Let’s start with crutch phrases. All writers have them. If you’ve revised more than a handful of your own stories, you’ve likely picked up on your own personal crutch phrases or words. They show up often, insinuating themselves into your story, and you might not even notice them since they’re so familiar to you, but readers will. I once edited a book in which the author used the same (clever!) phrase four times in the same book and something that I appreciated the first time I read it definitely lost its luster by the fourth time. Your readers will feel the same. So my first tip is to look for those darlings of yours, those words, phrases, exclamations that you just seem to write again and again. Edit them ruthlessly.
Crutch phrases or words are those that you rely on, a sort of written throat-clearing while you figure out what it is you really want to say. When working on a first draft, it’s totally fine and acceptable to have these sprinkled throughout your book. You’re figuring out where you’re going next, after all. You’re finding your way through your story. A bit of throat-clearing and unsure pausing, maybe even a show of false bravado here and there are all to be expected.
But in editing, our goal is to inspire confidence in your reader. To make them feel sure that this author is capable of leading them all the way from a hero’s day to day life, through an adventure, and to a breathtaking climax. We need to feel secure that the writer won’t let us down. And crutch words and phrases are sometimes habit but more often a sign that the writer is unsure or trying to overcompensate somehow. And the same is true of the following list:
- Adverbs. I’m not going to go all Stephen King on you and tell you to ruthlessly chop (heh) every adverb from your writing. Sometimes, you just need one. But if you find that you’re saying things like “very nice” or “happily smiling” or “tiredly yawning”… yeah. It’s time to look at your adverbs. What overuse of adverbs tells us about an author is that often, they’re unsure they can really get their point across. Hence, phrases like “she smiled happily” or “she cried loudly.” Note that both of those examples are either superfluous or just don’t really tell us anything at all. Tell us instead that her eyes crinkled up at the corners when she smiled, or that she swore her face would crack from smiling so much, or tell us that her cries were ragged and heartbreaking or shrill and helpless. Tell us more than just “loudly” or “happily.” Give us some depth.
- Time phrases. “A moment later,” “after a second or two,” “kissed for a couple minutes.” You get the idea. You can usually completely get rid of these phrases and your writing will be stronger for it. Look at the difference between “A moment later, I took a sip of coffee” and “I took a sip of coffee.” Those three words, “a moment later” don’t tell us anything, really, and keep us from getting to the action, which is all that really matters.
- Finally/suddenly. Just get rid of them. 99% of the time, they add nothing and your writing will be punchier and tighter for it.
- He/she/I turned/saw/looked/regarded. If your character is talking to someone, we generally assume they’re looking at them, and if they aren’t, well, then you’ve got something — there’s some tension there. Tell us about that instead of telling us every time your character looks at someone while talking to them. You’ll be surprised by how many words you can cut from a manuscript just by looking for this one thing!
- Rather/quite/really/sort of/a little/somewhat/very. I see these so often, and they can usually be chopped without a second thought. She was “somewhat annoyed” or he was “a little tired.” BORING. If she’s “somewhat annoyed,” give us some description showing her annoyance. Maybe she taps her fingernails on the tabletop or shifts in her seat or rolls her shoulders. Maybe show that he’s “a little tired” by having him sigh and heave himself up to do more work or drop his head into his hands. You want to further characterization whenever possible, and moments like these are good opportunities to show us your characters’ mannerisms and habits.
Obviously, don’t do a global find and delete for these. Sometimes, you need them to help what you’re saying make sense. But keep these words and phrases in mind when you’re revising. You’ll add immediacy and vibrancy to your writing by eliminating the throat-clearing and replacing blah phrases like “very tired” with actual characterization, and your story will be so much better as a result.