In a conversation, “crutch words” give you an extra second to think of what to say. In writing, they are glaring annoyances that destroy your writing style.

“Honestly, I found it very…”
“Because it was really quite…”
”Basically, it should have been so simple…”
”Actually, it literally did not say much…”

We all do it; crutch words have been slowing us down since language was invented. In a spoken conversation, these “crutch words” are often used to give us that extra second to think of what we want to say. In writing, they are those words you over use. Are everyone’s lips “luscious?” Did the protagonist “basically manage the entire store?” Are your characters “really tired” or “very tired” instead of being exhausted?

Get out of your comfort zone

Crutch words are not good for writers; we use these phrases because they are comfortable. We’ve decided they are okay. We use them so we can move on to something else.

While these words fill pages, they don’t make for better writing, or worse, better stories.

Don’t annoy your readers

Your readers pick up on these crutch words. In fact, they can become glaring annoyances to a good story and destroy the writing style you are trying to create. They may even be enough to get your reader to put the book down.

Not sure if you are guilty?

Need some examples? Look for repetitive use of these words:

  • went
  • quite
  • truly
  • is/was/were
  • very
  • actually
  • really
  • have/had
  • so
  • anyway
  • could/should/would
  • literally
  • almost
  • all

If you start to notice that your writing is peppered with these types of overused words or verbs, you may want to take a step back and ask yourself these questions:

  • Are these words adding anything to the meaning of the sentence? Do they enhance the story?
  • Will it alter the story to remove the crutch word from it? Can it be replaced with a more unique description or active verb?
  • Can the sentence be made shorter by using different words?

Try reading the sentence out loud. This engages a different part of the brain to help you process the sentence. It allows you to hear what the words sound like, which may change the way you read the sentence entirely.

Just Say No! to crutch words

It can be hard trying to identify crutch words, especially when you are very close to the document you’re working on. Fortunately, a friend or editor can usually identify your obvious crutch words with just a little reading.

With time and consistent effort, your writing will naturally improve. In the meanwhile, seek out the help you need to overcome using these comfortable little words.

Remember: crutch words exist. Eliminate them diligently.

 

Heather R Todd discusses crutch wordsJoin Heather on our BookBaby Twitter Chat on Wednesday, April 27th from 4 – 5 PM (Eastern) for #BBChat. To be notified about our upcoming BookBaby Twitter Chats, sign up here!

 

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Heather R. Todd

About Heather R. Todd

Heather R. Todd has written 2 posts in this blog.

Heather R. Todd is an award-winning, full-time professional editor, published writer, and marketing consultant whose passion is to help others create a letter-perfect presentation in their writing. Ms. Todd is an independent contractor who provides advisory and consulting services worldwide to numerous corporations, including FirstEditing.com, because even the best writers need a professional editor.

55 thoughts on “Crutch Words: Why They Cripple Your Writing

  1. K L Finalley says:

    During one of my many draft reviews, I have Scrivener search for commonly used word. After two books, the words are the same. I try to use other words but they don’t feel natural.

    Thanks for writing the post. At least, I’m not the only one focused on this problem.

    1. DanFrank says:

      You’re not the only one.

      When Heather states “Just Say No! to crutch words, It can be hard trying to identify crutch words, especially when you are very close to the document you’re working on”….

      If I understand the use of the “crutch words” correctly, Heather should have written…

      “It’s hard to identify crutch words when you’re close to the document you’re working on..

      Remove the words “can be hard trying, especially, and the word very”.

      She’s not taking her own advice – Or is she testing us? Good one Heather!

      1. SilverBee says:

        Yes, DanFrank. She fell into the trap of using an adverb before the word unique–one of my favorites. When something is unique, there is nothing that can make it “more unique” or even “very unique.”

    2. Chris says:

      Don’t panic unduly KL… Software like ‘Scrivener’ only picks up on the words themselves, not the nuances.
      Sometimes following too many of these rules leads to very dead, and dare I suggest it, ‘American’ sounding prose of a kind that is more suitable to business letters, documents, and instruction manuals, than to creative writing. (Americans have a habit of leaving out words that really should be there – for example: ‘Thousand three’, instead of ‘A thousand and three’, or ‘One thousand and three’ which both sound so much nicer to the ear.)

      This is not to say that care shouldn’t be taken over repetition or words that don’t belong. Just keep an eye (and an ear) on the rhythm of your writing. Whenever you write ‘and’, ‘then’, or similar words, check to make sure that a full stop and new sentence wouldn’t be better. Try for no more than one ‘and’ and one ‘then’ in a sentence. Better still, none of either except when it’s necessary… rules are meant to be broken occasionally… Just keep an eye on the flow of your piece.

      If you find yourself repeating the same word in a sentence (or even paragraph or short chapter), look for a suitable synonym. With characters, devise a few alternative ways of describing them… for example: ‘Pete Larsen’, ‘Pete’, ‘Larsen’, ‘The Tall guy’, ‘The builder’… all could refer to the same character (Though names are one repetition that can be got away with if you’re careful).

    3. mckenzie moss says:

      As much as your crutch words, how about getting rid of ALL ‘-ly’ words, the biggest crutch of all. Force yourself away from the useless adverbs! Amazing how a writer must then explore BETTER and more specific sentence structure.

  2. marc says:

    I notice and delete them (Crutch Words) on my first edit. After awhile it get easier to ditch them before laying them down on paper.

  3. Diane Elliott says:

    In my last work, a book of Poetry, I removed “and” 28 times.
    I didn’t know And was having such a romance with me.

  4. Re “… more unique …”: Nothing can be ‘more unique’. It’s either unique or not unique.

  5. My pet crutch word is “just.” I write as much as I can, as fast as I can, then go back in and “search/delete” the word everywhere. Simply not needed!

    1. Murray Alfredson says:

      But does not the rain fall on the just and the unjust?

    2. Mike says:

      I agree for the most part, but sometimes “just” has it’s place, as do all filler words.
      For instance: “He never did anything in particular to attract my attention. He just was.”
      Without “just” the second sentence makes no sense. This would require complete rephrasing and run the risk of becoming even more of a drag on the flow of the piece. Removing the second sentence is an option, but it removes a layer of meaning (less obsessive narrator).
      Just my 2 cents.
      I mean: My 2 cents 😉

      1. Mike says:

        And change “Removing” to “Deleting” in my reply. I crutched myself unintentionally (Although that might be a redundant statement) 😉

        1. Mike says:

          Consider that in part 1, section 1, of Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” he uses the word “just” twice and “was” 38 times in approximately 1500 words. Perhaps you don’t care for that story. Regardless, the words “just” or “was” don’t make it weak. Sometimes filler words serve a good purpose. If they didn’t, why would they exist in our language?

  6. Sally M. Chetwynd says:

    “It can be hard trying to identify crutch words…”

    I might identify “trying to” as a crutch word (or phrase), such words or phrases being endemic to the writing of most of us, at least in the draft stage. Would not “It can be hard identifying crutch words…” be stronger? 😉

    I have a list which has 120+ words that I am always watching out for in my work, words that I overuse. “Find” is a most useful tool. Awareness is a major key to word-bloat reduction (“varbage,” as a friend of mine calls it). I agree, too, with reading my work out loud (I’ll do it three or four times), from which I’ll find linguistic blunders left and right. Working to polish a draft after reading it out loud results in a more lyrical quality to my prose, and makes it easier to use just about any section or chapter at any given book-reading event. No tongue-twisters!

    Posts like this help us all to improve our work. Thank you!

  7. Shadeburst says:

    But actually there are times when you really can and should use crutch words. Say that your name is J.D.Salinger and you create a character who narrates his tale in a sloppy conversational way. Or you can use them in dialog to indicate the type of character.

  8. Gabe says:

    I figured I use “as” really often but since it’s not in the list….I’m free! XD
    All the same, I’ll still have to learn not to fill my story with ASes.

  9. Miles Allen says:

    I use wordcounter.net to drop a quarter of my book into at a time. It counts up each word, filtering out connecting words of course. It gives you a top ten most used words. It’s surprising what comes out and has helped me to find my crutch words.

  10. Portia McCracken says:

    Went?

    Is?

    Have?

    1. Jonno says:

      Hi,
      Same here, these words are not on my watch list, because I never overuse them.But other words are. They are mainly adjectives, that as in draft form, that help flow with the inspiration of creating a book, albeit in draught form. On later review, they are now easy to spot, replace or delete.

  11. Neill Johnson says:

    I have to disagree with this completely. People in books need to have the same speech patterns as people not in books. While it is true that the heard word is processed by the brain differently the read word, this advice is a recipe for writing stilted unrealistic contrived dialog. And the blanket statement about readers is simply flat wrong. No one should arrogate the right to speak for readers in this fashion.

    The only thing that cripples an author’s writing is a belief in rules. Promulgating statements like those, which are nothing more than he subjective opinion of a single person does a disservice to writer, readers, and craft of writing.

    1. Gordon Lazarus says:

      Good points…but you use “is” 5 times in a short paragraph. 🙁

    2. Dave says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Writing with feeling is preferable. Most editing today is pared to the degree that it creates bland and confusing readability.

  12. Sorry Heather, can’t agree with you. You are I suppose an American, and where else is the English language being re-structured and decimated in such a thoughtless manner?
    You see there are still a very large number of readers who appreciate the English language in the way that it is at it’s most expressive and thoughtful. In this way it can be used to describe in far greater depth a situation and it’s environment.
    No doubt you find a wealth of supporters across the pond, but then they probably have not the imagination to use fuller descriptions anyway.

    1. SilverBee says:

      Agreed in general, Chris. I have noticed that many of the abscissas [I looked it up.] occur in Europe, picked up here in the media and gradually by the general population. I disagree with the suggestion my ProvidenceJim on PainintheEnglish.com that American use of high school, college and university designations are not improvements on British terms like [another Americanization] Senior Secondary for high school and Tertiary Level Institution for university. That’s nitpicking, to use another low-class Americanization. (smile) I found two wonderful websites for pursuing the conversation. The one mentioned above: PainintheEnglish.com and “What is Happening in English” at http://www.mikeswan.co.uk/elt-applied-linguistics/what-happening-english.htm.

    2. Jacquelyn Hyde says:

      Charles,
      Your diatribe was probably well-aimed, if your target is American: they do make such a mess of our once-beautiful language, don’t they? However, you wrote, “You see there are still a very large number of readers…” A moment’s reflection should convince you of its error. You should write, “…there is still a very large number…” since the ‘large number’ is the sentence’s principal subject and it’s a single number. Yes, I know it sounds wrong but that’s because just about everyone does it. Doesn’t make it right.
      Better then to write, ‘You see there are many readers…” where ‘many’ replaces six other words. (still a very large number of). Okay?
      Jackie.

  13. Ohita Afeisume says:

    Thanks for sharing. No wonder they say there are no great writers only great editors. One needs to do lots of editing to get rid of the crutch words to have writing that is crisp and interesting.

  14. Paul Race says:

    Your forgot “get.” We get sick, we get lucky, we get going. . . .

    I once did a word search on an early novel for “get” in its various forms and improved the clarity and flow dramatically by replacing about 95% of them.

  15. Idelle says:

    When you are writing dialogue, if you want it to sound natural, why not use crutch words? People use these words all the time in real life.

    1. Jacquelyn Hyde says:

      Absolutely. And they do sound like natural conversation. But of course, not in narrative.

      Jackie.

  16. Lynnette Jalufka says:

    Thanks for the article. I’m working on editing my novel now and trying to eliminate these.

  17. Elisha J. Mitchell says:

    Thank you for posting a list of ‘crutch words’. A couple of examples of sentences where crutch words have been replaced would prove helpful. Some of us need a little extra info to get going in the right direction. 😉

  18. Wasias says:

    The information was helpful. Examples on how to prevent the use of crutch words would have been excellent.

  19. Jean says:

    I barely finished a book recently where everyone ‘chuckled.’ I wanted to scream at the author. It was so annoying…and boring…and made me wonder if the author had ever giggled, guffawed or ever picked up a thesaurus! I repeatedly wanted to toss it in the trash but I respected the trash so much that I didn’t. I finished it but it was painful.

  20. Edwina says:

    The author should (and yes, there is a place for could/should/would) have edited her piece on crutch words more carefully. As others have pointed out, something is unique or it isn’t. Something is only “hard” if it’s “hard” to the touch; if it’s not easy to do, it’s “difficult.” “In the meanwhile,” is unnecessary. There are others in this short article. If you are going to write for writers, then what you write should be as well written as possible. She is not alone in sloppy writing for the web, it is filled with it. I don’t need more than one hand to count how many times I’ve read well edited copy online.

  21. Dukas says:

    Luscious, but tired lips.

  22. I agree that we all have crutch words that tend to get overused. I also agree that removing all unnecessary or crutch words has the potential to make one’s writing dull. My approach is a bit different. My micro goal is to minimize crutch words, but my big-picture goal is to infuse my prose with a natural rhythm. If that requires crutch words, so be it. If not, I leave them out. To determine this, I read the text aloud. If it has a pleasant rhythm and flow, it works for me. If not, I rewrite.

    1. Mike says:

      Agreed. I look for words that can go, then I read aloud in my own voice and then I have my PDF reader read out loud to me in monotone. A lot of times, I don’t notice how bad things “read” until I hear them being reciting in a soulless voice. But, if a “crutch” word carries the rhythm, removing it would only hurt the piece. I’ll – as well – leave crutch words in often to maintain the pacing and flow of a piece.

  23. rodney burke says:

    Well what are the suggestions for use of tense words. How is the reader going to know “When” without the use of a tense word?

  24. Portia says:

    While I don’t totally disagree…I do differ with this opinion. Crutch words are a necessity…in the recipe for writing. Quite frankly, any word can be incredibly overused…like adding too much sugar to your coffee. Just enough however, adds the right flavor to your coffee/story.
    *Just my opinion*

  25. “….because even the best writers need a professional editor.”

    Whoops. Try instead:

    “Even the best writers need a professional editor.”

    Crutch words cheapen tag lines, too!

  26. Carol Lee says:

    Often you can skip the word “the” – it’s also over-used.
    Instead of saying “had gone,” simply say “went.”

  27. Ted says:

    “gotten” is archaic english but used by americans with impunity.
    “out the window” is highly improper — think about it!
    “everyone” refers to an inanimate object — people are referred to as bodies (e.g., everybody)
    the metal “aluminum” always has been and always will be aluminium
    I could go on and on and on — but that would be repetitive — and maybe even memorable!

  28. Bill Babcock says:

    Useful article and interesting responses. Anything complex I write (which I define as more important than a blog entry) gets edited three times–for grammar/spelling, for style, and for intent. The final edit is to restore changes I don’t like. I read constantly, and it’s easy to detect a book that has skipped any of those three steps. But it’s critical to find a great editor. And that isn’t me.

  29. Roland Simon says:

    Very interesting! I would also add cliches to this blog as overused words or phrases. The one word, I can think of now, is “issue”. It is overused and appears to have numerous meanings to multiple instances. For examples, it could represent a problem, difficulty, a failure, mishap, injury, health problem or disease, an accident, traffic congestion, mechanical problems with any kind of machine, public transit problems or delays, a concern which is of a social or political nature, ad nauseum.
    When a reader sees this kind of use, it usually appears as wishy-washy writing with no clear indication of what the real story is behind the “issue”.
    This is bad writing and appears to be of an epidemic nature now. Avoid if at all possible!

  30. George Lies says:

    Heather
    think the voice of the character or narrator in a specific POV can help eliminate crutch words. A specific character might say, well, bless your heart, and really be sarcastic. The list is a good start and comments are right on target too. In our Morgantown Writer’s WV Critique Workshops, I review manuscripts, and, like the word just, I ask writers for a specific detail word when I find the word ‘some’ as in – some time, some people, he arranged some items, dince specific words add to readers grasp of a setting or action
    Gml

  31. Floss says:

    I use yWriter which will count how many times every word has been used in a piece of writing. It lets me see how often I have used ‘crutch’ words, and decided whether to change anything. Sometimes the ‘crutch’ word wins, sometimes it doesn’t, it depends on the context. One thing I do try to do is not overuse and or but, as I was taught at school to be more inventive.

  32. Angela says:

    I believe that we use what I call “lazy” words when we write. One of mine is “it.” I create without restrictions first, then go back and look for crutch words, repetitive words, flow, the addition of prose, and other ways to improve my writing.

  33. Casey says:

    So, anyway. I actually could have literally taken all of these very fine examples of really overused words and composed a quite long reply to highlight the article’s point. I truly believed I was up for the task. I had confidence. “This is easy,” I thought. It would take no time at all. I went to find a pencil and I literally went to work.I almost made it. Almost.

  34. Gordon Petry says:

    Sally mentioned a wonderful tool “find” or control F (command F if you have a mac)
    Type the word you are looking for, and it will highlight every time that word appears. Good for checking for pronoun agreement errors, also. Type in “they” (their, them), then check to see what the antecedent (noun it is replacing) was.

  35. Marta says:

    I do not want to sound snide, but:
    “…you are very close to the document ” Used the crutch word “very”
    “… replaced with a more unique description…?” “More unique” is incorrect

  36. Dave Arthur says:

    Apologies for the rude remarks concerning American writing. The sentiments expressed may be heartfelt but insulting people is not a good way to make friends and influence people.

    I am a British writer who loves American fiction. I believe that some of the best writing in the English language is to be found in the contemporary American short story.

    Let’s be nice to each other. We all want the same thing. Discuss, share, not insult.

  37. Shadeburst says:

    In CW classes they tell us to shun is/are/was/were and use real verbs. “He was the kind of guy who could make you laugh while the Titanic was sinking” doesn’t need those “was” words.

    For a class exercise I analyzed nineteen pieces of acclaimed writing. Apart from Philip K.Dick in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” the others all used is/are/was/were liberally. So did the best student in our class, who has since made the NYT best-seller list.

    I seldom use “was” because I write a lot of (very bad) poetry and when you have to make every word count, “was” is a luxury you can’t afford. Still I think that CW classes fixate on it unnecessarily when they should rather concentrate on more important aspects of style.

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