Editing Tools: Crutch Words

Writing a novel is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s only natural for composition muscles to tire as we approach the finish line. After all, we’ve been writing the same story for many months, and even years in some cases. Many writers depend on crutch words to get their lines on the page. The crutch words help us get there, but don’t help the end goal; a polished, exciting manuscript. These words become characters of themselves, making cameos in every scene, even when other, better words watch from the sidelines. Knowing the words you lean heavily on gives you an advantage during the editing phase.

Identifying crutch words is an individual process because no two writers will have exactly the same dependencies. There are a number of universal crutch words, however, and a google search will help reveal them. The Writer’s Block Discord directed me to the list by writingonpoint and I like the ones they list. Here they are:

  • actually
  • basically
  • definitely
  • essentially
  • totally
  • seriously
  • that
  • just
  • very
  • remarked, stated, commented, etc
  • each and every (as a phrase)
  • happily, sadly, darkly, etc
  • looking, staring, squinting, etc
  • apparently
  • truly
  • anyway
  • focus on (as a phrase)

As you can see, most crutch words are modifiers that add length to your sentences without adding meaning. ‘That’, in particular, is an offender that can be struck from your manuscript ninety-nine percent of the time.

However, isolating universal crutch words isn’t enough. I’m in the process of editing my manuscript and I was proud to see that some of the above words were missing altogether from my writing. For example, I never used ‘actually’ in ninety thousand words. There were other problem words though, and an easy way to find your crutch words is to use a word cloud generator.

Here’s an example from my first draft:

word cloud

Air stuck out as a strange crutch word. No way, I thought, no way I used air that much. Then I did a search in the document, and yes, I did use air that much. I noticed I described sounds and smells ‘filling the air’ with astonishing frequency. Realizing this, I believe I’ve made significant improvements towards how I write about these senses.

On top of using the word cloud, I recommend you read your work closely and note down whenever you notice a word a lot. My manuscript focuses on the use of emotion magic, particularly anger as fuel for sorcery, so there were almost seventy instances of ‘rage’ in my manuscript. Seems I forgot the words wrath and anger exist. Here’s the list of my personal crutch words:

  • run
  • will
  • want
  • never
  • one
  • fill
  • arm
  • gaze
  • tree
  • rage
  • hate
  • sound
  • fills
  • air
  • look
  • is
  • are
  • goes
  • back
  • don’t
  • didn’t
  • ever
  • seen
  • sees
  • know

The amazing thing you realize when doing a search for these words is there’s so many alternatives. Not simply doing a search and replace with a synonym, but there’s other ways to structure the sentences so these words aren’t necessary. When you’re repeating a word so often it’s use is often redundant and your writing becomes more impactful without the crutch. I think this process is invaluable, not only for improving your individual manuscript, but for honing your skill as a writer. If you know what words you depend on you’re more likely to be aware when writing in the future.

Here’s the word cloud after six drafts:

second word cloud

Obviously, I have more work to do. ‘Never’ appears mostly in dialogue, so I let it be. Somehow men became man and that’s interesting. I still need to work on the instances of ‘one’ but holistically, there are fewer ‘large’ words dominating the landscape in the word cloud which means more variation. That’s what I call progress.

Drop in the comments and share your crutch words. Do you use word clouds? I’d love to hear from you. Follow for more writing tips and tricks from a daily discovery writer. Happy writing!

More writing tools here.

I mentioned the Writer’s Block discord above. They’re an excellent community of writers on discord, ranging from amateur to published, and I highly recommend joining. Here’s a link to their website.

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