How Crutch Words Are Holding Back Your Writing

by Guest Blogger | 52 comments

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This guest post is by Ian Chandler. Ian is a content marketer and writer based in Ohio. ​He is the author of The No B.S. Guide to Freelance Writing and editor of Nukeblogger. You can read more about ​writing, content marketing, and more ​at

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.

Crutch Words Are Holding Back Your Writing

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.

  1. Take a look at an older piece of your writing. It must be at least two months old.
  2. Scan it by hand first. Underline any repetitive words you see, and try to find the word you repeat the most.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

Happy editing!

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  1. Robyn Campbell

    UGH. I discovered I was using wonderful a wonderful amount of the time. You get the picture. Thanks for this wonderful (oops), fabulous post. I guess now I have to make myself aware of that nice (but terribly overused word).

    • Christine

      More to the point, this post was informative. 🙂

  2. Runwright

    Great post. The hyperlink on Wordcounter took me to a page about eating better so I guess I’ll look it up myself. I didn’t find repetitive words this time but a few months ago, I realized that I used the phrase “I turned” or “(s)he turned” a lot. I had to find a new way to show my characters moving around in the story.
    Thanks for this tip.

    • Ian Chandler

      Sorry about the link––until it gets fixed, you can visit “Turned” is a perfect example of a crutch word. The best part is that once you identify a crutch word, you can ask yourself if it’s really the best word to use for the situation or if you’re using it out of habit. If it’s the right word, go for it.

  3. Davidh Digman

    Thank you for this useful idea!

    As soon as I can find Wordcounter, I will use it to see whether I have any ‘crutch words’.

    The link you provide takes one to a fitness and dieting site.

  4. manilamac

    The “wordcounter” hyperlink is definitely screwed up…further attempts at finding led only to undifferentiated word count tools. Too bad.

    • Ian Chandler

      Hey, you can find it at!

    • manilamac

      Many thanks.

  5. Davidh Digman

    I just tried Word Counter and it is absolutely awesome!

    I have not been able to find any ‘crutch words’ I use, although Chapter 1 of my novel-in-progress had a 3% incidence of the word ‘now’. Given the subject matter, that is unsurprising.

    I will be sharing the link to Word Counter with my workshopping colleagues. I won’t share it here as I suspect sharing links is likely to be forbidden for security reasons.

    • Ian Chandler

      Glad you liked it! It’s one tool I keep going back to.

    • Davidh Digman

      I have just shared it with my workshopping colleagues. No reply yet, as it is only 5:48 am here!


    Thank you, very good advice. Is the Wordcounter also available for french ? But the problem is that the link you share is a dieting site. Good for my health ! 🙂

  7. Ian Chandler

    Hey everyone –– sorry about the broken Wordcounter link! I’ll have that fixed ASAP. Until then, you can find it at

  8. David H. Safford

    Yes, yes, yes. This is GREAT advice.

    For me, it’s bland adjectives.

    “Amazing.” “Awesome.” “Wonderful.”

    I could use any of those 3 times in a paragraph and not know it until I reread the next day. Makes me want to vomit.

    Thank you for the tip!

    • Ian Chandler

      Thanks David! I agree wholeheartedly about those adjectives. They’ve almost lost their meaning. Especially “awesome”––how can the Grand Canyon and a new Starbucks drink both be awesome?

    • Susan W A

      Hah! Awesome example.

    • 709writer

      It’s easy to overuse our favorite words because we’re so comfortable with them. And it’s hard to let go of our favorite words too… : (

  9. Sana Damani

    Apparently “that” is the word I use most often. I tried several pieces of writing and although the incidence of “that” was <2%, it was still the most common word in each of them. I don't know how to fix "that"!

    • Gary G Little

      How does it read if you remove that?

    • Sana Damani

      In general, it reads wrong without the “that”. But here’s the worst offender:

      “She could guess at what they were thinking. That she was a dreamer, that she’d gotten senile in her old age, or worse, that she was grasping at straws to remain relevant.”

      I managed three “that”s in a single sentence!

    • I'm determined

      Somehow ‘that’ reads well in this sentence, although I’d add ‘and that’ in the third clause.
      Just reread my comment. Scrub it.

    • Tim Olson

      So often less is more, makes for smoother reading and gets rid of “that”. I suggest this possibility…

      “She could guess at what they were thinking. That she was a dreamer, had gotten senile in her old age, or worse, was grasping at straws to remain relevant.”

    • Sana Damani

      While the modified sentence is correct and does get rid of the problem of too many thats, it just doesn’t sound right to me when spoken out loud. I don’t think people actually think that way. But then that could be my bias for “that” speaking 🙂 Thanks for pointing out the potential modification though.

    • Gary G Little

      She could guess what they were thinking. She was a dreamer. She had gotten senile in her old age. Or worse, she was grasping at straws to remain relevant.

      No “that” at all.

    • Sana Damani

      I like that variant. Thanks.

  10. Sana Damani

    A work of fantasy that involves kingdoms apparently uses “your majesty” 11 times (and I’m not even a quarter of the way into the story!). I believe this illustrates the sort of crutch words the post speaks of. I’ll have to figure out new ways for people to address my protagonist queen 🙂

    • rosie

      Your highness, your lordship, my queen, Queen or King _____–try reading or watching fantasy novels and series.

    • I'm determined

      Good advice.

    • 709writer

      Or you could take Han Solo’s line: “Yes, your Highnessness.” lol

    • I'm determined

      /royal protocol, I’ve read, states that one greets ‘Your Majesty’ then afterwards use ‘Your Highness.’ That’s being formal. with your fantasy kingdom, characters who are close to your Queen would presumably use more informal forms. However, ‘Hey, Queenie’ might be going a bit too far. Depends on the closeness of your characters. Have you go a Hans Solo type cheeky close to the Queen type friend? ‘Hi, there, Your Highnessness,’ it is, then.

    • I'm determined

      Certainly. Especially if from a member of staff. Enjoy your writing.

  11. rosie

    If you’re inexperienced with other word processors, Microsoft Word has a “find and replace” option. Type in your culprits under “find,” and it’ll show you how frequently you use the words.
    (I’m not familiar with Scrivener and the other software tools. *cowers in shame*)

    • 709writer

      Fear not, I don’t know much about Scrivener either. 😀

  12. 709writer

    Alas, I have multiple crutch words/phrases…”whirled”, “slammed(one of my personal favorites!)” “hard eyes”, etc…I used to use a zillion adverbs in my writing, years ago. I was drowning in adverbs! : ) “Happily,” “sadly,” “darkly”…they take the fun out of the reader’s experience, because the reader doesn’t get to figure out what the character’s feeling on her own, the reader’s told what to feel. I once read a book where the author kept using the word “obviously” to describe something, like “he was obviously upset.” If it was so obvious, why was it necessary to say that it was? ; )

    Personally I try to avoid adverbs as a whole and use almost no adverbs in my writing, because I’m afraid I’ll use them as crutches. As a side note, however, words like “slowly,” “quickly,” etc have their place, just in moderation.

    And that’s my spiel on adverbs. 😀 Thought-provoking post; thank you for sharing these tips with us!

    • Lenke Slegers

      As a non native english speaker, I now get it better what they mean with overusing adverbs. Thanks for the examples, I will happily keep an eye on it 😉

    • Cauê Moraes

      I kind love adverbs, but it is always better to show (not tell) xD

  13. Susan W A

    Thanks for the Wordcounter resource. I don’t have any long pieces that I’ve written, so I put in a shorter one on the topic of writing. I was actually pleasantly surprised that I didn’t overuse some basic words directly related to the topic. I also like the other information provided on the website regarding readability level, etc.

  14. Cauê Moraes

    In my writings there is always some kind of dinosaur. Thanks! Now I gonna use vampires instead.

    • Ian Chandler

      Taking the concept one step further––that’s great!

    • Cauê Moraes

      Oh thanks, Chandler. You are so nice.

    • Ian Chandler

      Haha, you can call me Ian! Let me know if you find any other crutch words, too––they’re everywhere!

    • Cauê Moraes

      Oh, Ian, you just have remembered me! I overuse the word “burst!” I like to put a lot of explosions and things blowing up in my stories (ultimately I’m trying to use “bust” that has a more general purpose). I try to avoid using “explosion” because it’s too similar with “explosão” from my mother language (Brazilian Portuguese) and I don’t know why I go mental with these things.

    • Ian Chandler

      Hm, since I don’t speak Portuguese, I may not be of any help, but “erupt” and “blast” are some options. You could also use “shatter” if it works in the context. Does that help?

    • Cauê Moraes

      Oh, amazing word suggestions! Just love it! Can’t wait to start using an eruption of blasty rocks to shatter some bones! xD

    • Ian Chandler

      Glad you like them!

    • Cauê Moraes

      “Vanish!” I just love to make things vanish into explosions! It’s an addiction. Totally need rehab! Something vanishes in every paragraph I write! They also use Vanish to deal with ketchup stains. Man, this thing with “vanish” is really serious! I urgently need a shrink to deal with it.

  15. nancy

    Thank you for introducing me to the Wordcounter.

  16. kim

    I was using just as a crutch word – thankyou for your advice

  17. Richard Pearce

    Greetings Ian, I just read this post, and I definitely (pun intended) plead guilty. Thank you!

    One phrase I’ve found in my own writing is “as well”. I will be even more aware of it now.


  18. Hayley Williams

    Oh gawd… Yes. I use “just” far too much. And the word “seem” – it can be ok for things to be, instead of seeming to be. And I’ve almost conquered my obsession with people’s eyes – the characters are always “looking” or “staring” or “squinting” every other sentence. It’s a wonder they don’t need glasses.



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