Limping Along on the Writer’s Crutch


First, thanks to AJ Hartley for covering for me last Wednesday. I went to Louisiana to research in the French Quarter and other parts of New Orleans, and to pick up and adopt two rescue dogs, that are already the love of my life! Pics on my website in the gallery under Faith and Friends if you are interested. (Pitiful, aren’t I?)

On to the blog.
We all have crutches in our lives, things we do that help us get through the day. Methods, actions, habits, certain foods, coffee or tea for that caffeine high, harder liquids for some of us, chips and dip, that pill at bedtime, pain meds, calls to mom or dad, and much more can be our crutches. Some are dangerous, some are more like tics, OC habits that we see no need to break. I’m addicted to tea. As long as I have my tea I can write anywhere anytime. But when we bring crutches into our writing, into our prose, into the flow of the words themselves, that quickly presents a problem.

A case in point: I was reading a mass-market paperback by a well known writer, someone new to me, a book recommended by my local bookstore reader/bookseller. By page twenty, the writer had used the word smirk five times. Five times. By doing so, he had cheated me, his reader, by taking the easy way out in describing the reactions of his characters—or not describing the reactions. Telling me the reactions in five letters over and over again.

Smirk is a word that is used seldom in daily life and so when we read it, it stands out, as opposed to: is, or, if, of, that, and, the, what, etc., which are words that we use a lot more but that disappear from the page when we read them. Some words to do that; others do not, like smirk. I had to put the novel down and I’ll never read another book by that writer. He was lazy. He used a crutch. He doesn’t deserve my money or my time. The story was good, but the execution was poor. He was telling me, not showing me, and on that very basic level, his work was amateurish. The writer didn’t do his job. BIG sin to me. The editor didn’t do his job. I paid the price. And yes, it really ticks me off when this happens. More so when I do it myself. Much more so.

Yes, I have writing crutches myself. In one novel long ago, I used the word *passed* over one-hundred, seventy times, or roughly one time every other page. One of my beta-readers caught it; I scanned and replaced all but thirty-ish of them. I tend to use the words smile and grin a lot. And flicked, as in, “He flicked off the light.” There are other words that I scan and change before my editor sees my manuscript. Fortunately, I have an editor who really takes the time to see my work on many levels, and she usually catches what I miss.

On of my writer friends admits to overuse of the word *just* which seems like a southernism to me, and odd for her, as she isn’t Southern, and doesn’t use it in her speech. *Really* is another word she scans for.

Other words that are overused by writers are sardonic (which is a kind of insulting smirk, right?) dark/shadowed/bloody, etc. (in dark fantasy) sexy/hot/buff/pounding, etc (in romance novels).
Well, you get the point, (she said with a smirk).

Anyone here want to share a word crutch?


20 comments to Limping Along on the Writer’s Crutch

  • Likely one of my latest word crutches is likely. 😉 Luckily I realized I was starting to use it a lot in my manuscript and stopped. I don’t know why I’ve started using it a lot in my speaking, but it’s crept its way into my writing. I also had to look in a thesaurus while writing my sci-fi novel for other words for streaked, as in “flying fast.” Streaked, tore, jetted, rocketed, blasted, careened… 😀

    I’m sure there’s others, but hopefully they’ll be caught in the next draft. I think I used grinned a lot as well, which I’ll likely have to fix.

  • Deb Smythe

    My characters are chronically infected with nod-shrug-grin disease. Surgical cuts and removal required.

  • Daniel, it is so easy to get caught up in word overusage. Thank God for Thesaurus!

    Deb, I like the surgical cuts and removal. As to shrugs, I have a bad habit there too, but it is amaxing how often we shrug in daily life. We shrug with hands, shoulders, head tilts, eyebrow lifts, and they are all shrugs. It takes effort to rewrite it with what *really* happened in our vision of the actions.

  • On of my writer friends admits to overuse of the word *just* which seems like a southernism to me, and odd for her, as she isn’t Southern, and doesn’t use it in her speech. *Really* is another word she scans for.

    Hey! I am too Southern!

    Oh, you didn’t mean me, did you? *laughs*

  • Not only do all writers have a crutch, we have numerous ones. I find it helpful to keep a running list. Then when I go through revisions, I can pick up on the ones I often gloss over (some of them I do so often I can now catch myself as I’m writing them and fix it before revision time). Whatever works as long as they get fixed.

  • Misty, no, not you! A non-Southern writer, I promise!

    Stuart, That’s a good idea, about a running list. I too, try to change my crutches out for other words during the writing process, but then I find I’m overusing some new word. Sigh….

  • Excellent point. It takes an honest and observant critic to point out these little ticks, but once done you start spotting them everywhere. It’s mortifying. Another good reason to share your work with people you trust.

  • Actually. Apparently. Smiled/laughed/grinned. Elevated eyebrows. ‘Gaze’, and damn but that’s a hard one to work around. ‘Looked up.’ ‘Turned back’. Oh yes, we are painfully aware–but perhaps not aware *enough*–of our shortcomings, we are… 🙂

  • AJ, My beta readers catch so much, yet, even with them, I still screw up. Mortifying indeed.

    Catie, Gaze is new bad one for me. Epecially this last book which had such a short TAT (turn around time) on the rewrite. I found soooo many errors in the page proofs, and usually by then I’ve cleaned them all out. It gives me the shivers that the uncorrected page proofs will go out to reviewers with the grins, smiles, laughs and gazes locked in place on the page! (Buries head under pillow and screams)

  • Tried posting this earlier. Guess I failed:

    “just” and “really” I use all the time and I’ve living in MO for 24 out of 25 years of my life. I was under the impression that it was a generation thing. (I previously had some witty statement that used those words too)

    My other crutches: Suddenly, seemed, clearly, evidently, apparently (which those last 3 could also be used to describe my addition to adverbs) as well as those words like “that” and “too” and ellipses and em-dashes.

    I also have a stock description per story (one they almost all have green eyes, another black…) but I have always wondered why most books have eye color for every character and I barely ever notice it in people I meet in real life. Perhaps I’m odd?

    Here’s hoping this posts this time

  • I’ve had quite a few that I had to changed, but like you said, I ended up overusing them. The thesaurus was my best investment. 😀

  • Axisor, Your comment made it this time! That makes me feel better about *really* and *just* being a generational thing instead of a Southern thing, kinda like *like* is a generational thing. In fact, when I’m writing a younger person, I usually add in several *likes*. It seems to say *this character is younger than 20.* As to ellipses…my first book under the Gwen name…had hundreds. My editor should have demanded that I take them out. Talk about a crutch!

    Tyhitia, I used to have this really (there’s that word again) great electronic Thesaurus that gave me dictionary, connotations vs. denotations, archaic meanings, origins with word history. I *loved* that thing! Wore it out. Never found one like it again.

  • Emily

    *rasies hand* I over use “smirk,” “just,” and, according to my beta readers, “simple/simply.” Makes me crazy, and I’m trying to kill them as I go, but it isn’t easy. “Shrug” is another one for me, too. I use “just” and I shrug too much in real life, too, so that’s probably where it comes from. I need to work on variety in cold, hot, and pain words. (That says something about my subject matter, I think…) In my academic writing, my over use word was “ultimately.” I’d use it 5-10 times in a long paper. Unfortunately for me, there really can only be one “ultimate” anything…

  • Emily, that’s funny: >>Unfortunately for me, there really can only be one “ultimate” anything…

    I too have trouble with pain words. Agony, discomfort, hurt is about it. More descriptive words like burning, stabbing, itching, spearing, lancing, all have to be followed with the word … um … pain. What do you do?

    “It hurts.” That’s what the injured say when lying on a stretcher, the ones who can talk at all, that is. Just, “It hurts. Hurts bad. Make it stop.” Sorry. Planning a scene, can you tell?

  • Robin

    Great–another thing to obsess over! 🙂 Alas, I’ve never thought about this before… until now. I try not to re-use words within the same paragraph or page, but never thought beyond that…. Double-alas, legal writing (which I do most often) has no qualms about repetitive word-usage. Therefore, furthermore, additionally, and “in response” are about all we have to make ourselves sound smart! 🙂

    (Smileys are my crutch for non-professional writing. :):):):):) I can hardly type a sentence without one!)

  • Tom

    Blaming crutch words sounds like another crutch…did I say that outloud? Eeks, now I’ll be banned from this blog. LOL

    I’ve never considered this *issue* before. Oh my. Stress level rising.

    I wonder if MS Word has a function that will tell me which words I used most in a document? Hmmm.

  • Robin and Tom, that is what beta readers are for. 🙂 And I’ve found that reading my work aloud lets me spot my overused words. Also, it isn’t the ordinary words that we have to worry about (and in legal writing you *have* to resue the same word for absolute clarity). For fiction, it’s the words we don’t use often in everyday speech that cause a problem. Read a couple of pages of your own fiction work aloud and you’ll likely spot any trouble spots.

  • QUOTE: Read a couple of pages of your own fiction work aloud and you’ll likely spot any trouble spots.

    That’s how I self edit. I have to print the whole thing out and read it aloud. Even reading it aloud off a monitor, I’ll miss some things. I have to print it.

  • Me too, Daniel. There is something about reading from the paper page, aloud. Maybe paper pages for information exchange have been around so long, we actually see things on it that we don’t see in / on other medium, like it’s caught up in the great human subconscious, part of the gestalt of the human experience or something. Or not.

  • “Just” “Grin/smile/nod/shrug” “Certainly/Certain” And countless others. My editor catches some. I catch others. And some I miss, only to notice them much, much later when it’s too late. Yes, I really, really hate my crutches. But I can’t seem to write without them