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That That

November 9, 2009

question-mark3aOver 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.

Jodi Cleghorn is still keeping her head above water this November. Yes the family are still happy.  And the other creative projects are still moving foward. Changing habits is hard but worthwhile. Want to share in Jodi’s NaNo experiences? They are being Tweeted, blogged and discussion boarded.
  1. November 9, 2009 1:07 am

    Ah, but the funny thing is I kept inserting them mentally as I read. I do agree with you though. They are mostly just a lazy habit.

    Good luck on your NaNo.

  2. November 9, 2009 3:49 am

    Too true. Next post on superfluous usage of ‘then’?

  3. November 9, 2009 6:19 am

    You are correct!

    Funnily enough writing tweets on Twitter has helped me with “thats.” In order to fit the 140 character requirement, I found deleting them (almost put a ‘that’ before ‘deleting’! heh) gave me the space I needed.

  4. November 9, 2009 9:37 am

    Great post, Jodi. I’ve been working on eliminating “that” from my writing but find I still use it in when getting my first draft thoughts down on paper. I’d like to toss “was” into the ring too. I’ll also use a Friday fiction example, from my story The Carver’s Daughter.

    “The cool steel on her fingers was as familiar to her as her own reflection.”

    Would be stronger I’d written: “The cool steel on her fingers as familiar as her own reflection.” (I also cut ‘to her’)

    I can’t take credit for coming up with this suggestion. It was given to me by Jeff Posey who writes “Anasazi Stories” and is some of the best writing advice I have received.

  5. November 9, 2009 10:36 am

    But Chris, where is the verb in that sentence? Also note, the use of ‘that’ in my previous sentence is appropriate here; it refers to a specific object. Not every use of ‘that’ is evil. Nor are all adverbs. Or dialog tags other than ‘said.’ It’s only overuse that drives readers nuts.

  6. November 9, 2009 3:32 pm

    I loved this post, Jodi. It seems like I’m always taking thats out and then putting them back in again. The only way I can tell if I need them is to read things aloud. The other trouble I have is that I sometimes find myself going back and forth between “that” and “which,” which is another problem. 🙂

  7. November 9, 2009 7:24 pm

    True True Jon! I’ve been caught in NaNo by a society of people who “think” rather than “speak” which has had me rethinking the whole use of dialogue tags and wondering why I just have to make life so difficult for myself.

  8. November 11, 2009 10:27 am

    @kimberly (or anyone else) my understanding has been “that” is used when what follows it would be an incomplete sentence without “that” being there. conversely, “which” functions more like a subordinate clause and is preceded by a comma.

    so: “the car that hit my truck was driven by a maniac” vs. “my truck, which was in an accident last week, was hit by a maniac truck driver.”

    is this correct?

    thanks for a great post.

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