Crutches Revisited


I forgot it was Wednesday.  Seriously. I’m a total ditz this week.
Okay, all the time…
Sorry I’m late posting.

I want to share again today some more thoughts on writer’s crutches. We all have them, even bestsellers – those little things we do that make our page count faster but steal much of the power our writing might otherwise contain. Leaning on our crutches (yes, I am talking to myself again) cheats both us and our readers. Because I am between books, I find I have time to practice exercises in writing that lifts me above my crutches, and I’d like to share some alternatives to the tried and true.

As I said last time, one of my own crutches is the word grin. We writers often use *he grinned* to show agreement, happiness, amusement, acceptance, and a dozen other emotions. But saying that our character grinned doesn’t really show the reader what that character is feeling. It simply tells the reader that the character is reacting and said reader gets to interpret how, supplying his own emotional content. Instead, if I pull out some tools from my writer’s tool box, I can combine words in context to show what I intend the character to actually feel, rather than telling the reader. Showing rather than telling. Is it basic and boring? Yes.
Is it vital? Oh, yeah!

He fanned his fingers from the table, the gesture languidly agreeing…
He opened his hand, suggesting agreement and encouragement…
He had no choice but to agree, and one corner of his mouth lifted, even as his eyes darkened…
He shook his head, not disagreeing, his expression rueful and amused…

His eyes lit up…
His face softened…
His ducked his head, hiding his smile, as a pale flush lit his neck and brightened his cheeks…
His sigh was softer than the night breeze, and had I not been positioned to feel his breath on my cheek, I’d not have known his happiness.

A little regency romantic perhaps, or even Anne Rice UF, but you get the idea.

His eyes glinted with amusement…
His teeth flashed in the night, a near-silent, breathy chuckle…
His lips compressed, as if holding in laughter…
At first I thought his shoulders were shaking with tears, but his snorts were suspiciously mirthful…

Acceptance can – in context – be used with parts of the above:
He fanned his fingers from the table, the gesture calmly accepting the inevitable…
He opened his hand, the gesture accepting…
He had no choice but to accede to the terms, and one corner of his mouth lifted…
He shook his head, not disagreeing, his expression rueful and accepting…

Smirk is one of my pet peeves. I have a rule of thumb for my own work – one smirk per book. Why only one? Well…what exactly is a smirk? What does it convey? What is the writer really trying to say? Is it sarcasm, insult, irritation, cruelty, anger, some other emotion? Yes, they are negative emotions but all are shades of emotion that the word smirk does not convey or build upon. Instead of *he smirked* we can…

His eyes narrowed, his lips turning up in amused contempt…
His mouth turned down, mocking…
His brows lifted in amused disdain…
His eyes sparkled and full lips pursed as if holding in his scorn…

Insult: (similar to sarcasm, but a hair stronger)
His eyes narrowed, his lips turning up in derision…
His mouth turned down and he laughed softly, as he insulted my lineage…
His brows lifted in cold disdain…
His eyes sparkled with scorn, his full lips tight with contempt…

Other crutch words are anger or irritation, as in *He was angry*. Or, *He frowned with irritation.* Irritation and anger are similar, nearly shades of one another, with anger using more passionate words, and irritation using less strong words:

Shades of irritation:
His eyes flashed with irritation…
His shoulders tightened, annoyance riding him…
His steps grew heavy with exasperation…
He turned away hiding his impatience…

His eyes flashed, nostrils flaring with rage…
His breath grew short and sharp, almost hissing with fury…

And my all-time most-hated word used by writers? Sardonic. (Sound of me screaming in the background.) Who says sardonic in normal conversation? Almost no one. Almost never. When I see it in a book, it rips me from the pages. I instantly start counting, wondering how many time the writer will use it. It My rule of thumb with sardonic is one use every three books. Or less. But that’s just me.

Anyone else have a crutch word you hate to see writers use? Please share, and then – because we have some very newbie writers here – offer other options. This can be an exercise for anyone interested.



31 comments to Crutches Revisited

  • Ooh! Ooh! I’m a newbie writer!! This was a great post Faith, and great suggestions!

    As for smirking, I am guilty of that very thing on a too often occasion!

    Lets see…

    He smirked: (of course, like you stated it depends on the emotion…)

    – His lips curled as he bit back the impending sarcasm
    – She wanted to slap the aloof smile off of his face
    – His voice didn’t hint at sarcasm, but the spark in his eyes told differently.
    – She ducked from the amused look on his face
    – He cast his eyes from her suspicious gaze

    Even though I’m new I wanted to contribute something. 😀 Dunno if this is what you were looking for, but it was fun nonetheless!

    Happy writing

  • Okay, this is funny…I actually used “sardonic” in conversation Saturday evening! I was describing someone’s new look, and being a bit dramatic at the time, but honest to goodness, I said it.

    Probably won’t say it again this decade, though. ;D

  • Some resources for writing emotions I came across in trolling the web:


    This is something I struggle with in my own writing–glad to see I’m not the only one!

  • Hinny, You got it! I especially liked two of your ideas:
    – She wanted to slap the aloof smile off of his face
    – His voice didn’t hint at sarcasm, but the spark in his eyes told differently.
    Very good!

    Misty, I have to admit that I used *sardonic* once this decade too, and only a few weeks past. It felt as strange coming out of my mouth as it does seeing it on the page.

  • I used a lot of grins in my WIP, which I’m planning on going back and fixing. I’m tempted to have the program count how many instances of the word there are. That’s always an eye opener to how much you use a word or phrase.

  • I recently did a word count on one crutch word on a friend’s manscpt. It came to 143 uses out of 260 pages. Ouch.

  • Ah, yes, smirking grins and grinning smirks. Both words haunt my writing far too often. I’ve also discovered that I often describe people in the way they look at others — squinting, wide-eyed, rolling eyes, etc. Don’t know why, but that seems to be another for me.

  • I’m guilty of over-using grins and smirks and try to catch them. Am baffled by your aversion to ‘sardonic’ however, which seems to me a perfectly viable and precise word. And yes, I use it in conversation. I do have special loathing for pharses like “gave a laugh” which no one would ever say because “laugh” by itself works fine. These odious phrases show up a lot in bad poetry to fit rhyme and meter. There ought to be a law.

  • Stuart, I’ve broken myself of using smirk, but still must catch all the grins, laughs, smiles, and shrugs. Oy. I way overuse shrug.

    AJ, it’s the overuse of sardonic that drives me nuts, but I must admit that it’s a personal thing. (I did say it was just me.) But here is the back story.

    I read a breakout book (romance) some years ago where the word sardonic was used *every single time* the hero was described, in every scene, in every chapter. It got to where all I could see was sardonic. How could the heroine not slap him silly for being so unremittingly … well … sardonic???

    I eventually gave up on reading the book because the crutch was so obvious, and I was so ticked that a writer had gotten a huge advance for such pitiful writing. Now, like the word smirk, it pulls me out of a story. As I said, it’s personal, but I’ve asked other readers and many say the same thing — it’s overused and pulls them out of the story. So my rule of thumb for my own writing is *do not use*.

    I detest *gave a laugh* also. How about *He thought to himself.* Or *He thought in his head.* To whom else will he think? Where else? His big toe? His little brain? And I’ve caught myself using phrases like that a few times. Grrr. Bad Faith. Bad!

  • LJ, I missed your post. Sorry! I’ll check out the sites. Thank you.

  • Ah! Makes sense. Any over-used term is maddening: lazy. Hope you aren’t finding many in mine…

  • Faith said, I read a breakout book (romance) some years ago where the word sardonic was used *every single time* the hero was described, in every scene, in every chapter.

    And considering how few people I know in the world that I could actually describe as “sardonic” (really, just one) it is pretty ridiculous how often it pops up.

  • He was sardonic. As sardonically sardonic as sardonic could be. He struck a sardonic pose as he looked at her, his eyes gazing sardonically.

    “I’m…sardonic,” he expostulated sardonically.

  • Douwe

    Very interesting post, and I will properly read it when it is not 2 AM :D. Crutch words for me are ‘realize’ in scenes with a lot of retrospection. Grudgingly & reluctantly slip in far too often as well.

    Somewhat related; ‘said’ still confuses me. Some sources tell me to find every synonym in the book, and others state that ‘said’ is invisible and distracting synonyms should be avoided like the plague. I find myself leaning towards the latter, but I do indulge in an occasional sneer or shout. Opinion(s)?

  • I think “said” works ninety per cent of the time, and 8 percent of the remaining 10 is “asked.”

  • You are not a lazy writer AJ! No, no problems at all with it, except that I have found *no freaking time* this week to read. Talk about maddening! Arrrrrrgh!

    Misty…ummmm…Norman? (laughing sardonically) Do you think he checks in here ever?

    Daniel. Try harder. Surely you can find *one* more way to use sardonic in that short section??? (grins)

    Douwe, I’m with AJ. Said *is* invisible. So is asked. And only use another word when timing or emotional context is *ab-so-lute-ly* required.

  • Faith said, Misty…ummmm…Norman? (laughing sardonically) Do you think he checks in here ever?

    That’s the guy! I don’t know if he’s lurking in the shadows around here, but if anything will bring him into the open…

  • GREAT post on the crutch words. You and I are totally on the same page. 🙂 Thanks LJ for mentioning the Emotion Thesaurus here.

  • Yeah, I have lots of grinning, smiling, laughing. And I don’t write what anyone would call happy books, so clearly there is a problem there. I think my biggest crutch right now comes in writing pauses into conversation or passage of time in action scenes: too many occurrences of “a moment later” or “in the next moment” or “after a few moments”. Nice post, Faith.

  • Right now, I’m writing a series with vampires, who don’t breathe. I am astonished by how often my characters want to gasp, catch their breath, etc.

    I won’t even go into the “filler” words I use too much: “and then” and forms of the verb to be being the worst offenders…

  • A friend just referred me over here because he likes this post so much – and I agree, it’s great. It kind of reminds me of that book “How Not to Write a Novel” (or something like that). Anyone here read that? It’s the funniest book on craft I ever read – puts all those crutches into scene. I think half the reason I laughed through it was to cope with my embarrassment for all the missteps I’ve made along the way.

  • Tom Gallier

    Mindy, if your vampires don’t breath, how do they speak? Breathlessly? LOL

  • Angela, That is a great site, I agree! A lot of us (myself included) often forget the emotinal context of words.

    David, I used to have trouble with *pause words* too. For the more newbies here — I find it is easier to write physical action instead of pause words. Like:
    He rotated his glass in the water mark, the wood grinding smoothly beneath the crystal, slowly widening the circle until the condensation began to separate into tiny pools and dry. When he broke the silence, the sound of his voice was biting, sharp, and seemed to echo off the walls.

    Like that. And David does that quite well, BTW.

  • Mindy, I have the same problem with my vamps. Filling the *breathing* words with other things is *hard!*

    Kirsten — we have not ony all been there, we’ve fallen into the same old habits and patterns far too often.

    Tom — hehehehe.

  • Norman

    Sardonic? Me? I searched 2,809 pages of crap I’ve written and not once did I use the term. And in checking an online dictionary, I did not see any image that resembled me. As for any crutches, I hopefully stop at dry martinis, red wine, and good cigars.

  • Jer

    I have a questions in regards to the Rogue Mage Series.

    Kim Harrison had recommended your books on her website, so I gave them a go…I got hooked right away! BUT now I NEED to know what Thorn is going to do next….

  • Norman said And in checking an online dictionary, I did not see any image that resembled me.

    Now, you know you can’t trust those online sources… *grin*

  • Thanks for this, Faith, it’s fantastic! My characters grin way too much. They also tend to quirk an eyebrow a great deal (something I can’t do myself, but love seeing on others). In fact I have a whole list of things I do too much, courtesy of my editor 🙂 Your ideas have got my brain ticking, and I’ll try to be more creative instead of using crutches in the future.

  • I am literaly tearing up. Norman… You *are* here! I miss you!!! You are too — very, intensly — sardonic. And snarky. We love that about you!!!! And you don’t write crap. You just haven’t found your niche yet. Frankly, you should consider something historical and snarky… But whatever you are writing, send it to me!!!

  • Misty, I know you got to Norman. Thank you!

    Jer, I am hoping for another RM book. I have an idea for one to propose to my agent… say your prayers!!!

    Nicole, isn’t it great when you see something that gets your brain working in all new ways. I read a romance by Diana Gabaldon (sp?) years ago and she does the smile/grin/smirk thing sooo well! *Never* uses the actual words. Very creative!