Updated: Apr 27, 2020
Crutch words are words or phrases that you unknowingly use over and over again. It's something we all do in our writing and our speech. The key is to learn what yours are and eradicate them so your writing and speaking won't feel repetitious.
It is perhaps easiest to spot crutch words in speech. Here is a list of these words you often hear when someone is talking. Which ones do you use?
And (in the beginning of a sentence or used to stretch time)
The thing is
You know what I mean?
Here's an example: Like, you literally bake cookies so well, you know?
Confession: I say "literally" literally all the time. I also use "so" and "like." But, I grew up in the nineties. Like, how could I not say "like" all the time? Have you not seen Clueless?
Some crutch words and phrases are more likely to pop up in nonfiction writing than fiction writing. Here's a list of the worst offenders:
At the present time
In order to
In the process of
As a matter of fact
When it comes to
Example: Basically, at the present time, we do not have the funds in order to pay for the cookie-baking contest.
Confession: I often use "basically," "seriously," "just," and "really." I need to work on that. Have you spotted any that you tend to use?
There are two places where I find crutch words lurking. The first is in and around dialogue tags. Here are examples of crutch words in dialogue tags.
He growled (we usually dissuade writers from using animal sounds in dialogue tags)
She said slyly
He said with a grin
She said, frowning
Notice that any of these on their own do not seem like crutch phrases. They become crutch phrases if you use them over and over again. In my experience as a book editor, I've noticed authors tend to have a handful of descriptions they use many times throughout their manuscripts. Part of my job is to locate them.
The second place I find crutch words lurking in fiction writing is in actions. Take a look at these examples:
Wiped his brow
Folded her arms
Ran his fingers through his hair
As with before, taken singly, these are not crutch phrases. The problem arises when you use this same set of actions repeatedly. Like I said before, if you do this, don't get upset with yourself. This is very, very common.
Now let's figure out how to strike these crutch words and phrases from our writing. I have two options for you.
The Old-School Way
Print out something you've written that you've not read in a while. Read through it and highlight every time you've used one of the words or phrases from this list or another you notice you use frequently. Pay attention to what you come up with so you can avoid them in the future.
The Modern Way
Go to Word Counter. Then copy and paste the text into the tool, and it will automatically count your most-used words and phrases for you.
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” again, 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.
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.
Also—here's a funny article about what your favorite crutch word says about you.
Have you figured out what your crutch words are? Email me and let me know: Erin@dotanddashllc.com.