We all have one—even those of us who don’t write. All of us have a list of words we carry around like talismans. Often, we’re not even aware we’re using them. “Um” is just a pause for thought. “Like” can be substituted for just about anything or just, like, dropped in here and there for emphasis. Or a pause. I use “actually” a lot and it really doesn’t make me sound any smarter. “Basically” is equally annoying, and I’m not as honest as my insistent use of “honestly” might imply. My favourite two words, though, would probably be “really” and “just.” I can be really, really emphatic and often am. I also like to let you know it’s just this or just that. It seems important to me. Likely, it’s not that important to you.
As a writer, I do battle with these words and more every time I get to the editing stage of a manuscript. I self-edit some before submitting a book, looking for words like “look” and “reach.” Cutting filters when I can. But one of my favourite parts of an edit letter, when we’re done with the big picture stuff and we’re down to looking at my prose, is the list of words I tend to use a LOT. The editor I am currently working with also helpfully highlights a lot of my overused words throughout the manuscript and there’s little more shocking (or amusing) than seeing a page with the word “look” highlighted seventeen times.
Hey, look, there are four of them in the previous paragraph.
What I also look forward to are the new additions. There’s always a word I’m not aware of overusing. Sometimes it’s a verbal/mental tick that crops up as I’m writing a particular character and I’m never sure what to do with those. While I like that my characters are their own people, I don’t want them to be too annoying. I do wonder if readers notice the crutches and filters as much as editors and writers do, though. I mean, we all use them. We all think them. They’re part of the evolution of language.
The most obvious reason to comb through a manuscript, deleting and replacing crutch words, is to become a better writer. To learn how to say the same thing in multiple ways—stronger ways. To play with language and make it your pet rather than your master. I know I grow as a writer with every book, in respect to the stories I tell and the way I tell them. So it is somewhat dismaying to find the same words cropping up over and over.
Sometimes I see them as I write and I will consciously rewrite that sentence on the fly. Other times I don’t and I’m not overly worried by this. I firmly believe the best way to finish a book is to just write. To not pay too much attention to the words as they go down. My first goal is always to reach “The End.” I can always pretty it up later, and while I’m editing, red-faced over the number of times I’ve used the word “look,” I’ll stumble across a sentence that’s beautiful just the way it was written, which almost makes it all worthwhile.
I often don’t see crutch words when I self-edit, either. I have to run searches for them. The most humbling activity is to run a search on something completely unrelated to crutch and filter words, only to notice I really like using a word like “took.” Sometimes it’s horrifying to examine the way I write so closely. Makes me want to shut up shop and never attempt this stupidly difficult thing again. Inevitably, though, I’ll go back to the book, dust it off and pick away at it again—because, like crutch words, writing (for writers) is one of those inevitable things.
There are a lot of resources online regarding crutch and filter words, and ways to deal with them. It’s useful to look through the lists and see if you have a problem you weren’t aware of. Best thing, though, is to start a list of your own. Add a word to it every time you notice it crops up more than it should and think about why you use that word. Jot down some alternatives. You probably won’t remember any of this next time you write, but the list will prove invaluable when it comes time to edit. Just remember, with every story you write, the list will grow rather than shrink. But that’s okay! You’re growing too.
* Though it was tempting to highlight ALL of my crutch words, and a number of the filters in this post, I went with my top three to save your eyesight and myself the embarrassment. Now it’s your turn. What are some of your favourite words?