Writing Discussion

Weeding out Crutch Words

We all have our go-to words and overused phrases. Usually these patterns emerge unconsciously. Some writing tools like Scrivener have built in functions that can tell you what words you’ve overused, and their frequency.

Crutch words are often the easiest descriptions for what someone’s doing, and they become pretty obvious during revisions. The problem is they can make the story boring and repetitive.

But have no fear! There are always many ways to describe an single action.  The general rule of thumb? Get more specific.

Here are a few examples of words I overuse, and alternatives to them.

Nodded

  • “Yes”
  • tilted his head down
  • tilted his head up
  • lifted his chin
  • He took a step back, and raised an eyebrow. At least it wasn’t a refusal.

Turned

  • spun around
  • looked over his shoulder
  • went the other direction
  • I could see only the back of his head as he walked away.

Looked

  • pointed out the car outside the house
  • “See anyone?” “No, it’s all clear.”
  • He picked up the vase and examined the design.

Gestured

  • pointed at the chair
  • waved his hands
  • fluffed the pillow and set it down for me to sit upon
  • pulled out the chair
  • nodded once
  • extended his hand

Shrugged

  • hunched his shoulders
  • shoulders rose and fell
  • let out a “hrumph”
  • waved his hands in dismissal

Did not reply

  • He returned to his dinner, picked at a piece of bacon.
  • He ignored me.
  • He walked away.
  • He was quiet.
  • I don’t know if he heard me.

Lay back

  • leaned against the wall
  • reclined
  • relaxed
  • languished
  • He sprawled out, catlike.

Smiled

  • His face split in half
  • He opened mouth so wide, I could see two rows of teeth.
  • He glowed
  • She suppressed a giggle, her mouth crooked.

Laughed

  • He folded hands over belly and tried not to spit.
  • giggled
  • snorted

If you want to add a little extra spice, you could also give a few characters using particular mannerisms. For example, you can have a character that bites her lip when she’s concentrating, or twists her wedding ring when she’s anxious.

Do you know what your crutch words are? They’re sneaky little things.

21 Comments

  1. “His face split in half”

    LOL that could be something completely different, depending on the context/genre.

    I know “smile” is a crutch word for almost everyone, haha. “Shrugging” too, especially since we don’t really shrug all that often in real life!

    I think my crutch words are less active, though. “Just” and “then” are the most common.

      1. I dunno… I shrug all the time. I think for most people it’s an unconscious gesture. I mean, people use body language all the time, but it’s not in the forefront of our mind when we do it. I mean… maybe it might sometimes drive her mad, but I can have whole conversations with my wife without saying a real word the entire time, and most of that is done through gestures and body language.

  2. More on topic… yes, I have these, no I don’t know what they are, specifically. If Scrivener has a check for this (and if it doesn’t suck, as computer checking algorithms often do), that would be a very helpful tool.

    I can’t help but wonder, though, in a fantasy context, if this sort of checker won’t flag frequently-used fantasy words as too-repetitive… but when you’re referring to something that’s wholly made up, fantastical, or magical, sometimes repetetive use of a word like “Magic” or even a made-up word is the only right way to describe it…

    Mostly what bothers me is word echo, and I can usually catch these on a read-through, and I discover that a certain word is used too frequently in too short a span of writing. That makes the word stand out which highlights the writing, points out the fictionality of it all, and essentially breaks the “fourth wall”, so to speak.

    1. I think you hit on the main reason for eliminating crutch words. They can distract the reader, and breaking the 4th wall can pop them straight out of the story, and back into their chairs. That being said, I’m totally guilty of it.

  3. That’s a cracking list and it’s not something I’ve been aware of in my own writing… which is exactly why I’m off to find this Scrivener thing right now!

    In defence of crutch words though – used correctly they can also be invisible words for propelling the story forwards without bogging the reader down (I’m thinking along the lines of how “he said” is much smoother to read than “he exclaimed”). I guess also using simple, recognisable words repeatedly can be better than spiralling off into the nether regions of the thesaurus and confusing the reader.

    1. I think there’s a line between crutch words, and invisible words, like “said”. Words tend to stand out the more strange and unusual they are, as you said, like those you can find in those dark places where only writers tend to go. 😉

      1. I think I’ve just found my naughty crutch word! And it’s not just one word – it’s… “and then”. My novel is litter with this happened and then this happened and then this and then this and then another thing! AHH! At least I’ve identified it so can start cutting them out.

  4. Nice list! I also use “shrugged” and “nodded” too often. But I do shrug a lot in real life (usually in place of “I don’t know.”) I guess I need to learn more so I can shrug less! I have a fair amount of “turned” and “walked toward” uses too.

  5. Hey Tessa. Great breakdown of crutches. Unfortunately, I have a few of my own…I particularly like eyebrow motions (Knitting eyebrows together, raising one or both, etc.) I don’t know, maybe it’s more of an obsession than a crutch…

    Sorry I haven’t been around for a while! :-s

  6. This makes a great exercise. One of the things I like in your examples is the way some of them get across character: “He opened his mouth so wide, I could see two rows of teeth”, and “He folded hands over belly and tried not to spit”. These are somewhat colored by the way the narrator observes these.

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