This Business of Writing

That Simplest Way to Improve Your Writing

In Editing Your Manuscript, The Craft of Writing on January 6, 2010 at 8:23 am

by C. Patrick Schulze

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When I completed my first manuscript, I sent my novel to an editor so she could inform me just how many requests for autographs I might receive from my soon to expand fan base. As I’m certain you’ve already surmised, she utterly failed in her task.

Though the manuscript contained more red ink that black when she returned it, one specific note she entered, (and entered and entered…), related to my use of the word, “that.” Though I paraphrase, she indicated that specific word could most often be eliminated without losing any meaning or substance within the sentence. Since then, I’ve found everyone uses that word so often in our everyday speaking we no longer hear it. However, when I read it, it’s now as obvious as a blemish on a prom queen’s nose.

My editor offered a simple trick I still use to this day. The secret, she said, is to read the sentence aloud without the offending word and consider if the meaning of the sentence is lost. If not, the word is unnecessary and it should be cut. Alas, I lost much of my word count during that exercise.

Let’s look at a couple of examples.

“What’s the best way to get that accomplished?”

“What’s the best way to get accomplished?”

You see the sentence lacking the word loses something, doesn’t it? It doesn’t make sense. In this case, keep “that” in place.

Another example:

“Organize your files so that you can find things with ease.”

“Organize your files so you can find things with ease.”

It’s obvious in this example the word is not necessary and may be purged. The result is more efficient writing.

The easiest method I’ve found to perform this edit is to use the “Find” feature in your word processing program, then work through the resulting list. It won’t take as long as you think and once you’ve gotten used to not using the word, it becomes second nature.

Now, there is a caveat to, “that,” so I’ll pass it along. The word is still often considered acceptable in formal language. Though I can’t remember the last time I used formal language.

With this said, I tend to leave the word in my dialogue, most often with my less educated characters. For my more educated ones, I do not.

As you work through your edits, try this simple technique and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised how much it improves your writing.

Until we meet again, I wish you only best-sellers.

C. Patrick Schulze

Author of the emerging novel, “Born to be Brothers.”

  1. Had to laugh when I read this one, Patrick. When my editor worked on my book, about 50% of her corrections were shifting out the unnecessary instances of the word “that” from my text. It made it SO much more streamlined and flowing. A simple thing, but very satisfying in its own way. 🙂 These are the kinds of tips I’ll be sharing on my Spirit Authors site, especially as part of the modular course, when we talk about “Preparing for Publication”. Would love to have you come along as a guest speaker at one of our mastermind calls some day. Our Grand Opening is 22 Feb. Let me know if you’d like to come along. See you on Twitter!

  2. I really liked this. I’m gonna go through my story and see how many places I’ve used the word “That”.

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