So you can read my books

Wednesday, March 21, 2012




Just about every writer unconsciously leans on a “crutch” word.

Hillary Clinton’s repeated word is “eager” (can you believe it? the committee that wrote Living History should have their typing fingers slapped).

Cosmopolitan magazine editor Kate White uses “quickly” over a dozen times in A Body To Die For.

Jack Kerouac’s crutch word in On the Road is “sad,” sometimes
doubly so – “sad, sad.”

Ann Packer’s in The Dive from Clausen’s Pier
is “weird.”

Crutch words are usually unremarkable. That’s why they slip under
editorial radar – they’re not even worth repeating,

but there you have it, pop, pop, pop, up they come. Readers, however, notice them, get irked by them and are eventually distracted by them,

and put down the book never to pick it back up. Ouch.

“I wanted to know but couldn’t understand what her face had to say, so I waited until Alice was ready to tell me before asking what she meant.”

Something is conveyed in this sentence, but who cares? The writing is so flat, it just dies on the page. You can’t fix it with a few replacement words – you have to give it depth, texture, character.

Flat writing is a sign that you’ve lost interest or are intimidated by your own narrative. It shows that you’re veering toward mediocrity, that your brain is fatigued, that you’ve lost your inspiration. So use it as a lesson. When you see flat writing on the page, it’s time to rethink, refuel and rewrite.


Actually, totally, absolutely, completely, continually, constantly, continuously, literally, really, unfortunately, ironically, incredibly, hopefully, finally – these and others are words that promise emphasis, but too often they do the reverse. They suck the meaning out of every sentence.

I defer to People Magazine for larding its articles with empty adverbs. A recent issue refers to an “incredibly popular, groundbreakingly racy sitcom.” That’s tough to say even when your lips aren’t moving.

In Still Life with Crows, Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child (experts at needless filler to pad a book) describe a mysterious row of corn in the middle of a field:

“It was, in fact, the only row that actually opened onto the creek.” Here are two attempts at emphasis (”in fact,” “actually”), but they just junk up the sentence. Remove them both and the word “only” carries the burden of the sentence with efficiency and precision.

(When in doubt, try this mantra: Precise and spare; precise and spare; precise and spare.)

In dialogue, empty adverbs may sound appropriate, even authentic, but that’s because they’ve crept into American conversation in a trendy way. If you’re not watchful, they’ll make your characters sound wordy, infantile and dated.

Look at this hilarious clunker from The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown:

“Almost inconceivably, the gun into which she was now staring was clutched in the pale hand of an enormous albino.”

Ack, “almost inconceivably” – that’s like being a little bit dead! Hopefully, that “enormous albino” will ironically go back to actually flogging himself while incredibly saying his prayers continually.


Be careful of using dialogue to advance the plot. Readers can tell when characters talk about things they already know, or when the speakers appear to be having a conversation for our benefit. You never want one character to imply or say to the other, “Tell me again, Batman: What are we doing next?”

Avoid words that are fashionable in conversation. Ann Packer’s characters are so trendy the reader recoils. ” ‘What’s up with that?’ I said. ‘Is this a thing [love affair]?’ ” “We both smiled. ” ‘What is it with him?’ I said. ‘I mean, really.’ ” Her book is only a few years old, and already it’s dated.

Dialogue offers glimpses into character the author can’t provide through description. Hidden wit, thoughtful observations, a shy revelation, a charming aside all come out in dialogue, so the characters *show* us what the author can’t *tell* us. But if dialogue helps the author distinguish each character, it also nails the culprit who’s promoting a hidden agenda by speaking out of character.

Setting your own high standards and sticking to them – being proud of *having* them – is the mark of a pro. Be one, write like one, and don’t cheat.


Don’t take a perfectly good word and give it a new backside so it functions as something else. The New York Times does this all the time. Instead of saying, “as a director, she is meticulous,” the reviewer will write, “as a director, she is known for her meticulousness.”

Until she is known for her obtuseness.

The “ness” words cause the eye to stumble, come back, reread: Mindlessness, characterlessness, courageousness, statuesqueness, preciousness – you get the idea. You might as well pour marbles into your readers’ mouths. Not all “ness” words are bad – goodness, no – but they are all suspect.

The “ize” words are no better – finalize, conceptualize, fantasize, categorize. The “ize” hooks itself onto words as a short-cut but stays there like a parasite. Cops now say to each other about witnesses they’ve interrogated, “Did you statementize him?” Some shortcut. Not all “ize” words are bad, either, but they do have the ring of the vulgate to them – “he was brutalized by his father,” “she finalized her report.” Just try to use them rarely.

Use them too often is like jabbing your reader in the eye repeatedly. Guess what that reader does to your book? Ouch.


  1. I know I have several crutch words - 'find next' in Word helps to track those down. And I've almost created new words trying to eliminate 'ly' words.

  2. Alex:
    We are all victims of our fall-back words, aren't we? Mark Twain was infamous for creating "new" words!

  3. I never see crunch words, but my roommate always does. It's a good thing he reads my WIP's

  4. Once my crutch words are extinguished, then perhaps I'll be distinguished.

    Great post full of wonderful tips. Thanks Roland!

  5. A few years ago, an editor pointed out I use "just" a lot. I never realized it until I highlighted it in my stories. Every time I catch myself writing "just" now, I delete it. Wonderful tips!

  6. Thanks for the tips, as a blogger this is helpful in keeping things short and sweet.

    P.S. my Rival review goes live on Monday, I truly enjoyed it :)

  7. For some reason I haven't got interested in Lincoln as a vampire hunter.

    I know I hav many crutch words that I have to edit out. Good thing for crit partners :)


  8. Oh, and congratulations on making quarterfinals in ABNA. Hibbs must be so pleased.


  9. Ack, crutch words are a problem for me! I use "just" and "giggled" far too often!

  10. Hi Roland .. fun read - and boy don't people get hooked up with words .. I'm sure I do - and stop myself at times before I repeat myself.

    One that comes to mind and that I don't use - but I hear all the time especially in interviews is "definitely" .. drives me batty!

    A phrase is .. "the truth is ...", "the fact is ..." etc

    Cheers Hilary

  11. ...common mistakes that are made with routine, often times by those whose work clogs the shelves at B & N. It would be a safe bet reading over all five in most every best seller that's lured me in.

    Those crutch words...feisty varmints if not kept under wraps ;)

    Well played, Roland.


  12. excellent advice!

    and the only time i maximze my words is for funnification =)

  13. Great post. (I just used one of my crutch words.

    -- Mac

  14. Oh, boy,

    Have you said a mouthful with this post. I had to to a MAJOR clean sweep on my first novel for this reason.

    I know I use "really" a lot, but it's mostly in dialogue because I write y/a and teens us this word often.

  15. I really enjoyed this post. So useful. I think I do most of these, especially the adverbs. Argh! Must try harder! Thanks for these reminders. I've given you the Sunshine Award over on my blog :)

  16. I hear that congratulations are in order my friend. That's fantastic news about you making the next cut in the ABNA! I'm so excited and happy for you. I'll be cheering you on!

  17. Good points, Roland, enjoyed your post. I have a few of those words, which seem to appear when I'm writing in fast draft mode. Then(that might be one), when I read out loud to Ideal Reader, I stumble over them.

    Fresh eyes can see those words our familiar eyes skim over.

  18. Sara:
    Thank goodness for those in our lives who care enough to read our work and be honest, right?

    The Desert Rocks:
    Thank you for visiting!! I am still moving and working way too much so my head is spinning.

    Crutch words are insideous litter buggers, aren't they?

    Thank you for enjoying THE RIVAL. I will send you my mini-diescription of what a blood courier does Saturday. Lately, work and moving have jumped me, draining me of much needed time and rest!!!

    I am interested in the movie because I suprisingly enjoyed the book. Crutch words are evil!! :-)

    But isn't it hard to avoid "giggled" especially when it comes to evil girl ghosts? Brrrr.

    Oh, you skewered me with "The truth is"!! I use that in conversation entirely too much! Thanks for dropping in to visit and staying to chat. My life has become a nightmare whirlwind of late, and friends like you visiting and chatting keep me sane!!

    Thank you, Elliot:
    I hope work on your second book is progressing well. I just can't seem to catch a few slack seconds to visit my friends these days!! It is gnawing at me.

    You and Mark Twain do the same thing! Great company you keep in your writing habits

    R. Mac:
    Great is a great crutch word! :-)

    Teens are the royalty of crutch words. They talk so fast that they have to say something even if it is repeatedly!! LOL.

    Thank you so much for your Sunshine Award. If I've given you the sunshine of laughter now and again, the ghost of Mark Twain humbly takes all the credit! :-)

    The odds are stacked against me. Hibbs, the bear with 2 shadows, is not the usual fare for YA fantasy these days. No sparkly vampires, no teen angst, and no good-looking werewolves ... just a Native American/Celtic twist to epic fantasy with undertones of love, loss, magic, and wonder. Thanks for rooting Hibbs on. He's a stubborn Grizzly!!

    You are so right. We grow so tired and used to our prose, we need fresh eyes to spot our blemishes!

  19. Man, you made my neck itch when I read your dialogue bit.

    I do that. I suffer from that affliction. That's me, and I hate me, and I hate me being pointed out to all of yall.

    My characters ask questions, and I wonder why they have to ask!

    So I work to untie that diabolical dialogical knot.

    I wrote a scene today with that sort of dialogue (I think). I always question myself when I see an entire page of dialogue, with little description.

    I know I'm doing it, and I know I may need to fix it, but I also know I may come back on-edit and think, Not so bad!

    It may, in fact, actually be me just expressionizing my geniusness!

    And my biggest crutch words are "just" and "only" and "that." I kill them like cornered rats!

    Stupid crutch words.

    - Eric

  20. It sounds like you're writing at a fever pitch -- that's when dialogue and catch words phantoms ambush you! Thanks for visiting, Eric!

  21. Another helpful post. I know I have several crutch words and have to work on that.
    Good point re. The Da Vinci Code - but look at where it went. What does that tell you?