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Crutch Words, The Um, So Actually. Crutch Words Aren't Evil, So What Are They?

The tippiest of top writing tips I ever got was from the YouTuber Alexa Donne. She advised that writers keep a list of crutch words, and it made all the difference. Admittedly I've lost or misplaced the list more times than I can count, but as a testament to how helpful the advice has been, whenever I lose it, I start a new one.

notebook with writers crutch words. probably, likely, really, simply. Drawing/ Illustration by Katherine Kennedy
Keep a list of your crutch words

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What Is a Crutch Word?

A crutch word—sometimes called a filler word— is a word or phrase we regularly use in speech or writing. It's a placeholder word that we use to buy time while we think about what we really want to say. Crutch words are great. When you're writing your first draft, there is absolutely nothing wrong with reaching for old favorites to keep the writing momentum going. That's why keeping a list of them is such great advice. It gives you the freedom to keep writing instead of stopping the whole process up short while you search your brain for replacements. There are common crutch words that are shared among us, but then there are the special ones that are just for us.

Crutch words aren't intrinsically bad. Often they add personality and flavor to your writing, but like all good things, they need to be managed, particularly in long-form writing where it can get… a bit much. That doesn't mean you have to find and destroy them all, just those you don't think add personality, meaning, or intent to your writing.

Here are some of my go-to, favorite of favorite crutch words:

  • A little bit

  • Probably

  • Definitely

  • Really

  • Most likely

  • Simply

  • In any case

  • It would be fair to say

For a more comprehensive list, check out A Long List Of Crutch Word Examples.

Are Crutch Words and Phrases Pure Evil?

The problem with crutch words is that they can be repetitive for the reader. Writing that uses the exact words or phrases over and over can be actively annoying, if not evil. Crutch words can also be a death knell for dialogue. It's simply unrealistic that every character will all have the same crutch words. Although it can be a nice way to show the influence one character has over another character— the adoption of similar patterns of speech the more they get to know each other. Family members or longtime friends might share similar speech habits, but they won't be identical.

How to Manage Your Crutch Words Through A Crutch Word List:

While you write, keep a separate document or a notebook handy. If you notice that you are leaning heavily on specific words or phrases, simply jot them down and carry on as usual. While writing a first draft, I give myself permission to jot down whatever is easiest, whatever keeps the momentum and gets the story onto the page. During the editing phase, I continue to add to my list while I refine and clean up.

Microsoft search and replace toolbar
Do a word search for your crutch words during the editing phase

Use the editing process to get rid of crutch words you don't want. I wish I could say exactly when I obliterate crutch words, but it's more of a feeling. Often, it's when things are stagnant creativity-wise, when everything I write feels flat and boring, but I still want to get stuff done. I'll take out my crutch words notebook and search each word, seeing how many times I used it and deciding where it was necessary and where it was just filler and needs to be refined.

Use Crutch Words to Make Character Dialogue More Realistic

If your dialogue sounds wooden, you have likely eliminated too many crutch words. Crutch words make us human. They are an innately human way to communicate. Not using them is, well, inhuman. So, like, use them to your advantage, you know? Assign specific crutch words to individual character dialogue to make it flow more smoothly and realistically. Using different crutch words for different characters is a great way to differentiate each character's personality and speech patterns, to make them unique and realistic. You can even make a note of crutch words your friends and family use and apply them to other characters.

How To Find Your Crutch Words

  • Google common crutch words and keep an eye out for them in your writing.

  • Keep a list of common crutch words

  • Some programs can give you a percentage breakdown of the words your use. Sadly most of those get distracted by words like 'and,' so I don't highly recommend them.

  • I often find my crutch words are the first words in a sentence—most likely because I'm still thinking.

  • Ere on the side of adding too many words and phrases to your crutch list than too few, star any words you aren't sure about. When you do your word search on your final document, the numbers will let you know if it's genuinely a crutch or not.

  • Pay attention to other writers' crutch phrases in books or articles, and hone your skills.

  • Crutch words are often adverbs, and while I love adverbs, there is such a thing as using them too much. If you struggle to identify your crutch words, look at your favorite adverbs. You'll likely find a few snuck in there.

  • Most of the time, crutch words can be deleted straight out. Sometimes a good old synonym is in order. On more than one occasion, I have found it necessary to write around a crutch word, adding a whole sentence or even a paragraph to get the feel of a word like 'probably.'

  • Grammarly. It hurts me to admit it, but Grammarly is great at identifying phrases that you could be using too much. Whenever it suggests choosing a different word or that sentence could be clearer, it might be talking about crutch words.

  • ProWritingAid also helps you to identify words and phrases that you may be using too much.

Crutch Phrases Can Be Complicated

Crutch phrases are the hardest to manage. Easy ones like 'a little bit' can be identified with relative ease, but crutch phrases can often be a word that your string together too frequently when confronted with a particular topic. Confusing right? An example might be character descriptions. Everyone can't have long silken lashes and long silken hair, and a long silken dress.

While writing my book, I found that I kept wanting to describe characters as 'built like a barn door' or 'built like a lumberjack.' That's a twofer right there. Not only is it unrealistic for all these characters to have the same build, but I kept using 'built like….'

Another example is that whenever I'm about to go into pontification mode, I find that I keep starting my paragraph with "It's a sort of…" or "Sort of like…." Everything can't be a sort of something. It's tedious writing. Onto the list it went, and because I vary the structure from case to case, I have to search for the word 'sort' rather than the full phrase. Sigh.


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