Over time we all develop pet hates. Some of them are personal idiosyncrasies, such as particular words we develop an aversion to, while others are tics based on established elements of writing. The latest addition to my list is the over use of the word “that”, which has overtaken the distaste of adverbs.
It was brought up at my writing group a few months ago and since then I’ve worked hard to cleave the superfluous “thats” from my writing. What I’ve discovered, having had the radar up while reading and writing, is it is a really hard habit to get out. Made doubly difficult by the simple fact it is an accepted overuse not just in writing but in every day usage.
The last book I finished was littered with more thats than you could poke a stick at, which at times got in the way of enjoying the narrative as I picked them off, paragraph to paragraph – one, two … ten. Not only was it sloppy writing from someone who had developed the book through a Masters course in Creative Writing, but sloppy editing. I’m a bit like a reformed smoker – coming down hard on those who still indulge in the habit.
To prove I’m not above pointing the finger at my own writing, my older (pre “that” enlightenment) writing is full of examples of “that” overuse. Here is a section from a Friday Fiction story earlier this year:
Roly was just a thirty something, Chartered Accountant who was no closer to getting married and settling down, than he was to moving out of the granny flat in his mother’s Nundah backyard. Lawrence had a sneaky suspicion the sex romps that Roly regaled over the lip of his Hoegaarden were vivid fragments of his imagination or at worst, something he’d ripped off the internet.
Yes – Gloria was younger and flashier than either of the women that Lawrence had previously dated. But hell – some men just hit the jack pot. Yes the marriage had come on a little more suddenly than Lawrence had ever imagined possible – but they were in love, why wait?
The exclusion of “that” in both these paragraphs does not detract or change the narrative. What it does do is faciliate the flow by not clutting up sentences with unnecessary words.
Editing is a good means to get an insight on the overuse of “that” – whether it is your own work or someone else’s. Being mindful when you write is another. While something like morning pages, as suggested by Julia Cameron, is meant to be a stream of consciousness sprouting forth from your pen, it is also the perfect place to also observe. After a few weeks of consciously noting the insertion of needless thats, I began to stop myself before I wrote them down, which eventually translated into an unconscious ripping it of them from my writing. It is hard though.
Un-using “that” is a little like unlearning negative self talk. Once you become aware, the continued overuse of “that” becomes an uncomfortable habit which over time you don’t want to indulge in. The upside, it allows you to utilise every word of a word count, a boon if you are writing to tight word limits in flash fiction. It also allows you to create well written and succinct pieces of writing. Have a go – I promise you’ll never go back.