Crutch words

It started with “suddenly.”

I was a kid at the time, either in late elementary or early middle school.  My parents got me a computer program that let me make little picture book stories on the computer, using provided sprites and a text box roughly the length of a tweet.  And so I wrote stories where all sorts of things would suddenly happen.  People and aliens would suddenly appear.  Cars would suddenly drive.  I remember clearly one time even a seed suddenly sprouted.  Which, in reality, only happens in nature documentaries employing stop motion.

It was my first understanding of crutch words.  My parents, being supportive, listened to the stories, and pointed out that I was using “suddenly” far too often, and in frequently inappropriate places.  I, being a new writer, pushed back.  Surely there’s a point in time where something wasn’t happening then the next moment it is.  Even that plant.  There must be an instant where it hadn’t broken through the soil then BAM, seedling.  There I was, a happy little punctuationalist, happily dividing the world into discrete instances of time and insisting that there be hard lines between events.

By the time I did Nanowrimo for the first time, it was “a bit.”

Everywhere characters went, they would come across a bit of this, and a bit of that.  Things that weren’t happening now were happening a bit later.  It’s an odd evolution from suddenly, when put that way.  Anything that wasn’t quite something were always a bit of something.  I think I did an editing pass on the novel intended just on killing that phrase and came away with, on average, just over one instance per printed page.  Which is entirely too many.

Crutch words.  We lean on them, we use them, we over use them.  We don’t really think about them.  And therein lies the entire problem.  They’re the words that we go to to fill in a phrase that needs just a little something else.  I see them in works that I’m beta reading, I see them in anthologies, they exist all around us.  I’ve read published short stories that I put down because the word “had” drove me to the point of distraction, actually taking me completely out of the story.  And that’s at least often a grammatically arguable word in situations.  “Suddenly”?  “A bit”?  Wow.

That I’m talking about crutch words doesn’t mean I know a fix.  Instead I find that they’re evolving.  Situational.  Just as I get rid of one, another comes up.  Sometimes for a few months, sometimes just for one short story.  For a period, everyone was finding themselves doing things.  Everyone was starting to do things.  Everything was actual.  In the end, I don’t know how to enact a complete fix.  I’m not even sure there is a complete fix, a way to never have a crutch word ever again.  But there are a few tools that have helped me track down their latest incarnations:

  • Beta readers.  Not enough can be said about having someone else sit down and read the story.  They find the sentences that work in your head that don’t work on paper.  The motivations that aren’t quite right.  And, if they’re good, they find your words for you.  Sometimes with a ruthlessness that can border on mania.  But one of the early lessons that comes with any kind of writing submission is to grow that thick skin.
  • Word frequency analyzers.  I love that Scrivener for Windows (and I assume the original) has this built in.  Not just built in, but it’s automatic anytime the total word count is generated.  There are things that are allowable near the top of the list.  Direct and indirect objects.  Pronouns.  Character names.  “Said.”  Conjunctions.  But look for words that are out of place.  Some of the really good ones will even pull out phrases that are used multiple times.
  • Awareness.  This can come from the other two, but just learning what your crutch words are will get rid of them.  At first it’ll come from knowing what to look for when editing, but eventually it’ll evolve into just striking those words from your internal narration while writing the story.  And Awareness is a very specific word choice here.  I’ve seen awareness ribbons for any number of things, and crutch words would probably benefit, so if that’s the way to keep them close to mind, make some.  Put them in your writing space.  And remember.

Together, we can end word crutching.  Or at least find a new word to lean on.  I’m going to try “squamous” for awhile.  Do you have crutch words?  Maybe we should set up an exchange.  Or a bonfire for them.

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