Margie Lawson

Changing your Writing World

Stripping Your Crutch Words to Excavate Your Voice

"You have to find your voice?" or "An author's voice is so important."

How many times, as writers, have you heard these statements? How many times have you given that same advice to other writers? We repeat things that are true and having a unique voice as a writer is a necessity. The problem lies in that many times, other things...like too much setting detail, characters taking over a scene, or even your own word choice can drown our unique voice out. Which sounds like the opposite of what should be happening... right?

Crutch words, as I call them, or words you fall back on when you are writing, are often used for various reasons. Not because you're a bad writer, on the contrary, using crutch words can often aid us in moving forward in the story when we are stuck. They can help you effortlessly glide from one paragraph to the next. They are the foundations we writers lean on when our brains are tired, and our fingers are aching. In this way, crutch words help us, but like first drafts, and second drafts, experience is knowing when to let them go after they've served their purpose. When we clean out these words to polish our stories, that's when our voices can shine through. 

First, Get the Words on the Page

I'm what many call a fast drafter. I can finish a 60,000 word book in less than a month. But it won't be pretty. The pages will be filled with errors, brackets with notes to finish, and my personal pantheon of crutch words that drag my writing down. Things such as: that, well, of course... this a tiny sample, but there are many and they aren't pretty. I use them because they come to my brain, and my fingers, when I'm drafting and I don't send them away. Why stop the writing when it's happening to take out these filler words when I'm putting words on the page? I don't... because more often than not it's a fight to get those words down and I, for one, will not do anything to hinder my progress on a good writing day. 

Don't fix your crutch words, or the words you see over and over in your manuscript while you are drafting. I know many a writer who edit while they write, and it works for some, but for many, finding your flow is the most important part of writing. Don't hinder it by trying to cut your "that's" and "really" while you're drafting. They will be there when you are finished.

Next, Poke the Bear

This finish first, ask questions second approach is important for many writers. If you are like me, and neurodivergent, the idea of a draft makes your skin clammy and those little lines around your mouth pop out as you frown at the very notion. 

I don't do drafts. 

You are all are sitting there thinking... BUT MONICA... EDITING

I said I don't do drafts. However, I do edit. Some writers will take their first draft and rewrite it completely moving to a new document. I can't do this. When my book is done, in my head, it's done. I can't go back and "rewrite it" completely. The very idea gives me hives. Instead, I edit in the same doc I wrote in, saving the very last chapter (drafting and editing) until I've completed the rest of the book. This tricks my brain into thinking it's not complete and so I don't have to move on to a new project.

What do I mean when I say poke the bear?

If you've ever printed out your manuscript and sat down to read it, you understand that often what you think you wrote, and what you actually did, differ. There are typos every other sentence, poor grammar, and over and over you see words "they" say you aren't supposed to use. But it's okay. Both normal and fine to produce less than perfect work on your first draft. But now you need to fix it. Printing out the document helps, using a tablet like an iPad or something that you can write digitally on, also works well if you prefer not to print things. The act of having a physical copy of the work to read through will help you catch A LOT more than you can if you read the word doc you typed it all in.

I advise not to fix everything on that doc as you go. Read it all, make notes in the doc, sure, but don't line for line read and edit. First, get an idea of how big that bear is before you pick up that stick. Then, once you've seen its size, you'll know how big a stick you actually need.

You Don't Need a Stick; You Need Honey (okay yes I know bears eat insects, plants, other things but...you know what I mean)

Editing is important. Every writer understands this basic fact. And every writer has their own style and system for how they self-edit their work. I can't edit for everything all at once. This makes me feel like that bear is way too big to fight and I want to run away and hide. And again, for my neurodivergent brain, it means I freeze and do nothing. The manuscript will sit, collecting dust until I can figure out a way to break it down enough that my brain feels comfortable attacking it, or luring it out with the promise of food a little at a time until I can jump on its back and bring the beast down.

Stages of editing will depend on how you personally draft, and what you personally need to fix once you're done with your original output. Do you always skimp on descriptive details? Do you always have to go back and layer on emotional reactions? These are things to consider. Sit down and ask yourself what your editor, and you, often have to fix in your manuscripts. Break them down into manageable "layers" and take them piece by piece.

A great book for this is called Seven Drafts by Allison Williams (yes I get the irony considering I don't draft) but she has a great method for taking things in stages like first addressing your characters, then moving to your setting, one draft aiding and bolstering the next. 

Drop Your Crutches and Scream at the Bear

One major part of the editing process is identifying your word choices and how they are helping or hindering the voice of your story. Stripping crutch words is often a built in aspect of many writers' process. But, because of my brain, I had to find ways to perform these mundane word hunts in a way that won't make me feel like I'm rewriting the book. I turned to Macros, small editable programs I could upload to Word to help me find my crutch words. There are many great tools out there to help writers accomplish this task.

First and foremost, everyone has these crutch words. I don't care if you're James Patterson. I bet he has a list somewhere of words he always falls back on that he has to strip (or pay someone to strip) from every one of his books. If you don't know yours, a great place to start is with your beta readers or editors. They see your manuscript more clearly, especially just after drafting, and can help you create a word bank of these crutch words to use later. 

Here is a short list of words to get you started:

  • that
  • really
  • definitely
  • certainly
  • obviously
  • seems
  • appears
  • feels
  • felt
  • realize
  • slightly
  • start
  • begins

There is a great (free) online too called WordCounter which also helps you see word frequency used. If you want a basic place to start, go to your search engine and search for things like "crutch words" or "filler words". There are so many lists out there. Please note that words one author has trouble with won't always be the same for everyone.

So let's go over a couple of examples of where you might find the crutch words and how they can make your writing and your voice clearer.

Sarah walked into the donut shop. The scent of sugar sweet glaze hit her first. This is the scent she's been waiting for all morning. Her stomach grumbled loudly, reminding her she was really hungry.

At first glance, nothing looks wrong with this passage, but it's generic thanks to my use of crutch words. It doesn't convey a real sense of my voice and what the reader can expect in Sarah's story.

Sarah walked into the donut shop. The scent of sugar and sweet glaze giving her exactly what she's needed all morning. Her stomach grumbled loudly, reminding her she'd eat a bear right now if it happened to be donut shaped.

It's a short passage, so there were only a couple of crutch words to identify: this and really. Neither of these words convey the true meaning intended when I wrote them. By stripping them out, I'm more able to get the true essence of what I'm intending to convey: Sarah is SUPER hungry and SHE REALLY WANTS A DONUT. Which can be inferred by the original passage but the second gives the character more, allowing the reader to catch the voice of the story.

The Bear Screams Back and You Now Have a Bear Friend

The concepts of self-editing, or crutch words, are nothing new to many seasoned writers. You've likely been doing some form of both of these tasks your entire careers. But you can make it easier on yourself by using today's digital tools to make the hunt go faster, and more smoothly.

Besides the word counter listed above, many of today's editing tools like Grammarly, or Prowriting Aid, have built-in programs to show you the number of times you use words, or certain types of words. It's as easy as uploading your passage and letting it show you all the ways you might make changes. I say this because sometimes you make deliberate word choices and their systems will still highlight those choices as "wrong" even if you know why you chose those words. For example, many programs say "that" is a bad word to use in your manuscript. However, if you're using it in dialog, the program won't know the difference between using it in dialogue and or using it in a descriptive passage.

This is true of words you might not want to use, but the program won't identify as unfavorable. As per the list above, words like: starts to, or begins to, aren't bad words to use, but often if your character starts to do something you don't need to say that...you'd just say: Sarah eats her donut, not, Sarah starts to eat her donut.

You can also use human eyes to find these words. You and your own beta reading teams can hunt these words down and eradicate them. 

Macros, as I mentioned I use, are another digital way that can be so much more personalized to the writer. They allow changes in the system so that as I become a better writer I don't have to find a new system.

In Which You Never Go Hiking Where Bears Live Again

As I said before, many writers know how to find their crutch words. Between your own eyes, and the built-in programs that can help you, why does this article matter? Because there's always a better way, a more efficient way, to get from point A to point B. You might have used honey to get the bear to not eat you. Someone else would use that stick. Another writer might try a handful of tasty grubs. If they all work, then they can all not work just as effectively. Options are important.

As we grow into our voices, into our writing systems, into our words, we need to always be trying to grow, to improve. In doing so, we are always changing. If we are changing, then systems we have in place can change and stop serving us as effectively as they once did. Options are important for making effective choices.

Teacher

Monica Corwin

Monica Corwin is a New York Times and USA Today Bestselling author. She is an outspoken writer attempting to make romance accessible to everyone, no matter their preferences. As a Northern Ohioian, Monica enjoys snow drifts, three seasons of weather, and a dislike of Michigan football. Monica owns more books about King Arthur than should be strictly necessary. Also typewriters...lots and lots of typewriters.

You can find her on Facebook at: http://www.facebook.com/monicacorwin, on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/monica_corwin, on the web at: http://www.monicacorwin.com. Monica Corwin is also on Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/rosetyper9 and Bookbub: https://www.bookbub.com/profile/monica-corwin

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