Sep 20 2011

That word clutter

Instead of someone writing in with a question today, let’s look at an excellent editing tip sent in from Alexander McNabb. Alexander suggested this topic and graciously allowed me to use a few examples from his novel, Olives, pre- and post-editing.

Do you need to tighten up your writing? Need to cut a thousand words from your manuscript and can’t find a single scene you’re willing to eliminate? Maybe you only need to trim 14 words from your short story so it will qualify for a flash fiction contest with a maximum word count, but every single word of your snappy dialog is brilliant. 

That’s how many thats that you can delete

The word ‘that’ is a funny little word. Sometimes you can use it. Sometimes you can’t. Sometimes it’s optional, and the sentence means exactly the same thing and is grammatically correct either way.

An example from Alexander:

He’s tied into the family that you’re so buddy-buddy with.

In this sentence, the word ‘that’ introduces the relative clause ‘you’re so buddy-buddy with.’ It refers to, or is related to, the first part of the sentence – ‘the family.’ This is a restrictive clause because it describes and defines a specific family to the exclusion of any other families. Which family? That family.

But rewrite the sentence without the word ‘that’:

He’s tied into the family you’re so buddy-buddy with.

That sentence (Which sentence? That sentence!) is perfectly grammatical with or without ‘that.’ ‘That’ is optional.

NOTE: Do not use a comma before ‘that’ in this sentence structure.

Open up your manuscript. Do a search/highlight for the word ‘that.’ Often it can be deleted outright just like Alexander did in the example above.

The key is to see if the sentence is still clear without ‘that.’ Does it read smoothly? Does it maintain the right reading rhythm? If you excise ‘that’ and the sentence is no longer clear and precise, or it sounds awkward without it, then put ‘that’ back. If the word is used in dialog, and it feels more natural to a particular character’s voice to use ‘that,’ by all means keep it. But you may be surprised how many you can eliminate.

You’re probably wondering why you should go to all that effort to get rid of a few optional ‘thats.’

I checked a novel manuscript from one of my clients, a very good writer, as an example. The original, unedited manuscript contains slightly more than 100,000 words. The word ‘that’ appears 1,074 times. Deleting fewer than half of the ‘thats’ eliminated 500 words, about two full pages from a 400-page manuscript. You might be able to get your manuscript down below the 100K threshold an agent or publisher requested without having to eliminate a single riveting scene, breathtakingly vivid description of the sky at dawn, or even one line of your brilliant, pithy dialog. And no one will ever miss those 500 ‘thats.’

Sometimes you can’t just drop the word ‘that,’ but you can make other minor revisions to vary the sentence structure and not rely on ‘that’ so frequently. Even if it doesn’t reduce the word count, it helps reduce what can be an irritating repetition of the same sentence structure.

Here are a few more examples from Alexander:

Did you mean ‘that’ or ‘who’?

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people that fund them.

It’s a problem for Her Majesty’s Government precisely because we don’t like terrorists or the people who fund them.

Generally speaking, use ‘who’ instead of ‘that’ when referring to people. Use ‘that’ for animals and inanimate objects.

Check your verb tense 

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action that would affirm my right to a choice.

I had a sudden urge to flee, to strike out at him, to take any action to affirm my right to a choice.

Both of these are grammatically correct. The second version is more direct, which fits the tone of the sentence better. It also tightens the sentence by one word. Don’t think tightening a sentence by one word helps? How many sentences in your novel? Take one unnecessary word out of 25 percent of your sentences and see what happens.

General word clutter

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise the fact that it’s over?’

‘Does there have to be another woman for you to rationalise it’s over?’

I had a recent client whose writing tic was the phrase ‘the fact of the matter was that.’ Writing tics are those little quirks all writers have, and this one stood out because it was used in both narration and dialog, and by every single character. Repeatedly.

Check for passive sentences

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems that were developed to explore for oil and gas …

Some of the most sophisticated deep geophysical mapping systems in the world, systems developed to explore for oil and gas …

If you’ve got the word ‘that’ in a sentence where ‘that’ requires a ‘to be’ verb to go along with it, BONUS! You get to cut two words from your formerly bloated manuscript.

Why bother?

Another writer/client asked me, “Why spend hours doing all this editing to eliminate a single word when readers won’t even notice the difference?”

My response, regardless of the word: “If readers won’t notice it’s missing, what better reason to get rid of it? Why was it there to start with? Don’t waste your readers’ time making them read clutter. Make every word count.”

So that’s that – one easy tip in your search and destroy mission on word clutter. Tighten your manuscript and you might save one of your favorite scenes from the editing room floor when you have to trim a few hundred words from your novel. Edit one or two of your manuscripts for the word ‘that,’ and soon you’ll start catching it in your first draft writing. Eventually, it becomes an ingrained good writing habit and automatically disappears from your writing when it’s not needed.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks.

6 Responses to “That word clutter”

  • Tammy Parks Says:

    I’ll see your ‘that,’ and raise you a ‘had.’

  • Cameron Says:

    “That” used to be one of my biggest weaknesses. It was pointed out to me by a very kind writer on Authonomy after I uploaded my first novel. Out of around 800 “that”s in the book, I cut something like 460 that were unnecessary. Luckily, it rarely creeps into my writing anymore, though I still double-check for it when I’m editing.

  • Susanne Leppard Says:

    Really useful tip, Robb. I think my own tendency to overuse ‘that’ owes a lot to the requirement to write more formally in the day job.

    Bugs Bunny may just serve as a useful mnemonic when I’m writing fiction.

    Well whaddya know? I found Nemo.

  • Madison Johns Says:

    Another great idea. I’m going to check out my manuscript.

  • Bree Says:

    Thanks – I axed ‘that were’ x7 (my manuscript is 115k) Every bit helps.