Monday, August 19, 2013

Dealing with 'Crutch Words'

We have a multitude of words in the English language. As a writer, that means I have a huge toolbox to pull from. Sometimes, though, I don't do a very good job of pulling out a different tool; I instead find myself reaching for the same ones over and over again. It's part of being human; we all have tendencies and comfort zones.

I find myself leaning too often on certain words and phrases. These are crutch words--familiar phrases I use far too frequently. The thing is, sometimes I don't realize that I use them. Thanks to editors and beta readers, I have a better sense of the words I use too much. How do I deal with them?

Identify. The first part is actually the hard part. Many of these words are ones I use without realizing they're crutch words. There are couple of ways to figure out which words/phrases are problematic. The first one is to put a manuscript aside to get it out of your "mindspace." Then, when you read through it a few weeks later, you'll be more likely to see repetition within your own work. I'd also suggest reading in a couple different formats; you're likely to see something on paper that you might not see on your computer screen. I read a lot of my manuscripts on my Kindle.

The second step is the more effective one: consult outside people. These crutch words are so intrinsically tied to your writing that you don't realize it. Even getting some space from a manuscript isn't enough. You need someone else to read your work and help you identify these words. That can be an editor, a beta reader, a critique partner, or a friend. Since they're not you, they'll be able to spot instances in which words appear too often.

As an aside, it also doesn't hurt to check out a couple of different manuscripts or short stories at the same time. If it's a problem in one story, it's likely to be a problem in another. This will increase the size of your writing sample and help you identify your crutch words.

Make a list. This one's simple: write them down. While doing a significant revision on a novel I've been working on for a long time, I noted my crutch words on my Kindle and then wrote them down in a notebook.

For revisions:

Destroy! (or Replace!) I use Microsoft Word, but I imagine most other word processors have a "find" and "find and replace" function. Take that list of crutch words and search a manuscript to see how often you've used them. A few instances of a particular word are fine, but if you find a bunch clumped together or a certain word or phrase appears every few pages, you have a problem. You can use the "find" function of your word processor to locate the specific place where you've used a crutch word and then rewrite that section.

For writing:

Internalize. Now that I have an idea of what words I use too frequently, I can catch myself using them when I write. I won't stop myself every time--when I get into a good writing "zone," I want to stay there--but I can reduce how often I use certain words.

Some of my crutch words:
  • pointed
  • turned
  • seemed
  • boomed
  • thundered
  • eyes pleading
  • shook his head to clear it
  • tapped his forehead
  • looked/heard/saw
  • anything to do with a "cape flapping in a non-existent breeze"

How do you deal with crutch words?