Crutch Words are words that a particular author uses frequently in their work. Most authors have them. They’re different for everyone. Some people also have crutch phrases and crutch sentence structures.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with using a particular word, phrase, or sentence structure, but if you use any one thing too often, it starts to sound repetitive.
For example, next time you’re in church and someone prays, count the number of times they say the word “just” or “Lord” or “Father” and so on. You’ll start to see how people rely on standard words and phrases to fill gaps and propel their words along, without really saying anything. The same is true in writing. Almost all of us have something we overuse, and almost none of us know what that is until we start looking for it, or, better yet, have someone point it out to us. Once we see it, we can’t unsee it, and we become much more aware of when we’re using those things.
For example, one piece of writing advice is to use strong words instead of adjectives or adverbs. So, instead of saying “beautiful,” you might say “stunning.” This is good advice—unless you only ever say “stunning” throughout your manuscript. If you have a stunning woman wearing a stunning dress looking out over a stunning vista at a stunning sunset, very soon the word “stunning” will lose its impact.
This applies across every aspect of writing, including actions, descriptions, conversations, and so on. If you have a character who rubs his nose when he’s nervous, and you use rubbing his nose as an action tag more than a few times, it gets boring and repetitive. If you use the word “small” to describe a dog and then again to describe a car a few lines later, and then again to describe the way the character says something, as in “a small voice,” the reader will catch that repetition and it will draw them out of the story. If you have a character who likes to tell people his opinion, and then follows it up with, “Just saying,” you can convey that he’s a little bit of a know-it-all by throwing that line in sporadically. Putting it in every time he has a line will overuse it and annoy your reader.
For me, I had a crutch sentence structure. Beginning with an action, I launch into another action or explanation of the action.
“Running from the shadow, she turned and glanced over her shoulder.”
“Taking the stairs two at a time, she raced to the third floor.”
Now, there is nothing wrong with this sentence structure, and when used sparingly can add variety to bland writing. When I had every other paragraph (or more!) starting this way, however, it gave my prose a formulaic feel.
Some people use short sentences. Choppy sentences. They’re quick. Snappy. Direct. This can be very effective when you have a fast-paced action scene and you want to convey a sense of urgency. However, if your entire novel is written this way, it will feel incomplete.
Other people tend toward long, flowery sentences, which go into great detail to describe the setting and the character and the action, and which give a lot of information, but which, though grammatically correct, tend to go on too long, which can confuse readers and typically is very boring to read. Long, descriptive sentences here and there can help with pacing and giving necessary information, but when every sentence has three or four points, it’s easy to get lost.
In short, mix it up. Ask someone to read your work and highlight any time you use a particular word (or phrase or structure) more than three or four times in a chapter. Experiment with other ways to phrase things. Use a thesaurus to find synonyms that you can use instead. Switch between long sentences and short ones, between dialogue tags and action tags, between plain, straightforward sentences and eloquent, poetic phrases.
Figure out which words, phrases, and sentence structures are your crutches, and come up with new ways to convey the same information so your work doesn’t sound repetitive and therefore boring. Mixing it up will help to engage your reader and keep them turning pages.