One Dutch Editor, One Nomad Writer

Glue words and how to deal with them

How to deal with glue words

Glue words are on their way to become a public enemy of the writing community. What are they, and why do people hate glue words like they’re the second coming of adverbs? In this blog, I want to show you why you don’t want to overdo it with the glue.

What are glue words

The first time I encountered the term glue words was when I used Pro Writing Aid. I have a paid subscription and for me it’s been worth every cent. Not only do I like their clear-cut Terms of Service, it is software that helps me tackle my most ingrained ESL writing habits. (This post isn’t sponsored — I swear!) One of their many reports highlights what they call sticky sentences. That’s when a sentence contains too many glue words, compared to the essential words that carry the meaning and descriptions, such as nouns, verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. The glue words make sure those all make sense.

ProWritingAid gives us this example. The words in italics are the glue, while the essential words are bold-faced.

Jenna hurled the basketball from half-court and watched it soar.”

Common glue words

Some glue is used more often than others. Here’s a nifty table showing the most often used glue words according to ProWritingAid;

ProWritingAid tells us to keep the glue below 40% of the word count. It’s a percentage game, short and simple. The reason Pro Writing Aid points out glue words comes from a theory posed by Richard Wydick (pdf); which states glue words bog down your reader. They supposedly slow the reader down as they don’t provide any information and are often redundant. To see that happen in practice, here is a screenshot of the examples ProWritingAid uses.

Why glue words are not the enemy

As a storyteller, I don’t agree with that. Having tight prose is good, but when every sentence is tight your reader’s eyes will glossover. This is one of the examples that makes it clear that ProWritingAid is not just for our kind of writers, but for everyone who needs to have their texts checked. Richard Wydick is a lawyer by trade: how a lawyer uses English is way different from how an author uses it for their stories. Lawyers have to use tight prose and be hyper-specific in their writing. As writers, we have a lot more room to breathe. So to me, getting rid of glue words is not about removing excess words, but about being smart with the words you use. This ties in closely with having an active writing voice.

During a slow-paced scene you shouldn’t have extremely tight and information-dense sentences. Interpunction helps a reader pause, and so do glue words. When you replace every glue word you can, you’ll end up with a text so dense it will not evoke any emotion with your readers because you don’t allow them any time to feel emotions. (Again, perfect for lawyers but not necessarily so for writers!)

Online, anywhere between 40–45% is named as the ideal number of glue words for a text. This gives a lot more breathing room compared to ProWritingAid’s strict below 40% line. Some sentences will naturally have more glue, while others have less. ProWritingAid gives a total text percentage as well, but my advice is to not get hung up on that.

Glue removal methods

To get rid of excess glue, I scour my texts for verbs that often don’t say much within the context of the sentence. To keep my prose tight I use a different approach to get similar results. This comes from knowing exactly what the issue at hand is and how to deal with it, accordingly.

Screenshots taken from a personal writing project I haven’t touched in over two years

ProWritingAid also offers an option where they run the text for overused words (pictured on the image below on the right). When going through the text, those words are highlighted and I always go through them one by one to see which ones I can change up. It removes a lot of crutch words and filters.

Another useful report is the “All Repeats” (results shown left), which picks up on all the words I tend to overuse. From using that regularly, I compiled a list with trouble words that always end up on the list; get, see, know, seemed, looked, felt, hear, kept, walked, glanced, like, back, one, hand, eyes, nearly, barely. Ironically, those are mostly (weak) verbs, which ProWritingAid tells me are not glue. 

Since I track down these verbs, my prose has become a lot more tight: which is the goal of removing glue words. My writing still rocks a solid 45% glue rate, but instead of removing excess glue, I write with more precision in my word choice. When I change something in my draft, I know why I should change it and where that knowledge comes from.

Tight writing

The internet will give you tips such as ‘remove all adverbs’, or ‘ax all these words’. My advice is to remove what you can, experiment a little, see what feels right for you. There are some common words writers tend to overuse. If you experience this problem and don’t know how to fix it, look into weak verbs and filter words.

Find out your personal pitfalls and decide for yourself why you want to deal with those. In this specific case, search functions in writing software are your friend! How many ‘was’ and ‘get/got’ does your text have? And as always, as yourself this question: does this improve my writing?

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