just the heat.
  • Mrs. Carter hopes that Mr. Roosevelt’s enthusiasm will convince others.
  • Neither reacted and she guessed that she was just over sensitive.
  • She watched from just inside the doorway.
  • Amelia’s voice sounded so oddly hopeful that Liddie looked up.
  • I was just joshing. Can’t she take a joke?
  • Kate’s gaze told Liddie just how naive her comment had been.

Readers at the workshop I attended last month pointed out the “that” problem. “That” is technically accurate as I’ve used it but it’s unnecessary. I began to look more closely for other such words. It turns out “Just” is a word I use so frequently in my own conversation that I just don’t realize when it creeps into my writing.

In the 160 words above, there are 15 unnecessary uses of “Just” and “That.” Nearly 10% of the words. Eliminating all 15 results in copy that is crisper, more precise, and stronger.

Of course, there are legitimate uses of just and that, so it’s not as easy as just eliminating them all.ย  But yesterday, I cut nearly 100 words by searching out these two crutch words. My writing is stronger as a result.

The “Find” function in Word Edit is terrific for locating words I’m so used to that I don’t even see them.

If your manuscript is light on words, these words could be useful padding. Having seen the impact of eliminating them from my own manuscript, however; I’d argue that using them results in weaker copy. My challenge is quite the opposite. I’m looking for 16,000 words to cut.

Have you found crutch words in your writing? Would you care to share what they are? I still have 15,000 words to go.

photo credit: chez_sugi via photopin cc

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  1. David Lawlor on July 15, 2013 at 8:22 am

    Just because I use the odd crutch word, doesn’t mean that I’m a bad writer – does it? It’s just that…well…the story might be just that bit stronger without them as you say, Carol. That’s all I have to say…. Well, that and the fact that I am just one of many offenders when it comes to this type of thing. Not that you’d notice of course…just don’t judge my writing that harshly for it… ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 15, 2013 at 3:39 pm

      You, David? Use crutch words? I could just never believe that you would be using extra words for anything at all. I mean, after all, you’re a great writer, and I mean I don’t want to insult you or anything. So, no problem! ๐Ÿ˜‰

  2. Kris Jackson on July 15, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I dunno. In dialog, I use repetitive words a lot because people pick up on words or phrases that their interlocutors use and use them themselves. Real live people use cliches and crutch words and I reflect that. Best of all, they use incorrect words and sentence construction that yields no diagrammable sentence yet still is comprehended by them, the person they are talking to, and the reader. My job as writer is to shepherd my characters through the story in such a way that the reader knows what’s going on.

    An example from The Sopranos:

    Livia: “And that sneak from New York coming around in his silk suits …”
    Uncle Junior: “Suits? Pleurisy? He’s been here multiple times?”

    Another example from The Sopranos:

    Vito: “Yeah, 9/11, Quasimodo predicted that …”
    Tony: “Quasimodo? You mean Nostradamus, don’t you?”
    Vito: “What’s the difference?”
    Tony: “They’re two different guys! Quasimodo was the Hunchback of Notre Dame!”
    Vito: “Well, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Nostradamus … it makes you think.”

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 15, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      You’re quite right, Kris. People use words and phrases that are not the tightest or correct, grammatically or structurally. In my case, with “just,” I found the word cropping up in every character’s dialogue. I could buy one character using the word excessively as a character trait. But all of them? That was me being oblivious. Thanks for The Sopranos examples. Love the show.

  3. Mary Gottschalk on July 15, 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Your blog hit a chord, having JUST spent the last hour eliminating the THAT’s in my MS. However, I like Kris’s point … both words can be quite useful in establishing speech patterns, but often seem redundant or superfluous in narrative!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 15, 2013 at 3:45 pm

      They’re both good and useful words, Mary. Used intentionally. My realization was that I was using them with no specific intent to establish a character’s speech patterns. Here’s to mindful editing!

  4. Barbara McDowell Whitt on July 16, 2013 at 8:06 am

    Carol, recently I saw writing where the author had omitted the word “if” in the following manner: “I doubt I would have gone skiing.” I have said/written “I doubt if I would have gone skiing.” It seems that (oops – that is so easy to over use, as you have pointed out)…. It seems “if” is unnecessary.

    Another example is when I hear/see younger generation individuals say/write “I like when you laugh like that.” I have said/written “I like it when you laugh like that.”

    “If” and “it” are not necessarily crutch words but they are a reminder that we can tighten our writing.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 16, 2013 at 8:25 am

      I agree the examples you’ve brought up are not exactly crutch words – more like filler words. Not wrong but not necessary either. Thanks for pointing out additional ways we can tighten our writing, Barbara. As is so often the case, being aware can set us on the road to improve.

  5. Paulette Mahurin on July 16, 2013 at 10:17 am

    What are your crutch words in the example? Just? Good post.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 16, 2013 at 10:23 am

      “just” and “that” are both words that can go. “Just” is more of a crutch word – and more of a problem – because I didn’t even see how many there were until I started editing. Then the number became both funny and embarrassing! Thanks for commenting, Paulette.

  6. Jessie Ansons on July 20, 2013 at 6:42 pm

    A great little article Carol and a timely reminder to look out for these things as I start editing my book. I think I’m guilty of using ‘that’ way too much too!

    • Carol Bodensteiner on July 20, 2013 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks, Jessie. As with so many things, once we’re aware of a problem, we’re half way to solving it. Good luck with your editing.

  7. April Yamasaki on June 3, 2014 at 9:49 am

    Hi Carol, what great examples! I’m writing non-fiction, but crutch words turn up there too. Mine is “very” and I find writing to eliminate it forces me to think about what I mean and the best/better way to communicate that.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on June 3, 2014 at 10:37 am

      We all rely on them, April. Recognizing is the first step to correcting. Many writers have said that you can “always” eliminate “very.” I’m leery of absolutes, and “very” may have very good uses. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Currently, I’m finding “Amazing” to be my crutch word, particularly in speaking. Every time I feel amazing coming to my lips, I challenge myself to find a fresher word. Good mental exercise in clearer communication, as you’re finding as you eliminate “very.”

  8. Sharon French on December 24, 2014 at 1:50 am

    I have a post I use for my proofreading. Both of those words are on in as well as many more. It helps to search them out and it is a painful slog. I do better when I keep my list in mind as I work.

    • Carol Bodensteiner on December 24, 2014 at 8:30 am

      You have a good list, Sharon. Thanks for sharing it. Being aware of the words as I write helps. I find myself editing as I go, though I know I’ll still have to run the entire list again in final editing.

  9. raquel A de rozza on August 7, 2022 at 9:52 pm

    ah, yeah! I think we all have at least a few of these ‘crutch words’.. I know I sure do! I use ‘like’ a lot! and several others – it’s fun to take a look! I tend to chatter and use a flurry of words that have no business being there – yet there they are. Oh well!

    • Carol on September 6, 2022 at 2:58 pm

      A problem most of us have, I think. Recognizing the problem is the first step to fixing it! Thanks for joining the conversation.

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