Readers of this blog are probably aware that I’ve written three science-fiction novels, though they haven’t been published yet. I’m still trying to get an agent or editor interested in the first one, as a way of selling the whole trilogy. That has taken time, and I’ve tried my hand at other things, notably short stories. But that extra time while the novels sit in my computer has allowed me to do a substantial amount of revising, editing, cutting, adding, and just plain fiddling around with the manuscripts. One thing I’ve done over the past several months has been to go through each manuscript using the “Find” function of MS Word and look for specific words, especially words that a reader tends to notice for one reason or another, but shouldn’t. Writing, I believe, should be smooth and free of obstructions the reader could stumble over. As I’ve mentioned before in these little essays, I subscribe to the maxim, “Never tell the reader what to think.” This is similar to the older and much more widely known adage, “Show, don’t tell.” So I look for individual words which inject into the readers mind a concept that I want him/her to discern for him/herself. To not be told what it is. These are what could be called “crutch” words, where the writer used them ostensibly to support his writing, but in reality is using them as words to fall back on because he/she couldn’t come up with anything better. They can be very unimaginative.
One of the most common words that falls under this category is “suddenly.” Sure, lots of things in fiction happen suddenly. But that concept, the abrupt change of some facet of the narrative, should be obvious from the context. It doesn’t have to be stated out loud. If the boulder is rolling down the hill about to squish the hero, that’s sudden enough.
Some other words that don’t usually need to be stated directly are “knew,” “felt,” “thought,” and “realized.” These are words that should also be obvious from the context. It usually isn’t necessary to state that the hero “knew” or “thought” or “realized” the boulder was rolling down the hill.
“Very” is a good example of a crutch word, and it’s one of the worst. Not much ever needs to be modified by “very.” It gets overused and it becomes obvious to the reader. The thesaurus has a multitude of substitutes if you need them (for heaven’s sake, try not to use “pretty” as a substitute), or if that’s no good, rewrite part or all of the sentence. Stronger words are a good way to eliminate “very.” Instead of “very angry,” use “enraged,” or “furious,” or “incensed.” You get the idea.
In any event, here’s the list of words I checked for and in most cases either eliminated or replaced: suddenly, because, knew, felt, thought, very, began, realized. That’s the list I have right now. Other words may be added as necessary. Do you have any crutch words that could be added?