Crutch Words, Telling Details, #AmEditing

Lady Lilith, Dante Gabriel Rosetti (1867) Courtesy The Met

The first draft of my Work in Progress (WIP) was finished last week. The next step is to identify and eliminate, as much as possible, crutch words. By “crutch words, “ I mean those words, usually verbs, that I overuse to the point they no longer have impact. The effect of my use of crutch words is a watering down of my writing’s emotional vibrancy. For fun, I did a comparison of a few of my most abused crutch words from an early draft of my first book, Deadly Solution, (102,000 words) to the WIP at 106,000 words.

Crutch Word                     Deadly Solution            WIP

Smile                                   39                                         39

Sighed                                 4                                           1

Gasped                                3                                           6

Nod                                     55                                         58

Looked                                189                                      120

“Gasped” surprised me. I hadn’t realized I used it at all in the WIP. (Big Sigh!) I’m pleased that I’ve whittled down “looked,” but displeased that I’m still leaning on “smiled.”

Crutch Words

I find that I overuse a word, thus turning it into a crutch word, when I’m writing so fast that I haven’t delved into the emotional depth of the scene. Getting it down on paper as fast as you can is one way to write. After all, you can’t edit a blank page. There are other people who work a page to near completion before moving on to the next.

I am of the former category. By page 13, I had used “smile” twice, “nod” three times, and “looked” three times.

So what’s the cure? Some people pluck a two-bit substitute from a thesaurus. I find the two-bit words distracting. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that I keep saying the same thing. Instead, I want to dig deeper into the scene for telling details.

Telling Details

For my money, the master of telling details is John Banville writing as Benjamin Black. His finest example is A Death in Summer. I have it on audio and a paperback that I have heavily annotated. The following is from my favorite scene. Dr. Quirke has a visitor, a newspaper reporter, Jimmy Minor:

Minor was at the bookcase, scanning the titles with is little sharp head thrown back. He had a new cigarette going. ‘You know why I’m here, of course,’ he said in a studiedly distracted tone, still eyeing the books. ‘I see you like poetry. Lots of Yeats.’ He turned his head. ‘He your man, is he, Yeats?’ He assumed a chanting voice in imitation of the poet in full resonant flow. ‘The fury and the mire of human veins.’

Quirke gave no reply to that. ‘How is the Clarion managing, without its head?’ he asked.

Minor snickered. ‘Without its head, eh? You’re a great man for the gallows humor. Goes with the job, I suppose.’ He took down a book and flicked through it. Quirke watched the tip of Minor’s cigarette, afraid he might spill burning ash on the page. It was a first edition of Yeats’s The Tower, a thing he treasured…

Minor put the book back on the shelf. Quirke grudgingly noted with what delicacy he handled the volume, and how careful he was to fit it snugly into its original place.

Here we have a strong impression of Quirke’s dislike of Minor and Minor’s resentment of him despite a mutual admiration of Yeats. What is brilliant about Banville’s writing is that his telling details not only explore the subject described but in such a way that it reveals the point-of-view character’s personality. That is depth.


The first thing I did was to, using Word’s SmartEdit feature, identify the repeated words and phrases it caught, and revise those. Second, I began working on the list of crutch words I had made during the first draft. As I ferret those out and work to eliminate them, I find that I have secondary fall-back crutch words, e.g. “look” becomes “gazed.” I add the fall-backs to the list.

When I’m not at the keyboard, I listen to the audio of A Death in Summer as much as I can, driving, cleaning, and painting the new home office. When I hear a word usage that I like, I write it down. For instance, I found all these phrases that could be used instead of “look”: raised her eyes, lifted chin, lifted face, lowered his eyes, head cocked, head inclined, peering at him. The distinction is subtle but in context of the scene, the usage tells the reader more about the characters’ interaction then simply commenting that one is using his eyes.

Making the list is not the goal of the exercise; becoming more aware of how to mine the scene for character, emotion, and tension is. The next time I attack the WIP, my hope is that I will bring a developed sensitivity and ability to translate the emotional undercurrent onto the written page.

Do Tell!

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  1. I agonize about these things and more. I’m an admirer of Benjamin Black novels, yet while reading the excerpt, I couldn’t help but notice his use of the condemned adverb, which is frequently criticized as yet another form of crutch. It’s no wonder writers take to the drink.

  2. It appears the adverb is unfashionable only in the US. I think it’s an Elmore Leonard thing. It’s tragic as words were invented for a reason. I imagine over time, fashion will change.

  3. Thank you for reminding me about John Banville. It’s discouraging how you can love a writer so much, and yet forget about him completely. (Yes, I did use an adverb, but I felt it worked. 🙂

  4. Keenan,
    You bring up the very points that keep me up at night…one eye open as I mentally replay my WIP, then turn a jot notes I can’t read in the morning! Glad to know I’m not alone.
    Write on!

  5. This is so good, Keenan. I love the way you go deeper instead of simply using an alternate word. I’m right behind you in process of my WIP. This helps.

    1. Glad it helped Connie! I just realized that thing about shallowness/crutch words and needing to dig deeper while writing this book. They’re shorthand when I’m writing too fast to dive deep so they do serve a purpose.

  6. Smart edit!!!! I haven’t heard of this….. I clearly need the tutorial. AND…. I agree with Connie. Deeper instead of an alternate is such a great reminder, sigh… smile. (Oh wait, maybe I’m lower my chin!)

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