Wednesday, July 31, 2013

How to Create a Manuscript that is So Clean, Editors Have Nothing to Edit!

Over the past few weeks, I've been paying a lot of attention to crutch words. They first came to my attention based on something another writer in my critique group said (See full post here.). 

I got a second look at them when a second wave of edits showed up in my inbox a few days ago. These were edits for Citadels of Fire, my historical fiction novel set in Russia in the middle ages, which will be out in October. These edits didn't say anything specifically about crutch words, but as I went through the manuscript, I saw the same words edited out over and over again, and recognized that they were words I not only over-used, but that were weakening my writing. (In other words, crutch words.)

I don't think any writer can completely get away from crutch words; not in the first writing, anyway. It's a natural part of writing, and something that can only really be addressed in the editing phase. Show don't tell may be the most hated editing advice routinely heard by writers, but if you stay away from crutch words, you'll be more than halfway there. 

Based partially on the edits of my own work and partially on what I've found in the work of others, here is a list of words and phrases often used as crutches. No matter how good it sounds when you first write it, I guarantee your writing will be stronger and cleaner if you get rid of these:

1. Then -- As in, then x happened. This is a play-by-play tell of events. (I use this one all the time!) Generally you can just take out the word at the beginning of the clause and not change anything else. Voila! Stronger writing!

2. But -- This one's tricky. Some cases are totally acceptable and some are crutches. Just check your manuscript to make sure you aren't overusing it. At the beginning of sentences, it's often an extra word. As part of filler clauses, generally the whole clause can be deleted. Just ask yourself if each 'but' is absolutely necessary. If yes, then keep it. If not...

3. Especially -- Another of my personal faves, this word is generally unnecessary. It calls attention to a comparison, which may pull your reader out of the story.

4. Finally -- Only use this sparingly. It suggests that a great amount of time has passed. Generally, you can just leave it out.

5. Suddenly -- WAY overused! Just remove the word and you will usually find that the sentence still makes sense and is stronger without it.

6.Other filler clauses (i.e. in fact, all at once, on the contrary, furthermore, etc.) -- These don't add anything to your prose. They clutter up the narrative and call attention to themselves. If you have any words before a comma that have nothing to do with the actual subject/predicate sentence, delete them!

7. Realized/Knew -- Don't tell your audience that your character knew or realized something. show it. This is one I have a real problem with. Don't say Guy A knew Guy B was sad. Instead say, Guy B hung his head. A tear leaked down his cheek. Guy A's chest hurt for his best friend. It gives your reader a much more emotional and sensory experience. 

8. Tried -- Don't have your characters try to do something. Just have them do it and show them either succeeding or failing. 

9. Reflexives (i.e. his own, himself, herself, itself. So, "he himself came.") Take out the reflexive. It's simply unnecessary.

10. Sensory words (saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt, or variations) -- Anytime you use these words, She smelled the stew, you are telling rather than showing. Instead, The smell of roasted vegetables and tender meat wafted into her nose, making her stomach rumble. See the diff?

11. Was/were -- The weakest verbs in the English language. Find each of these in your manuscript and change them to stronger verbs. Instead of He was sitting in the chair, try He sat in the chair... etc.

12. Had -- Not quite as bad as was, but still pretty weak. (This only applies when had shows possession: He had the reigns.; not when establishing past tense: She had done her chores earlier in the day.) Like was, had needs to be changed to a stronger verb. Not He had the reigns but He gripped the reigns in his left hand while...

13. Don't tell what didn't happen, only what DID. He didn't believe what she said, but rather... Just say what he DID believe. The rest is inferred and doesn't need to be stated.

14. Literally -- Unless you're dealing with stream of conscience or something equally metaphysical, the idea of something literally happening is implied. If you say your character literally walked home from school, you're just going to confuse them. Ironic? Yes. But also true.

15. Really -- Another one that can just be left out. He really didn't think it was a good idea, or just, He didn't think it was a good idea. Both make sense, but the second is cleaner, more precise. Just drop the really

So these are just the major ones. There are probably dozens more and each writer is different. If you steer clear of these in your writing, it will be exponentially stronger! 

After finishing your first draft, and maybe even your second and third, use the FIND tool in your word processor and fix all the little crutch words and phrases that leaked through. If you do, editors will be wowed at your skills to edit your own writing. You'll start to get compliments about how error-free your writing is, and everyone likes to hear that, right?

So, what are your crutch words of choice?


  1. I use so many of these words! It seems to be an automatic thing, and I'm trying to school myself in expressing the same thoughts without repeatedly using the same words (telling instead of showing is a big problem for me!). I tend to over-use 'realised', 'knew', 'had' and 'then'. A good way to weed them out is to use the search option on Word. Great post! :)

  2. Great list of words. I don't think you can completely avoid them, but I agree that we need to watch for them. They can really add to your word count.

  3. Felt was a word I used too much in my second manuscript, but proud to say I'd narrowed it down to lest than ten in the third one.

  4. This is a great post! Another crutch word to avoid is "very". I got this advice from a quote “So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose. Language was invented for one reason, boys – to woo women – and, in that endeavor, laziness will not do”. – Dead Poet’s Society, N.H Kleinbaum

  5. This is a great list. I'm going to watch for these in my next post.

  6. Also, I went searching to see if anyone had create a feature that could count occurences of a specific word and I found this neat article. There are actually a few if you search on google but I settled for the one below.

    In that article the writer had 4 options, 2 being macros.

    There are simpler options but I used the second macro. In Microsoft Word the macro when run will count all the words in your document and when you run it you can choose list by the word or the frequency. I chose Frequency so it showed me which word I used the most at the top. The script also has a section that allows you to put in exceptions so if you want to include words like "the", "a" or perhaps a character's name you could do that too.

  7. I believe I put 'that' in a lot of places I shouldn't. I have to do a search after I finish every manuscript for the word to see how many I can delete. It is a surprising amount. :) Great post!