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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2009-03-23 02:47
Subject: [process] The antimagic of crutch words
Security: Public
Tags:language, process, writing
Since I mentioned "crutch words" while talking about Pinion [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ], both rsdevin and sheelangig have asked me about them, and about mine in particular.

A "crutch word" is a word, or phrase, which is used so often that it becomes intrusive in the text.

Some words are by definition pretty much invisible unless grossly overused. "The", "and", "said", "was", "her" and so on. These are the connective tissue of any narrative, simply because they're required for the whole monster to lurch into motion in the first place.

Some words are intrusive but necessary — character and place names, for example. They stand out, but they have to be there.

Some words are intrusive by their nature, but this is on something of a sliding scale. For example, if a writer uses the word "eleemosynary" even once, the reader will notice it. Use it more than once in a novel and the reader will probably object. On the other hand, "house" is pretty inoffensive, but it's not invisible. If it occurs three times in the same paragraph, "house" will become intrusive.

There are a couple of different artefacts in my writing which I collectively refer to as "crutch words", though properly I should use a larger critical term.

A true crutch word can fall anywhere on this scale, but specifically refers a word which the writer keeps re-using, probably because it's stuck in their head, or it feels familiar. I will often find this in stories and novels (or sections of novels) where a certain turn of phrase or slightly unusual adjective recurs often enough to become intrusive. It's the equivalent of having conversational phrases, things most of us do, to provide stock verbiage in certain situations. "Oh, I'll bet," as a generic reply is an example.

My actual crutch words vary from project to project, and depend a lot on the project content, the state of affairs in my head when I was writing the piece, and so forth.

I also tend to perseverate on words such as "some" and "something", as well as phrases such as "some kind of", "at all", "in truth." Also certain constructions such as "was [verb]ing" instead of "[verb]ed", or "made their way toward" instead of "went to". Beginning sentences with "And" and "So" is another of these tics. Notice these are mostly passive words and constructions, that temporize the action or description, soften it to a generic impact, and stall for time. Pretty much the written equivalent of "um, um."

Sometimes these words and constructions are important, depending on the tone and emphasis of the passage. For me, though, 80% or more of them are just textual static, fillers as I typed while my writing brain lagged slightly behind my working fingers. Likewise the crutch words — same phenomenon at a slightly higher level of function, a sort of stuttering at the paragraph or scene level, or within the plot process itself.

I'm more than a little obsessed with clean style. I comb through my work at a level of detail that probably is irrelevant to many readers. One of the reasons for a longer revision cycle, both in terms of time-in-the-drawer and time-at-keyboard, is that these bits and pieces tend to be invisible to me as I'm reviewing my own work. I need both distance from the drafting process and tight focus on the text to find them.

This textual static is a style-killer to both my writing eye and my reading eye. But it's important to me, and I think it makes for stronger, more direct story telling.

Originally published at jlake.com.

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lauriemann
User: lauriemann
Date: 2009-03-23 12:08 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have to search for "ould" because I tend to use "should" "would" and "could" too often when I write fiction.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-03-24 00:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
That's an excellent tip.
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User: beth_bernobich
Date: 2009-03-23 13:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I seem to have two sets of crutch words/phrases. There're the ones that show up in every project. Those are pretty easy to catch, because I know to look for them. Then I get ones that show up just in that particular project. Those are obvious once I do a complete read-through. (Usually. Not always. Blessing on my beta readers for catching more of them.)
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brni
User: brni
Date: 2009-03-23 14:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)

Funny you should post about this. Just yesterday I spent an hour stripping crutch words out of a story. I just didn't know that was what they were called. Thanks.

Re: "some kind of" et. al. - I suspect that's a tic a lot of people have. The first story I had published, I sent to a friend for comments before I submitted. He called me on the phone about ten minutes later.

"First, cut out the first three paragraphs."

"Second, everywhere where you say 'sort of' or 'kind of' or anything like that - get rid of it. Either X is Y or it isn't. All you're doing is telling the reader is that you don't trust what you're writing, and that they shouldn't either."

When I reread, I realized that I'd kind of been doing this throughout most of the story, but in a way, it was sort of like it was invisible to me before.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-03-24 00:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are most welcome, sir.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-03-24 00:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you.
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User: mishaslair
Date: 2009-03-23 16:26 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you for this post. It's a good reminder to eliminate anything that weighs down writing.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-03-24 00:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You are most welcome.
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suelder
User: suelder
Date: 2009-03-23 16:43 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This weekend, I discovered that I had 118 instances of "just" in my ms. That is *just* too many. I winnowed it down to 23.

It's the writing equivalent of "um" for me.
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User: swan_tower
Date: 2009-03-23 17:45 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:*writing
I'm worse with phrases than specific words. I've gotten infinitely better at "was [verb]ing" and "kind of/sort of/rather/a bit/a little" and all their cousin weasel words, but I'm still prone to finding some particular construction for describing something and then overusing it, like a kid who's just learned a new word.

Interestingly, the single thing that taught me the most about tightening my prose was learning to write flash. After I'd done a bunch of those, I went back to the last novel I'd written and reduced the thing by over three thousand words, simply by cutting weasels and putting my sentences into tighter configurations. Ever since then, I've been trying harder to get it right on the first draft.
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User: mrtact
Date: 2009-03-23 17:58 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
For me, it's starting dialog with "So" or "And," which I do like to use occasionally as stylistic affectation, but I often go a little nuts. It also makes my characters sound too similar. And retarded.

Likewise, inserting verbal tics like "uh." That's a seasoning best used sparingly.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-03-24 00:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yw!
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e_bourne
User: e_bourne
Date: 2009-03-23 18:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You hit the most common biggies. I have a personal preference to have my characters "begin" doing something. I don't know why they can't just do a thing. Why must they always begin it first. Annoying of them.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-03-24 00:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Stoopid characters, never doing what you really want them to.
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eddvick
User: eddvick
Date: 2009-03-23 19:22 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm reading Alan Brennert's Moloka'i, and his frequent lack of conjunctions is bothering me. (approximately) "We're going to the store, the beach, the dry cleaners." It became noticeable after several usages in the narration, but became toxic when more than one character used it in dialogue.
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S Lynn
User: robling_t
Date: 2009-03-23 20:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have a weird tic where I'll use a word, and then the next time I go back to work on that bit more I'll unconsciously re-use that word somewhere very close to the original instance, as in "...oh, wait" close, and have to rethink one or the other usage to avoid clunkiness once I pick up on it.
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Grant Kruger
User: thirdworld
Date: 2009-03-23 21:07 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I have too many of these myself, and my blog entries fail some of this regularly, since I favor a more conversational approach.
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K. Feete
User: katfeete
Date: 2009-03-23 22:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yeah, at one point I had a list of words that I'd do a word search on and eliminate before I'd declare a novel final draft. All the weasel words, plus some personal ticks. I'm very bad about numbering things: it's always "a couple of minutes" or "a few people" or "some desks". Specific numbers, or nothing at all, dammit. I also had a nasty habit of pasting over bad subject changes with "anyway" or "at any rate". Then there's all the "time" words. Mostly, mainly, usually, frequently, suddenly, often... argh! They exist just to tempt me into sloppy verbage.

It's one theory, anyhow.
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