How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words

So I’ve written about crutch words before. On my last manuscript, weeding out crutch words was my final step before querying agents. I decided to address them much earlier in the process this time, while I was waiting for feedback from my first round of readers. I realize that I’ll be making significant changes to the manuscript, but I expect I’ll be much more aware of my word choices as I revise, so I don’t think it’s too early in the process.

Because I was in waiting mode instead of anxious to start querying, I went much more in-depth with this step than previously, and although it was a tedious process, I know the manuscript is stronger for it. As before, I started by creating a Wordle:A Boy Could Wordle 032514 copy

Next, I set my Scrivener window to show the full manuscript as a continuous document. Starting with the largest words that weren’t proper names, I searched for each word individually. I love the way Scrivener highlights them so I can just page down. It’s easier to see when the words occur in close proximity than, say, using the find function in Microsoft Word. Here are the words* I covered:

back, get, didn’t/don’t, something, like, know, just, could/couldn’t, away, way, one, time, really, go/going, want, was/were, would, right, need, think

These are the words I instinctively write in a first draft. Sometimes they’re the right words, but often there are stronger words that could take their place and convey the same meaning more powerfully. The tricky thing about crutch words is that you don’t want to strip them entirely or it can strangle your voice.

Because I was doing a word search instead of reading chronologically, I was forced to consider each word carefully in the context of who was saying/thinking it. Often a synonym would work in the context, but I still had to consider whether it was appropriate for the character. I asked myself questions like:

  • Is the antagonist more likely to say “I get it” or “I understand”?
  • Would the MC’s father say “I don’t think sorry is good enough” or use a more definitive statement such as “Sorry isn’t good enough”?
  • Would a teenager ever say “as though” in place of “like“?
  • Would this character say “going to” or “gonna”?
  • Is “want to” or “could” necessary before this verb?
  • Does it makes sense to contract “she would” to “she’d” or “would have” to “would’ve”?
  • Is there a negative verb I can use instead of modifying a positive verb with “don’t/didn’t“?
  • Can the sentence be reworded/rearranged to avoid the use of “was“?
  • Can I delete the word entirely without changing the meaning of the sentence or the voice?

By the end of the process, I felt confident each of my characters had a more unique voice, and I also cut 1,000 unnecessary words from the manuscript. Interestingly, as I got down to the smaller words, I sometimes found a word I’d swapped out earlier (i.e., “need” instead of “want”) and decided the original word really was the best choice. The nice thing about doing this earlier in the process is that I will be reading through the manuscript several more times, and I will be much more alert to these particular words and how they relate to the character involved.

How do you eliminate crutch words? Do you struggle with the same words I do?

Other posts in this series:

*You may notice I held off on words related to body parts–head, eyes, see, hand, etc. That’s because I plan to go through and analyze my beats separately. I recently purchased “The Emotion Thesaurus,” so I’m hoping that will help me clean those up.

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About Michelle I. Mason

I'm a full-time writer, focusing mainly on middle grade and young adult fiction with some freelance PR writing and editing on the side. I'm also a wife, mom, Christian, violinist, avid reader and St. Louis Cardinals fan. And I watch way too much TV.
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9 Responses to How I Tackle Revisions: Crutch Words

  1. Carla Cullen says:

    My biggest offenders are useless adverbs – really, actually, only, merely, completely – as well as crutch words like just, even,and still. Sometimes they’re important for dialogue (teens say “really?” a lot) but I try to avoid using them elsewhere.

    • You’re right about the dialogue. Sometimes you just have to leave those in, unless you can come up with something else they might say instead. I also leave them if it’s been several pages since the last use.

  2. Joanne Fritz says:

    Thanks, Michelle. I haven’t used Wordle in years, so I went in and made my own for my WIP. Besides the characters’ names, which makes sense, I used “don’t” and “couldn’t” a lot, plus, “started” and “like”. Now I know exactly what I need to work on. Makes a cool pic too!

    • Those qualifying statements are killer. I discovered I could often revise “could” to a more active statement like:
      could lie = considered lying
      couldn’t = refused to
      could see = imagined
      so I could = to
      Of course it depends on the context, but I was able to weed out quite a lot of those. As for “like,” I’m too fond of similes and metaphors to weed out as many as I should :).

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