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Not “That” Happy Any Longer

June 23, 2013

As writers, we all have little quirks we could do without. We might get bogged down in description, overuse dialogue tags, or have redundant word use. That’s okay. That’s part of the process. Identify and eliminate the quirks.

Speaking for myself, I’m “that” happy. For whatever reason, in an initial draft, I employ about 500 to 1,000 unnecessary uses of the word “that.”  It’s like a public speaker who keeps saying “um.”

In my defense, “that” is really easy to add to a sentence. “Mom told me that if I slammed the door one more time, it was straight to the orphanage.” There’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but take out the “that:” “Mom told me if I slammed the door one more time, it was straight to the orphanage.” See? Nothing is lost.


I’m not sure how I didn’t notice this issue earlier. After five books and the acquisition of several truly amazing critique partners, I’ve noticed a lot about how I write – how I can be episodic (not always bad, but on occasion), how I prefer first person point of view, how I have the tendency to end chapters with one-word sentences. All of my books must have humor, or I can’t fall in love with them.

There are bad things, too. I like dialogue tags. I have redundant word use. A fourth and fifth draft is always necessary.

And now there’s the issue with “that.” I discovered it because one of my critique partners noted I “filtered” – wrote things like: “I saw an orange car parked in the driveway,” not “An orange car was parked in the driveway.” A waste of words, and a way to distance the reader from immediate action.

Once I realized I did that, I started to look for other ways to cut word count. To eliminate the unnecessary. And that’s how I found “that.”

Boy, does it make a difference. With WHEN BRIAN CAME HOME, my agent wanted me to add an entire scene near the ending. I was worried. BRIAN was already creeping up on 50K, and for a middle grade contemporary novel, that’s in the high word count range. But by the time I cut out the “thats,” revised for filtering, and cut the excess, the book was only 48K even with the additional scene – exactly the length I’d aimed for in the very beginning.

My lesson here was not every word is precious. In the end, some of them have to go, and the book will be better for it. Murder your darlings, and hopefully the ones left will be good enough to publish.




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One Comment
  1. I think I’m going to need at least a decade to learn to cut out all those extra words. . .maybe two. . .or three. . . 😉

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