Today we’re tackling crutch words.
A quick and easy editing tip you see all over the internet is to eliminate words like “was”, “had”, and “that” from your writing. These words sneak into your writing and take the place of stronger, more exciting verbs. Basically, they detach the reader from the action of the sentence; eliminating them creates more intimacy and immediacy in your writing.
After I’ve churned out my first draft, I’ll do a Find-and-Replace in my document that bolds each occurrence of whatever crutch word I’m currently battling: usually was, had, that or just. Then I’ll print the document out, take it outside, and attack, tweaking and snipping and scouring each sentence until I’ve rid myself of as many of these pesky pests as possible.
Practical Application: The Elimination of “Was”
In this particular scene I’m showing you today, my mission was to study every instance of “was” in my writing and decide how I could best eliminate it, making my writing clearer and more creative. Setting yourself specific tasks like this can jumpstart creativity during editing sessions: giving yourself a problem to solve, a restriction in which to work in, forces your brain into action. (A great tip for if you’ve been stuck staring at your Word document for hours, idly scrolling, occasionally making vague grunts.)
Okay. This is the beginning of a chapter in the second book of my fantasy WIP. A supernatural disaster hits the town while my characters are sleeping, trapping them in their dreams; in nightmares of their own creation. It’s rough, and silly, and stop looking at me okay?? Anyway. cracks knuckles
Charley was dreaming he was back in the bar, dancing with the girl from that night.
So my MC is having a dream. This sentence is weak, relying on “was” for two of its verbs. Here’s what I replaced it with:
His dreams took Charley back to the Brew House, into the arms of the woman he’d danced with earlier that evening.
Easy enough elimination, serviceable for our purposes!
The Brew House was empty this late at night; all the chairs were upturned and scooted onto the tabletops, the door was locked, the lights turned out—save two or three illuminated over the dance floor, where a faint crackle of music still played.
Three uses of “was” (or variations thereof) within the same sentence makes me nervous. Every time you use “was” instead of a harder-working verb, you’re subtly pushing the reader a couple of inches away from the action.
The Brew House had long since emptied. The chairs had been upturned and scooted onto the tabletops, the door locked, the lights turned off — save two or three hanging low over the dance floor, where the crackle of music played on.
Unfortunately, I traded my “was” for “had” in this revision. You could go a step further, do something like this:
The Brew House had long since emptied, with all the chairs upturned and scooted onto the tabletops, the door locked, the lights turned out, save two or three hanging low over the dance floor, where the crackle of music played on.
But that’s a pretty long sentence and needs to be broken up. (Remember, we’re not going for perfect right now; when you’re ripping out crutch words, you’re expected to wobble.)
Charley was entranced by the whispering music, the familiar dance partner. He was, for that sleepy, heady moment, happy.
And then something changed.
Now, saying “Charley was entranced” is a lazy way of showing the main character’s feelings. It gets the job done, gets the audience where they need to be, but in my rewrite, I decided to go a more scenic route:
The woman’s nose crinkled as she smiled, her face so close Charley could’ve counted her freckles. He shook his head and those freckles faded, and his heart pounded a little harder. They twirled in slow circles around the room, hands wandering, lips touching, their feet never fumbling or squashing any toes.
And then something changed.
The reader is more effectively drawn into a state of relaxation, sharing the main character’s lazy, dreamy sort of happiness, so when the twist comes, it wakes both Charley and the reader up. (Note: The stuff about freckles and feet-smashing is a call-back to something that happens earlier; references to a woman Charley is trying desperately not to think about.)
With a shiver, the walls around Charley were darkened; the exaggerated glisten of the woman’s hair was dulled to something more realistic; and the happy, floating headiness that usually accompanied Charley’s dreams was ripped away, something far more substantive replacing it.
You could delete each bolded word and right away this sentence would be stronger.
Revised (Version 1):
With a shiver, the walls around Charley darkened; the exaggerated glisten of the woman’s hair dulled to something more realistic; and the happy, floating headiness that usually accompanied Charley’s dreams ripped away, something far more substantive replacing it.
See? Already it’s better. Here’s another go, trying something a little more creative:
Revised (Version 2):
With a shiver as if from great cold, the room around Charley underwent a subtle transformation: the furniture came into sharp focus, the lights lost their golden shimmer. The exaggerated glisten of the woman’s hair dulled to something more realistic, and the happy, floating headiness that usually accompanied Charley’s dreams ripped away, replaced by something alarmingly more substantial.
This version adds more concrete details that’ll hopefully help the reader visualize the scene way better.
Charley looked around; he was suddenly quite aware of himself. He was still in the bar, on the dance floor, but the woman had disappeared. The lights were still on, the music was still playing, but outside the window he could see a storm crackling the night sky, and Charley felt so very himself, he had a hard time believing he was still asleep.
Whooooa, a lot of crutch words here, from “was” to all those damn “still”s. Take the basic idea of the moment and tweak it into something more immediate and detailed:
The woman disappeared. No door fluttered from her exit. Charley simply blinked, and hands once grazing hip closed on nothing but air. He turned in a circle, acutely aware of the rise and fall of his own chest. The music still played, but under its holler, Charley heard rumbling outside; pulling back the window curtains, he found the sky had gone black. Rain splattered against the windows, spikes of silver lightning illuminating the rooftops, and Charley felt so very himself, he had a hard time believing he could still be asleep.
Now, this is still a little awkward. I’m not crazy about the “pulling back the curtains, he found the sky had gone black”, as phrases like he found/he felt/he saw/he looked also really pull the reader back from the action. BUT THE POINT IS, it’s better than it was before. (We’re not looking for good here, we’re looking for good enough.)
Seriously, it’s okay if everything isn’t perfect. The point is, by taking out my passive “was” words, I’ve made the scene more intimate and immediate, and the exercise led to some creative new approaches for telling the story. This is an easy, quick way to breathe new life into your writing: just bold your crutch words, examine each one in turn, and figure out a better way of putting that sentence together.
Try it! You might be surprised at the awesome alternatives you come up with.
An earlier version of this post was originally shared on my old blog, Christina Writes.