Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.
08 Crutch Phrases
Crutch phrases are the default phrases we use for descriptions, to move the story along, or to get ourselves back into the work. Because they are our personal defaults, they can appear over and over and over in our work without us consciously realizing that we’re being repetitive. The phrases themselves may not be examples of poor writing, but used in repetition they drag down the writing and clog the narrative.
Crutch phrases are one of the most difficult things to pick out of your own work. A friend or editor might notice your tendency to use the construction “Joe managed to [verb]” or that people are always looking over their shoulders to make observations, but since your crutch phrases are your go-to phrases, they are practically invisible to the author—until they’re pointed out. So how can you identify crutch phrases without getting a secondary reader?
A few of the strategies I use for identifying my own crutch phrases I’ve already addressed in DIY Edit. Anything related to creating distance is sure to help with crutch phrases because those strategies help you come back to the work with fresh eyes. You also might consider reading slowly and using a highlighter to mark the manuscript for phrases you think are familiar. One of the most effective strategies for identifying crutch phrases requires a little technology.
Free apps like Text Analyser and the Phrase Frequency Counter can analyze a story to find repeated phrases. In my personal search I discovered that an app like this was a good starting point. The app would identify that looking over shoulders was an overused gesture in my novel, and then, by searching for “shoulder” throughout the document, I could start finding all the permutations of the phrase, including hes, shes, and specific characters performing the action. It took a little organization, pattern analysis, and then creativity to assess whether or not to leave one of these crutch phrases or revise it, but overall this search helped to elevate my prose and the whole exercise made me more aware of my habits as a writer. Being aware of your crutch phrases is the best way to avoid them, or at least find them in the future.
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