Crutches Part 3


Sorry I’m late. I’m still a total ditz… The hubby and the AKA and I took Rocky Creek ( 2 times) yesterday, and somehow that translated to losing a day. Oh – and very sore elbow joints. But I digress.

I’ve blogged previously about writer’s crutches and amateurish writing, those things that get our work tossed in the circular file, things that have nothing to do with our exciting plots or multifaceted characters, but there are still things to say. Leaning on our crutches is a cheat, to ourselves and our readers. They contribute to writing that is amateurish and clunky and not up to commercial standards. When writers have such a craving, such an intense desire to be published, spotting anything that keeps us from our goals is important. One such crutch relates to transitions.

For the newbies, transitions are devices that take us (reader and character) from one place to another, from one time to another, from one emotion to another.

I am currently editing a writer’s work and she overused one particular sentence structure that relates to transitions. I understand why she is using it—she is trying to show that time has passed without actually saying so. But after seeing such a device three times in ten pages, it starts to pop out at me and sock me in the forehead. And in my friend’s case, the device almost always comes with a discovery.

Here is an example:
When Charlie got to the barn, he discovered the body…
When Loretta stretched out her arm, she felt… 

Off the top of my head, a better way (assuming that the writer doesn’t pick up on this one and use it instead, every single time) could be:

Charlie opened the bar door, the grain of the old wood rough beneath his hands. The huge hinges creaked into the night, sounding lonely. Behind him, moonlight streaked the ground with long shadows. Before him, the barn was dark, filled with the soughing breath and the warm stench of cattle …

In this case, the mention of moonlight and darkness tells the reader that it isn’t daylight any more, and allows the change of hours to contribute to the tone, setting, and sensory experience of the reader.

Loretta forced her arm to move, the muscles almost creaking with disuse. She spread her fingers, letting them drag over the ground beneath her. It was hard-packed dirt and rough stones, not the smooth river stones of her home, but cracked and broken stones, the kind left behind after an avalanche or the detritus of blasting.

Ditto here. The movement of her body tells us time has passed. The comparison of the stones tells us she isn’t where she was last. Yes, it’s harder, and it takes more time, but it is much better writing.

Another lazy crutch is use of the word “appear.”

Melinda, upset, appeared in the doorway…
Rebecca appeared on the scene, rushing to the body…
Evan appeared in the hallway, looking angry…

I edited a book for a publisher recently and did a scan for *appear* and it … um … appeared 148 times.

After the first fifteen, I was internally saying “POOF” after each one. Poof, as if a magician made the people appear. I was seeing smoke, maybe some sparkles, a woman in a spangles with a wand. And appear has another bad problem. It is telling, no showing.

People can enter a scene another way, though again, it is harder to write with a fresh method each and every time. And if we try, we can make the appearance part of the reading experience for the reader, and *show* the reader what is happening.

Melinda stuck her head in the doorway, her hair mussed and eyes wide…
Rebecca’s car snaked through the emergency lights; she parked behind an ambulance and raced to the body…
Evan strode down the hallway, his anger almost crackling the air…

Frankly, to write them all as *appeared* for a first draft is not a problem, but they all needed to be reworked for the final draft, long before an editor started saying POOF.

Unfortunately, crutches fall into our blind spots. We don’t see them until after we are long done. I still remember the time I overused the word *passed*.

He passed her a card…
She passed the test…
John passed the dishes…
Angie passed the turn…

Sigh… Yeah, I used it probably… 148 times…


28 comments to Crutches Part 3

  • “Yes, it’s harder, and it takes more time, but it is much better writing.”

    I have this conversation with myself too often. Yes, it is harder, but this isn’t supposed to be easy. That’s what I try to tell myself. I get to write for a living. I tell stories and people buy them. That’s as good as it gets. Having it be easy? That is asking for way too much. I fall into lazy patterns of writing all the time — I rely on my crutches far too often. But when I kick myself in the butt and make my writing better, it’s the most rewarding thing in the world. Thanks for this post, Faith. Another reminder to make myself work those muscles.

  • Interesting post. Being the contrarian that I am, I was also thinking of the other extreme: thesauritis, where someone uses every possible synonym to avoid triggering your complaint. So the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle?

    One thing I’ve noticed is, well, that I notice things differently. Everyone does. One possible solution is to look at the POV and who and what you’re describing. If you’re describing someone who’s sneaky, they might suddenly appear in the doorway. Similarly, if someone is highly focused and not terribly aware, people might appear and disappear all around them.

    Similarly, if you’re writing about a naturalist, their concept of people likely includes the plants and animals (and possibly landscapes) around them, so from their point of view, they interact with the landscape as if it has character. An urban dweller will see this all as a undefined, green blur, so where the naturalist avoids the poison ivy to disappear behind the big grandmother oak, the urbanite might crash into the dense green shrubbery nearby to get out of sight.

    And so it goes. The only major manuscript I’ve written has first person POV, so I can’t really talk, but I think you might get to that happy medium by giving each character a different set of crutches to run with.

  • David, it is too easy to let the tried and true take over. I was talking to myself as much as anyone, here. I give myself a kick in the rump when I see my writing falling into patterns, and I expect my beta readers to kick me there too. But it is so easy to fall into a writing rut. And foolish.

    And … yes. I too am sooo lucky. I know that. I remember to give thanks for the opportunity to make a living telling lies. I sometimes wonder if god finds that amusing. (grins)

  • You are so right, Het. (Sorry I missed your post. We musta hit post at the same time!) Yes, dialogue crutches are important tools, and actually *should* be used. One example: My AKA wrote a book with main characters who were river guides. One guide always started out a sentence with the words, “Yeah, yeah.” It was annoying to write, but added a lot the character’s … er … character.

    I’m also write the Jane Yellowrock, a skinwalker with two souls. When her Beast is awake, she senses the world through her nose and ears first, eyes third, so her take on the world is vastly different from other characters. It gives her internal dialogue a very different, albeit predictable, aspect. I have to guard agaisnt that becoming annoying.

  • Ohhhh…I so needed this! Thank you. I’ve been struggling with clunky transitions and your blog post will help me address them. Thanks! Thanks! Thanks! (oh, and I tweeted this…too good not to Tweet!)


  • I think crutches crop up when the writer is only focusing on one or a few aspects of the character or situation.

    For example, constantly using “appear” is only looking at whether the perspective character is aware of something’s existence or not. And sometimes that’s all the character would really make note of. But other times–or with other characters involved–they might notice their clothes, their face, their body language, their mood, the consequences of this person arriving in those circumstances.

    Similarly, for the “When X did Y” transitions, it’s focusing mostly on the fact that we have a transition–time has passed, distance has been traversed, we’ve arrived at our destination, whatever. But in Faith’s rewrites, the perspective is being widened. We’re hearing about what the destination is like, or what the effects of time passing are.

    Both methods can work when you use them in the right place, as per Het’s comment. It’s very true that certain methods can help us recognize and inhabit a specific character. But it’s when you rely on a few methods exclusively that they become “crutches” or “lazy writing”. You need to look at the context when you decide whether to do less or more, this or that. It’s only when you apply a solution without considering the problem that you’re writing starts to suffer.

  • Faith, please keep doing these “Crutch” posts. I love them. They really help make me aware of things I’m doing subconsciously. I’m building a revisions list to just go through one round of doing nothing but cleaning up all my crutches. 😉

  • Exactly, Atsiko! Every transition should do more than just say, “Time passed.” Transitions are the perfect place to take it to the next level, inject scene setting or scene anchoring, (something we writers often forget, trying to reach the next plot arc) demonstrate character development, or show any number of other changes.

    When I come upon an unpublished writer who demonstrates the dual nature of transitions, it is such a joy. Misty was one such writer. She handles transitions so deftly. If you want to see it in action, MadKestrel demonstrates it beautifully. Misty can take on two or three different objectives with a single transition.

  • Stuart, Unfortunately, I have hundreds of them… And a lot of them are mine…sigh…

    I too keep a list of crutches and scan manuscripts for them before they go to the editor. Of course, I just create now ones when I do that.

  • She handles transitions so deftly….Misty can take on two or three different objectives with a single transition.

    Me?? *blushes* Thank you, Faith. 😀

  • I don’t know if this is the same thing, but I was using variations of ‘turn’ in my first manuscript. One of reviewers kindly explained that every time my POV character (in tight 3rd limited) described somebody or some thing, we assume they turned to face it. I was choreographing every motion of the characters and pointing them toward everybody they were having dialog with. It was exhausting. My poor readers.

    Other crutches, assuming the above counts, were using ‘looking’ and ‘moving.’ Which are also just really, really weak verbs. Oh, what about modifiers like really, very, almost, nearly, and most. These words, insert intelligent grammatical descriptor, modify a verb when a stronger verb will do a better job.

    Maybe I missed the boat on this one. If so, sorry Faith.

  • NGD those were perfect examples of crutches! One way to get across the idea of a turn, without saying it, is:
    Charlie squinted into the sunlight…
    Josie backed her horse around…
    Herman stepped into the clearing…
    As to the modifiers? I’m Southern, which means I have all those words flowing like blood through my very veins. Really, I run scans on nearly all of them with most manuscripts. (lol)

  • On the other hand, it can get jarring when even character crutches are used too much. Things I’ve seen a lot lately:

    little air-sprite
    Stupid, stupid, stupid
    Oh. My. God. (or other line split up by periods)
    shut up

    The hilarious thing is, I’m in the middle of rewrites and just as soon as the word “nearly” was mentioned I looked at a line and saw “nearly irreplaceable…” hehe! Luckily, I haven’t noticed many of those so far.

  • Faith this is another great post, every time I read one of these “crutches” I keep it in the back of my mind when I am writing. They tend to stay so I’m pleased. This site is an exceptional tool for those of who are still in the beginning stages of writing.

    Thanks so much to all of you! I’ve already learned so much! 😀

  • Oh, this is hilarious. I just started looking for “look” in my manuscript, and there’s at least one per page (including one sentence that uses it three times–that one I may change. It’s the equivalent of “Look for something that looks like this used to look.”)

    Then I checked for “see,” “stare” and other sensory words. I had almost as many of those. It’s an intensively visual story that takes place on an alien world where many things aren’t quite what they seem.

    Look, for example, can be an evaluation (He looks dead, Jim.), a command (Look, Jim!), a communication (She looked at Jim, puzzled), or an interjection (Look, Jim,…).

    The other point is that the manuscript has a first person narrator. He’s a field biologist, NOT an English major, and he’s one of those people who is more interested in telling you what he was looking at or what something looks like than lugging a thesaurus into the field to vary his sentence structure.

    Yes, I will change some of those words, but not a lot.

  • Tom

    When Faith used the word “passed” again, she appeared to ignore her own advice.

  • Tom

    Faith, you keep a list of crutches? Share please. Maybe on your website.

  • Daniel, I use the Oh. My. God, line a lot. I try to cut all but one or two in a novel.

    Hinny, it’s kind comments like this that make MW so worthwhile.

  • Het, when you have a character who uses one sense more than the others, it makes for difficult writing. I find that I have to correct a lot in rewrites, changing sentence structure and word order to keep it from being repetitious. The way I approach it is to concentrate the sensory words in internal and external dialogue, and keep all other characters from using that sense or those words. It can make for tedious rewrites.

    Tom — that was point! (cheeky grin)

  • Hmmm. Tom, I may do that. Good idea.

  • In a recent short story draft, I had the story open with a character turning a corner. It was such a lame opening, but I used it because I couldn’t think of another way to start. It makes you kind of sad that even when you are on the look out for these things, you commit the crime anyway. 🙁

  • Me too! Me too, Atsiko! I *hate* it when I do that!!!!

  • OMG. I have appear a few times in my WIP. Going to fix that after I’m done with this first draft. Thanks for mentioning it, Faith. 😀

  • Hi Tyhitia! A few times in a manuscript is okay. In fact if you are writing fantasy (and your are!), *appear* might be the *best* word for you to use. Just know that if you are not going for the magician effect, then use *appear* with care.

  • […] Racism and Language April 1, 2010 Frank Landis Leave a comment Go to comments I was thinking about my day. To start with, I read Jim Hines’ Blog posting about being “racist, sexist, and homophobic and left a lengthy and not too nice on there. It’s a good point, but I was thinking about this from a writing context, and I also read Faith Hunter’s posting on lazy use of common words in SFF stories. […]

  • Beatriz

    Thanks for this, Faith. I think it will be a huge help!

  • You are welcome, sweetie! (grins)