It’s a rule of thumb for any writer to follow Strunk’s advice and “omit needless words.” That’s easier said than done. Sure, you know which filler words to cut, and you know how to hunt down those pesky weasel words. But sometimes, sheer editing isn’t enough.
Your writing can still suffer after you’ve gone through your piece seven times. Why? Because you’re likely using crutch words and have become blind to them. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, it can bog down your writing.
The Sneaky Filler Words: Crutch Words
Over time, some words find their way into your writing vocabulary and stick there. Without even knowing it, you use these words all the time (even when they should be omitted.
These words, the ones you depend upon every day, are secretly tearing at the strength of your writing. It’s like a plot twist in a book where you find out the main character is the villain. You never think that your most reliable words are stabbing you in the back.
Identifying these crutch words is tricky, because they aren’t necessarily filler words like “just.” They can be completely respectable words, but when you use them too much, they become filler words. It’s a bizarre phenomenon that affects writers every day.
I’ll share with you an example of a crutch word. I send lots of emails, and one day, I found myself typing the word “definitely.” That looked familiar. I then realized that I used “definitely” in almost every email I sent. Something in my brain finally alerted me to the fact that I was using “definitely” as a crutch word.
My writing in those emails looked a lot better when I took “definitely” out of the picture. I like that word for its positivity and firm sound, but I’d overused it. It turned into a filler word that had little meaning.
Now, I use “definitely” much more judiciously. I’ve found that by eliminating it, my writing is almost always stronger and more readable. I no longer have to rely on that adverb (we know, Stephen King, adverbs suck) for power.
Likewise, when you find your crutch words and remove them, you’ll see your writing take on a much different look.
How to Search and Destroy Crutch Words and Make Your Writing Stronger
So how do you find your crutch words? Here are two easy methods:
1) Identify your favorite words.
I’m not talking about favorite words like “rhubarb” or “clarty.” I mean words that you find yourself using in almost every piece of writing. Perhaps you’re partial to “remarked” for your dialogue tags. Sure, many comments can be a remark, but how often does “said” work better? (Answer: A good bit of the time.)
A good technique is to use a keyword density tool like the one Wordcounter provides. It’ll show you which words you use the most, and often, those words are your crutch words.
2) Find sneaky groups of crutch words and crutch phrases.
Not all crutch words occur in large volumes. You might have a tendency to pair certain words together or use particular phrases for a specific situation.
For example, say you’re describing cars in a parking lot, and your sentence reads, “Each and every one of the cars was blue.” And maybe at a different point, you’re describing books, and you write, “Each and every one of the books showed signs of age.” You get the idea.
This is the trickiest method to master because it requires you to look quite differently at your writing. You’ll have to take a truly critical eye to your work. When in doubt, reach out to a friend or fellow writer. They’ll be able to look more objectively at your writing.
Stop Holding Back Your Writing
Identifying your crutch words is only half the battle. You still have to make a conscious effort to only use your crutch words when it makes sense. In my case, I was overusing “definitely,” and now I only use it when I have an affirmative response to a question or concern. Essentially, I use it when the context calls for it.
You don’t have to eliminate your crutch words from your vocabulary, but know when to use them. Think of them as the sugar section of the antiquated food pyramid: use sparingly. Your writing will thank you for it.
What are your crutch words? Share them in the comments.
In this practice session, you’ll attempt to identify one crutch word in a piece of your writing.
- Take a look at an older piece of your writing. It must be at least two months old.
- Scan it by hand first. Underline any repetitive words you see, and try to find the word you repeat the most.
- Now input the text in a keyword density tool. Take a look at the word it says you used the most. Does this match up with what you found?
- Finally, look at a more recent piece of your writing. Search for that word. Do you see it? If so, you’ve found a crutch word.
Post about your findings in the comments section.