Self-Editing Tips: How to Eliminate Crutch Words in Writing

Crutch words are words or phrases that you unknowingly or unintentionally use over and over again. This causes your writing to feel repetitious and the crutch words to lose their effect. This post will teach you how to recognize crutch words and phrases in your writing and how to fix them.

What Do Crutch Words Look Like?

I find crutch words and phrases lurking most commonly in and around dialogue tags and action.

In some romance books I've edited, male characters tend to growl when they speak. Here’s an example I made up where that crutch word is in the tag:

“Come here, beautiful, and show me that box of donuts,” Ricky growled.

I see a lot of chuckling and laughing in the books I edit, too. Here is an example of that as an action:

“Oh no! You have donut frosting on the tip of your nose!” Ricky chuckled.

Here’s an example of it connected to the dialogue tag:

“Let me get that frosting off your nose,” Ricky said, laughing.

Each sentence, taken separately, works just fine. But when the characters growl, chuckle, and laugh on page after page, you have a crutch word problem.

So, how do you fix your crutch words? Let’s find out.

Identify Most-Used Words and Phrases

Read through your book. (Or find someone else to read it. This is a good option because they have “fresh eyes” and won’t be expecting what words come next.) When you notice a word or phrase you have used too frequently, use Microsoft Word’s find and replace tool to see exactly how many times you’ve written it. Another good option is Wordcounter. Copy and paste the text into the tool, and it will automatically count your most-used words and phrases for you.

For instance, using Wordcounter, I learned that in the book I’m currently editing, the author wrote phrases including the words “arms around neck” eighteen times. Now that I know this, I can flag these for the writer and offer alternatives.

Here are some usual suspects to watch out for:

  • Breathe, inhale, exhale

  • Shrug

  • Nod

  • Reach

  • Sit, stand

  • Place, set

  • Walk

  • See

  • Feel

  • Gaze, glance

  • Eye

  • Regard

  • Turn

  • Sigh

You can also check out the Fiction Writing Tools blog and its list of the seventy-five most used words in fiction and the “Words and Phrases to Avoid” post on Tameri Guide for Writers. Also note that crutch words don’t have to be verbs.

Identify Sneaky Crutch Words and Phrases

Sometimes writing something even twice can be too many times. For instance, if in chapter two you say “his eyes sparkled like the Adriatic Sea,” and then in chapter sixteen you say “his eyes sparkled like the Adriatic Sea,” it’s too many times. That’s a memorable detail that should only be used once; any more than that will look like an oversight.

Even single words can need to be limited. For example, if you write that something is “magical” four times in the book, that can be too many. What is the likelihood your characters would find four things that would be truly magical (outside of fantasy writing, of course)? At that point, it feels like you aren’t using the word sincerely and its emphasis lessens. Save “magical” for the most magical thing you write about. (And don’t get me started on “unique.”)

To find these sneaky words and phrases, you (or another reader) will need to read with full focus and vigilance.

The Result

Replacing crutch words will make your book more enjoyable and exciting for readers, which means better reviews and (hopefully) more exposure and sales. It also means it will be easier, and cheaper, to have it edited because you will have already done one of the most time-consuming editorial tasks.

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