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.


Feb 16 2011

Tic talk

My critique group recently told me that I have several writing ticks, including the word ‘that.’ What are ticks? How do I get rid of them?Once Bitten, Dogville, U.S.

Tics. Writing tics, not ticks, the bloodsucking little bugs. Although writing tics can suck the life out of a manuscript.

Every writer has tics. I suppose some writers may have ticks, but that’s a subject for someone else’s blog. Writing tics are the repeated words or phrases or actions the writer subconsciously relies on and uses too frequently. The writer won’t notice her tics, but readers will.

The most frequent tic I have is I just repeat the word ‘just’ over and over again. I just don’t see it when I write, and it just comes out naturally. However, they just stand out like a sore thumb (cliché alert) to readers. I have a couple of tics I’m aware of, probably some I’m not aware of yet. Another one is ‘a couple of.’ I’ll use that phrase more than just a couple of times in my writing.

Once you’ve learned what your tics are, they’re pretty easy to spot.

Learning what they are may require the input of your trusted beta readers, a critique group, or a sharp-eyed editor. It’s difficult to notice the repetition when you’re writing, or when you’re reading it back to yourself and editing. Try reading your work out loud. Speaking the words and hearing them will often highlight repetitious and unnecessary words. If you think a word might be a tic, do a search for it in your manuscript and see how often it pops up. Then see if it’s necessary, if it can be deleted or if it should be replaced or rephrased so the repetition doesn’t create an echo.

Tics and repetitions aren’t always words or phrases, but can also be actions. The most commonly abused action I see, which is a tic for many writers, is for characters to sigh. Other action tics I see frequently include smiling, frowning, grinning, and other facial expressions. Some writers are conscious of the repetition, so they get creative or dive into a thesaurus to find synonyms for the repetitive word. Manuscripts become littered with smiles, grins, smirks, and beams. Add a few clichés to spice things up and you’ll get winning smiles, knowing winks, wry grins, and my least favorite of all time, furrowed brows. If you think facial expressions may be one of your tics, see this post on how to improve your writing by getting to the emotion that underlies the facial expression.

A character who looks at his watch or a clock every time the writer wants to alert the reader to the time is another common tic. If the time is important, state the time and readers will assume the POV character knows what time it is. The writer doesn’t have to show the character looking at a watch in order to tell the readers what time it is.

ORIGINAL: Fred grabbed his briefcase and flagged down a taxi. He looked at his watch: 7:45 p.m. He only had 15 minutes to make the meeting.

REVISE: Fred grabbed his briefcase and flagged down a taxi. He only had 15 minutes to make the 8 p.m. meeting.

In the revise, the reader knows what time it is without having Fred stop to look at his watch. It’s assumed Fred knows what time it is.

An exception to this is if looking at a watch or clock is in itself the crucial action. A woman on a blind date agrees to meet a man at the restaurant at 7 p.m. She’s concerned about being late and missing him, so she arrives 15 minutes early. She constantly checks her watch whiles she waits. This shows she’s nervous and she’s worried she might get stood up. At 6:50, she’s wondering if she should have come a few minutes late so as not to appear too eager. At 7:05, she’s worried that everyone in the restaurant is watching her and feeling sorry her, if they all know she’s been stood up. By 7:18, she’s angry. When he shows up at 7:35 and sees her checking her watch, he knows what kind of reception he’s in for.

In a scene like this, checking her watch is an integral action. But if you only need to let readers know the time, it’s not necessary for a character to check her watch or look at his digital alarm clock or see the clock on the office wall. Double check to make sure it’s even important to tell readers what time it is. If the reader knows it’s morning, or afternoon, or late night, it’s not always necessary to know the precise time unless it’s an important detail. You don’t have to tell readers the temperature and complete weather report in order for them to know it’s a sunny, warm day.

Facial expressions, checking the time, words like ‘just’ or ‘that,’ and phrases such as ‘a couple of’ are only a handful of examples of writer tics.

What are your tics? If you think that you don’t have any, you probably have a couple of them and just don’t know.

Oh, it’s 9:20 a.m. I need to get this posted.