blog, writing process

Remove crutch words to make your prose stronger

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When editing your work you’ll find words that crop up over and over, but add no value to the prose. These are crutch words and removing them will strengthen your prose.

When speaking, crutch words give us time to think. They’re used as filler or emphasis.

Filler words in speech

• Well
• So
• Actually
• Honestly
• Really
• Definitely
• Anyway

In writing we tend to use the same words and phrases repeatedly. They slow down or dilute what we’re trying to say. When writing dialogue, a few of these words give a natural feel. They should still be used sparingly, because written dialogue is natural speech, but polished.

A word frequency counter like this one  identifies which words appear most often in your writing. Try it with a piece of your writing from one or two years ago.

You can use the ‘find’ function in a word processor, or use a printout and red pen, editor-style. Sometimes the word can be removed. Other times the sentence will need re-writing.

Like all editing rules, this is a guideline. You don’t need to remove every one of the words on the list. You’re looking at each instance critically and making a conscious decision to keep, change or cut. Some are adverbs, which as we know must be used with care.

Overused words

• Certainly
• Probably
• Basically
• Virtually
• Slightly
• Rather
• Quite
• Very
• A bit
• Almost
• Just
• As though
• Somehow
• Seems/seemed
• Shrugged
• Smiled
• Laughed
• Looked
• Started to
• Began to

Don’t forget two little words that can often be cut without losing the meaning of the sentence.

  • But
  • And

You will find that taking out a proportion of the crutch words/phrases allows your writing to speak more directly. And that is the aim of every writer.

On being asked how he created his magnificent sculpture of David, Michelangelo is reputed to have said, “Simple. I cut away everything that wasn’t David.”

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How to edit your writing, part 4

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And on with part 4 of editing your writing.

part 3 here
part 2 here 
part 1 here

All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.

This time, a few thoughts on beginnings, middles, and ends.

Where do I begin?

Screenwriters are told to get in as late as possible. This means starting close to the action, but not without some context. Sure, we want to see some of the protagonist’s ordinary life. We don’t want a blow by blow account of how she gets up, showers, has breakfast, and goes to work. Writers are also advised to begin ‘in media res’ or in the middle of things. Action is a great opener, but being dropped in the middle of a battle when we don’t know who is fighting or why, is a mistake. We don’t care about the characters yet.

Prologues are sometimes used as a way to get round this problem of where to start. A little explanation, and then we can drop into the fight in chapter one. While prologues can be done well, the usual advice is to avoid them. Try writing the prologue, then seeing if you can cut it later, sprinkling the information through the story.

The first chapter is your chance to sell the reader on investing their time in your story. Literary agents have a number of pet peeves. Some are listed here on Writer Unboxed, which is useful reading. But think of yourself as a reader. Don’t you feel cheated by any of the following?

  • ‘it was all a dream’ then the character wakes up
  • nothing is really happening, plot is stalling
  • description and exposition rather than action
  • lots of characters introduced, with no context
  • character and place names that are (a) too similar or (b) unpronounceable

Make the first chapter count. Show the reader enough to make them curious, to wonder what happened next. That’s the goal of storytelling. Hook the reader with a flavour of your story, your Big Idea, and get them to turn the page.

Successful novelists may not follow these rules, but remember this. Every trad published author wrote a first novel, that had to interest an agent enough to read on. Every self published author has to get the public to read on. When you’re mega-successful, then you can relax. Until then, polish your opening, get feedback, and make it shine.

The soggy middle

Many writers talk about hitting a wall, five chapters in, 30,000 words in, wherever. The initial shine has worn off and the story is far from its end. Some jump ship at this point and chase the next shiny idea. I wrote about why it is vital to keep going and finish your stuff. Having a strong outline certainly helps, but plotters are not immune from an attack of the blahs.

I don’t like the term writer’s block. I think there are times when writing is easier, and times when we experience resistance. When we hit resistance, it’s time to use some different techniques. They might also help with NaNoWriMo, which is currently ongoing. (I’m not participating this year, but that is for a different post.)

Remember that it’s not necessary to write chronologically. For some writers, writing as a jigsaw puzzle works better, but in that case a clear idea of the story structure is needed – just like the picture on the puzzle box.

What to do when the story comes to a grinding halt? Some things that have worked for me, and some I haven’t tried yet, are listed below. I didn’t invent these.

  • Start writing that scene you’re avoiding. Promise yourself a little treat at 500 words.
  • Write all the backstory you have on your characters, starting with the protagonist.
  • Interview a secondary character about the protagonist.
  • Interview the antagonist. What do they think of the protagonist?
  • Write the end and work your way back.
  • Write a scene you are looking forward to, then write towards it.
  • Pantsers – try outlining, no matter how sparse. Think about the bones of the story.
  • Plotters – try asking the characters where to go next. Let go a little.
  • Write something else – an opinion piece, a poem. Bonus points if it is about a character.
  • Different creation- bake a cake, paint, draw, photograph something.
  • Get moving. Walk, run, garden, clean.
  • Try free-writing, like the morning pages from The Artist’s Way.
  • Use the ‘why?’ technique. Ask yourself why you have got stuck, write down the answer. Then ask ‘why?’ with that answer. Keep asking why, until you reach the heart of the matter. This works for life stuff too. About four or five cycles will usually be enough.
    • Why am I stuck? because I don’t know how to put Mary in the forest
    • why does she need to be there? because she needs to meet a witch
    • why does she need to meet the witch? because she needs a spell of invisibility
    • why does she need the spell? it will allow her to free her sister (the main story thread)
    • why can’t she get the spell from someone else? hmmm… hadn’t thought of that. How about, she has to sell the jewellery her mother left her, and buy the spell from the scary warlock in her village (who I can write as another interesting character). But while sneaking through the forest she is confronted by the witch, who can see her because she taught the original spell to the warlock, so they could meet in secret when they were lovers?? Now, there’s a bigger story to be told.

That’s one way past the resistance, opening up more possibilities by creating your way through.

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And that’s a wrap

Endings can be simple, or tricky. You want to leave the reader with a good feeling. You want the reader to miss the characters when they turn the last page, and tell others about the story.

Plot twist is one of the most difficult, but memorable endings if you can pull it off. Misdirection is the key, making the wrong answer plausible, and the correct answer understandable. This can be satisfying and prompt re-readings to spot the clues. You will need to examine your story carefully, to make sure that the clues and red herrings are in order. It’s easy to lose track through re-writing.

Avoid deus ex machina endings. Literally meaning ‘god from a machine’, it dates from the days of Greek tragedy. When there were too many problems to untangle at the end of a play, a god would descend from the sky and solve everything with a flick of his hand. The sudden discovery of a weapon, weakness, or other artefact that magically solves things breaks the contract with the reader, which is that you will repay their time with a properly satisfying story.

Circular endings can work, with the story retracing some element that was introduced at the start. It could be the same environment, the hero arrives back home but changed. For example, Frodo returns to the Shire. In The girl with all the gifts, the story opens and closes with Melanie, a classroom and Miss Justineau. The environment and characters, and their relationship, has changed.

Be sure that your ending follows genre conventions. A romance must end with happy ever after, even if it is qualified. Your story question must be answered. It’s best to tie up plot threads, though you might want to leave one open for the next book. Too many hanging questions breaks your reader contract, again. But it’s reasonable to leave some spaces for the reader to fill in, as long as they are not gaping plot holes.

Have someone else read the story. Ask where they got bored, or excited, or puzzled. It can tell you a lot about what is needed to improve the story.

Enjoyable stories leave you with the sense that characters have moved on and changed, even if they are going on to new adventures. And if you’ve done your job well, the reader is invested enough to follow your characters, and your writing, on into the future. That’s what we all want, isn’t it?

Writers want to tell you a story. And then, we hope we’ve earned the chance to tell you another.

blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How to edit your writing, part 3

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And on with part 3 of thoughts and tips on self-editing.

All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.

Filter words

These words stand between the author and the reader, creating distance. If we want to deepen point-of-view, immersing the reader in the character’s mind and thoughts, these words should be cut away. Consider the following.

She started to run away from the man, and saw an alleyway coming up ahead. She ran into the alley, feeling her heart racing in her chest. She heard his footsteps behind her. She felt as if she could not escape, and deciding to stand her ground this time, she turned to face her attacker.

She ran from her attacker and ducked into an alley. Her heartbeat kept pace with the footsteps racing ever closer. He would find her, it was a dead end, no escape. She took a breath, and turned to face him. This time, she would stand her ground.

The words in italics describe the woman’s sensations and thoughts. The second example is not perfect, but we are much closer to the character and her reactions. It feels more immediate. Emma Darwin describes filtering very clearly in this post on her blog This itch of writing. Well worth a read.

Passive vs active voice

The boy was hit by the ball. (passive)
The ball hit the boy. (active)

Passive voice is disliked by modern writers. (passive)
Modern writers dislike passive voice. (active)

Passive voice uses the construction object-verb-subject. Sometimes it is the right choice, but usually starting with the subject, or active principle, sounds and reads better. As the examples show, active voice also gives a shorter, punchier sentence. Once again, the Hemingway app is your friend. You don’t have to accept all its suggestions, but they are often correct.

Reading aloud is the second way to find what works. Remember, the reader is essentially reading silently in their head. Anything that causes them to stumble, risks pulling them out of the story.


If you have read craft books, or advice blogs, or lists of what not to do in stories, flashbacks are always mentioned. The truth is, writing rules are guidelines. You can do almost anything, as long as you do it well. That means you must know the rules, before you break them. A character muses, or remembers events from the past that have a direct bearing on the present. This is backstory, and it needs careful handling.The main thing is to take the reader with you. They must be certain of where and when the events took place. You can start with past perfect tense.

“She had not thought about that day in years.”

Then switch to simple past tense to describe the events.

“He looked so handsome in his tuxedo that night, and she couldn’t believe she was going to the prom as his date.”

At the end, signal that this past time is over.

“The telephone rang, pulling her from her daydream. She tore the photo in tiny pieces and dropped them in the bin, consigning them to the past where they belonged.”

A flashback should not be an information dump. Huge chunks of backstory are indigestible and stop the narrative flow. Find a way to work it into dialogue or action. Don’t let characters spend too much time introspecting either. It’s boring and rarely advances the action.

When two characters discuss the past they must avoid telling what the other should already know. But it’s a great opportunity to slip information (or misinformation) into the story, and show characters in action. Once again Emma Darwin goes into detail here.

Next time: beginnings, middles, and ends. See you there.

blog, writing process

How to edit your writing, part 2

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And on with part 2 of thoughts and tips on self-editing.

All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.

Crutch words

These words support our speech, giving us time to think. Actually, um, honestly, so, are all examples. You might find them when you write natural sounding dialogue. Good dialogue is not the same as natural speech. It’s natural speech, polished.

When we write, crutch words are those we use repeatedly, and often without being aware of them. I discovered that I use ‘but’ way too often, to start sentences and join clauses together. You can find them using a word frequency counter. Next, you need to search and destroy. Print the list, and highlight them individually in your document using the Find/Search function. Now you can consider each one separately, and decide if it stays or goes. Some more tips, such as using a word cloud generator, can be found in this post by Alyssa Hollingsworth.

If you cut out a proportion of and, that, when, but, and similar words, it will tighten your prose. It immediately becomes clearer.

Adverbs: friend or foe?

I read that when asked what she would change about the Harry Potter books, JK Rowling said she would remove all the adverbs. The first book in particular contains lots of adverbs that tell rather than showing. I am a huge JKR fan, and it’s interesting to see how her writing (and editing) evolved over the series.

It is an article of faith that adverbs should be killed off, but like all absolutes this is too extreme. Think of them as seasoning, to be added judiciously lest they overpower the whole. Often in rewriting, there is a better choice to be made.
‘Walked quickly’ can become strode, hurried, ran, or another word that conveys the exact meaning. When you can’t quite remember the word you want and the thesaurus isn’t helping, try this site for the word that’s on the tip of your tongue. Maybe English isn’t your first language, or it is but you’ve temporarily lost your words. This site is brilliant for those times.


This is a favourite construction of mine, and maybe yours too. Perhaps this is because we naturally retell events this way, but good prose is more than natural dialogue.

While you need not banish was/-ing totally, minimising its use improves your prose. Consider the following examples – featuring adverbs (and a cliché for good measure).

She was walking slowly along the road, when suddenly he came into view.
She walked slowly along the road, and then saw him appear from nowhere.
She shuffled along, eyes scanning the road ahead. There was no time to hide when he stepped into her path.

Most times, the simple past tense, with or without a better choice of verb, will improve the text. If you overwrite and need to cut words, this is one good way to do it without losing the sense of your text. If you underwrite, better verb choice and more description might be needed. Search for ‘was’ and look critically at every instance.


Overused phrases only hurt our brilliant prose. Be creative and find a new way to say it. This site allows you to paste your text and find any cliches that slipped in. At the end of the day, you know it makes sense.

Next time: filter words, passive voice, flashbacks. See you there.


blog, Pat Aitcheson writes, writing process

How to edit your writing, part 1

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All writing is rewriting, and self-editing is integral to that process.

There are books available, and really good editors as well. I learned a lot from Morgen Bailey when she edited my novel, and I wanted to share some tips I picked up over the last year or two. I hope they will help you to edit your own work, because it’s an essential skill for every writer. I will split this into several posts with a few points in each, in no particular order.

Oh but I don’t need to edit, the publisher will do that for me

Well maybe, but if your work is littered with errors and things that need fixing, you’re not creating that first impression of a writer who knows what they’re doing. You may never have the chance to show what a great story you wrote. If you write short stories, or blog posts, or anything really, you are your own editor.

All the following are suggestions. You are the author, you are in charge of your words. Feel free to disagree, just make your choices conscious ones.

Read your work aloud

This is a great way to catch awkward dialogue, choppy prose and repeated words. More of them later. If you have a Mac, you already have text to speech. Go to System Preferences, open dictation&speech, and you can specify how your text is read. Play around with gender/speed/accent, choose the keyboard shortcut, and enjoy hearing your words. It is not as mechanical as you might think. While not perfect, how many of us can get another person to read our words?

If you read it aloud, and you trip over the words, the reader is doing the same in their head. Take notes. Rewrite till it flows.

Don’t trust the spellchecker

Homonyms can trip you up. These are words which sound the same but have different meanings, like hear/here, site/sight, red/read, write/right. Spellcheck won’t highlight them. If you are unsure about a spelling or meaning, you don’t know. Look it up.

Watch sentence length

In my first drafts particularly, I am inclined to write long, rambling sentences that go on and on, one action after another, explaining the events as I see them in a way that makes perfect sense to me because I’m writing it and I just need to get it all down before I lose my thread…

See what I mean?

Sometimes you want to use a longer sentence, and I certainly don’t mean that every sentence should be short. It can lead to choppiness. Be aware of the effect you want to create. Short sentences are punchy, great for blog posts, or action scenes. Longer sentences used skilfully create flow, slow things down, and build towards a climax.

“This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length.

And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.”

Gary Provost

The application Hemingway can be useful. I don’t always agree with it, but it highlights passive voice, long sentences, complex words, adverbs, and so on. It gives a reading grade, and we do well to pitch our words at a level that most of our readers find easy to manage. It’s a good starting point, and there’s a free version.

Next time: crutch words, adverbs, was/-ing, and clichés. See you there.