Crutch Words, Telling Details, #AmEditing
- April 6, 2021
- Keenan Powell
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.”
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.
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.
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