Writing is hard.
Writing smooth, flowing prose that uses exactly the right word at exactly the right moment, with no filler or fluff?
That’s dang near impossible.
Which is why we writers exist—most folks write well enough to make it through their daily emails and memos, understanding instinctively that writing well is a difficult skill to master and more than happy to leave the craft up to those of us crazy enough to love it.
Yet even professional writers have some trouble when it comes to that “no filler or fluff” part of the program.
Humans, you see, are inherently lazy. No matter how hard you work at your craft and how much time you spend with writing coaches, writers’ groups, and daily page practice, there’s always a few bad habits that sneak in simply because we’re wired to take the easy way out.
Most often, we see this in the form of crutch words.
What Are Crutch Words?
Filler, fluff, weasel words, crutch words—all refer to the same bad habits that result in us cluttering up our message with stuff that doesn’t matter.
Note that the term “crutch words” isn’t meant to be ableist—it’s not a dig, just a description of how we use the terms to help hold ourselves up when we might struggle a bit to do so alone.
Crutch words, simply put, are the words and phrases we use to prop ourselves up when we don’t quite know what to say.
They appear frequently in everyday conversation, and that makes it easier for them to creep into our professional writing—whether that’s a presentation or speech, a business email or memo, or even our next book.
By definition, a crutch word doesn’t add anything to your statement. It gives you a moment to breathe and think about what you truly want to say, inserting a forced pause.
Now, that’s helpful when you’re in conversation with someone, but it can also backfire. When you develop the habit of using crutch words in everyday life, they start slipping under your radar and emerging where they’re not welcome.
When you’re doing public speaking or when you’re writing, crutch words clutter up your message. They make you seem unsure of your topic and allow your audience to tune you out.
Worse, in writing, crutch words are easy to spot because our minds are tuned to look for patterns. If you overuse a particular word or phrase, your reader will notice it and will start to get annoyed by the frequent repetition.
Common Crutch Words
Almost anything can be a crutch word, but there are certain words that are abused more than others.
The most common crutch words aren’t really words at all—they’re filler mumbles like “um,” and “ah.” Most of us have been told that we need to get rid of these in our speech, but they still sneak in.
When we’re trying to drive home a point, it’s easy to fall back onto crutch words like actually, really, and literally.
These words certainly have their places, but they’re often just filler. I mean, do you actually need to really state that something literally happened?
Probably not. You can just state that the thing happened. Done.
Other emphasis terms that often creep in as crutches include fabulous, awesome, great, super, and excellent.
One that fiction writers use way too often is suddenly. Suddenly, a figure jumped out. Suddenly, he made his move. Suddenly, the car turned.
Used alone, it’s useful; used over and over, it’s annoying. Try rephrasing for variety:
- A figure appeared out of nowhere, startling her.
- He darted forward, making his move.
- The car careened around the corner.
Adverbs are awesome. They let us modify what we’re saying and make it more nuanced and specific. But that can also go too far.
Basically, definitely, very, truly, honestly, absolutely, totally, seriously, and obviously are some of the biggest offenders here. They all have a place in our writing, but they’re all frequently overused.
Crutch “words” can be phrases, too—little blips in our language that we think are adding style or substance, but are, in fact, detracting from it.
That’s because these phrases are typically qualifiers—they’re modifying the statement but not adding to it. They “hedge” what you’re saying by taking it from being a confident statement to a “well, maybe…I guess” moment.
Hedging terms include:
- I guess…
- In a weird way…
- I suppose…
- For what it’s worth…
Good Words Gone Bad
Some of the hardest crutch words to get rid of are the good words gone bad.
All crutch words have a use, but the ones that are critical to certain phrases yet unwelcome in others are tough to spot and eliminate.
After all, if you’re making a comparison or asserting a preference, you may need to use the word “like” in your sentence. But it can also sneak in as a crutch.
For instance, I’d like to talk about how similes are like metaphors because I like figurative writing techniques.
But one of these “likes” is not like the other one! That first one can go—the statement would be stronger if I’d simply said “Similes are like metaphors; I like to discuss these figurative writing techniques.” Heck, even that second one can get deleted because it doesn’t add much of importance to the statement relating similes and metaphors.
But not all crutch words or phrases are common. We all have pet phrases that sneak into our writing, especially in certain genres.
For instance, I once worked with a science fiction writer who was incredibly fond of the action tag “she spun.” It got very repetitive, very quickly, and needed to go.
Another writer, a business expert, loved “each and every” a little too much. That was his personal crutch phrase.
Seemingly innocuous terms can veer into “crutch” territory if we use them too much instead of simply saying what we mean. It takes a keen eye and a lot of dedication to root out our personal pet phrases.
This can be one area where a professional editor is a lot of help—we’re often too close to our own writing to see when we’re overusing terms or phrases, whereas a pro isn’t that attached and can easily start to recognize patterns.
How to Avoid Crutch Words
So crutch words are bad, but they’re also sneaky. How do we break free of our reliance on them?
1. Know Your Enemy
The first step in avoiding crutch words is to figure out what your unique crutch words are.
There’s a few ways to go about this. Since our crutch words appear in both speech and writing, it’s best to look for them in both places.
Grab your phone and find its built-in recorder function; if your phone doesn’t have one, you can download a free recording app like Parrot or use a separate digital recorder. Record your next few conversations or meetings.
Later, go over the recordings and start tallying up words that appear regularly. You’ll end up with a list of crutch words to watch out for.
For your writing, plug a few pieces you’ve written, like short stories or blog posts, into an online word frequency counter. This tool will let you know how often you use certain words or even phrases in your writing.
2. Seek and Destroy
The second step in eliminating crutch words is easier in writing than in speech. That’s to seek out and destroy all your bad habits!
Pick a relatively straightforward place to start, like with a blog post. By starting with a shorter piece, it’s easier to see progress and to start building good habits.
Use the Find tool in Word or your favorite word processor to highlight all the instances of each crutch word on your list. Go through these carefully to see if you really, truly need to include that word in that place.
If it’s not desperately critical to your message, delete it.
Don’t look back. Don’t pass “Go.” Just delete it.
It’s okay, really! Remember, by definition, crutch words don’t add anything to your message, you can just skip them and move on.
At first, it’ll feel uncomfortable to be chopping words out of your manuscript—don’t we all track our word counts obsessively?—but as you start to tighten up your writing, you’ll see the difference that ditching crutch words makes and start doing it more and more automatically.
3. Figure Out the Why
Once you’ve started eliminating crutch words from your vocabulary, you still need to make sure you’re getting your point across.
This is particularly important in speech—because writing is composed, it’s easier to take your time and gather your thoughts, using the right words in the right places.
When we’re speaking, whether in conversation or in front of a group, we tend to stumble, flinch, or need to regroup—all places where those pesky crutch words can pop up again.
To build better habits, practice speaking and writing without using any of your crutches. Wander around the house practicing your elevator pitch or giving the gist of that presentation to your boss next week. Listen carefully—record yourself if you need to—and stop every time you use a crutch word.
Figure out why you used it there. Are you feeling unsure of your point? Worried that someone’s going to ask a question you don’t know the answer to? Maybe you’re too excited about what you’re saying and your enthusiasm is letting the “reallys” and “actuallys” loose.
When you understand why you’re using the words you are, where you are, you can then start practicing to overcome them. Spend more time working on that area of your message, or practice speaking in front of other people until you can give your elevator pitch half-asleep in the middle of a typhoon without missing a beat.
The crutch words will start disappearing as you start gaining confidence.
4. Get Comfortable with Minimalism
Crutch words are often an indication of hesitation, discomfort, or thinking so far ahead we forget where we are in the moment.
Being present and mindful helps us to pay more attention to what we’re speaking and writing right now, rather than focusing on a question someone might ask or the next thing we’re going to say.
This is the least comfortable part of ditching crutch words: learning to embrace minimalism.
In writing, that means striving to get your message across in a clear, straightforward manner, rather than reaching for a word count goal.
When you’ve decided that this chapter has to be 6,700 words, you’re more likely to use crutch words to get you to that goal. But maybe you only need 3,400 words to get your point across. Embrace the message, rather than an arbitrary word count, and your writing will start to become more polished and less cluttered.
But you’re speaking, not writing, you say? You can’t just stop entirely to gather your thoughts?
Oh, but you can!
Embrace minimalism here, too. You don’t always need to be talking. You can allow silence into your conversation—or even your speech or presentation. It’s okay to take a beat or two to take a breath and regroup.
Someone asked you a question that you’re not quite sure how to answer? Take a moment to think. If you need more than a second or two, just say “Let me think about that for a moment” or repeat the question in your own words. You’ll look thoughtful and composed, rather than seeming unsure of yourself as you sputter out a stream of crutch words to buy time.
Pauses are not the enemy. Learn to get comfortable with silence and you’ll be well on your way to defeating crutch words in both your writing and your speech.
Where Crutch Words Belong
Believe it or not, crutch words do have a place!
Many are perfectly lovely words that can add to your writing and speech when used correctly; they’re just often overused and become meaningless fluff in the process.
But our tendency to use crutch words left and right is exactly what makes them useful in certain contexts!
If you’re a fiction writer, you can improve your dialogue by slipping in some crutch words here and there. By mimicking the way people speak a little more closely, you add realism and help make your characters sound like real people, not like they’re reciting lines.
So the next time you write dialogue, go ahead! Slip in a “literally” or an “actually” here and there. Just be careful not to do it too much, or you’ll have developed a crutch for your crutch!
Eliminating crutch words makes your writing and speaking more confident, clearer, and more engaging.
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For more on effective communication, read on:
- 7 Things Authors Should Never Say When Pitching a Book
- 11 Writing Tips for Improving Readability and Communicating Better
- Create a More Effective Cover Letter with Fiction Writing Techniques