Wednesday, January 6, 2010

That Simplest of Ways to Improve Your Writing

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When I completed writing my first manuscript, I sent my novel off to an editor so she could inform me just how many gracious platitudes I might receive from adoring novel lovers. As I’m certain you’ve already surmised, she utterly failed in her mission.

Though the manuscript contained more red ink that black when I received it, one specific note she made, and made, and made related to my use of the word, “that.” Beside the first such notation she indicated, and I paraphrase, the word can most often be eliminated from writing without losing any meaning or substance. Since then I’ve found we use the word so often in our everyday speaking it’s not even noticed. However, when I read it, that word jumps out to me these days.

I researched “Success with Words – A Guide to the American Language” for this blog post and, wow, did they go on and on about it. (And it published was by Readers’ Digest, of all people.) Regardless, for the sake of article length and purpose, suffice it to say the word is used as a pronoun, an adjective and a conjunctive.

Further, let’s stick with my editors’ suggestion, shall we? She offered a simple trick I still use to this day. She recommended I read the sentence aloud without the offending word and consider if it could be eliminated. If none of the meaning of the sentence is lost by this, it is unnecessary and I should cut it. Alas, I lost much of my word count during that exercise.

Let’s look at some 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 follows.

“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 second example that the word is not necessary and may be eliminated, therefore, making the second sentence, and this one, of higher quality as it relates to writing.

The easiest method I’ve found is to perform this edit is to use the Find feature in your word processing program and go down the long list of things it spews forth. It won’t take as long as you think and once you’ve done this, it becomes second nature.

Now, there is a caveat I noted in “Success with Words” so I’ll pass it along. It said the word is often still acceptable in formal language. However, when was the last time you used formal language?

I personally tend to leave it in for certain characters in my novels’ dialogue. I now use it for the less educated of characters, whereas with my better educated ones I do not.

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

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

C. Patrick Schulze


  1. I agree. Use "that" only if eliminating it might confuse a reader. Sometimes a sentence will still make sense without "that", but there are two possible interpretations. If the reader has to go back because they followed the wrong mental pathway, then leave it in.

    Another "fun" way to find overused words you're not aware of is to plug a scene into's "cloud" feature. The more often a word appears, the larger it will be in the cloud. (The system doesn't look at the very common words, so no worries that you'll see "THE" overpowering all else. As a matter of fact, I'm not sure it 'sees' THAT)

  2. Interesting task, I will carry it out, thanks.

  3. Glynis,

    Let me know how it words for you.

    All the best.

    C. Patrick Schulze

  4. Dear Terry,

    Great idea to look into I did that with today's article and found a word I used too much. Good advice. Many thanks.

    C. Patrick Schulze