Pro Tip: Do a word search on 'that' and remove 95% of them
June 6, 2013 7:59 PM   Subscribe

I gave my aunt a draft manuscript of my novel to read and in addition to catching typos and asking about character motivation, she wrote the above. I'm now halfway through the manuscript and I have removed THREE HUNDRED extraneous 'that's. Maybe 'that' is just my quirk (see what I did there?) but I wonder if you have similar tips. I'm not looking for grammar rules or broad writing suggests like 'use active voice,' just quick, concrete shortcuts to tighten up flabby writing. Another example, depressingly necessary in academia, is to replace every instance of "the way in which" with "how." Thoughts?
posted by pretentious illiterate to Writing & Language (56 answers total) 188 users marked this as a favorite
Mine are "really," "very," and "pretty" or "pretty much". There are infinitely better ways to intensify a sentiment than any of those words.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:01 PM on June 6, 2013 [7 favorites]

In place of "whether or not," "whether" often works just as well.
posted by TrarNoir at 8:01 PM on June 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

The word "basically" is almost always unnecessary.
posted by ODiV at 8:03 PM on June 6, 2013 [8 favorites]

WG Sebald says to avoid using and as much as possible.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 8:04 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Remove the prepositional phrase. Does the sentence still make sense?
posted by The Deej at 8:12 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Plug your manuscript into, do a CTRL+F for the largest word, pull up a thesaurus, and tweak your manuscript until those words shrink down to a comparable size with the rest of them.

That being said, having had relatives read my books, I've noticed that they love pointing out "grammar" mistakes--but are often wrong. So I'd be wary about taking such advice to heart too quickly or easily.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:13 PM on June 6, 2013 [32 favorites]

"In order to" can almost always be improved by replacing it with "to". Also "because of the fact" to "because".

This may not come up much in fiction, but you should avoid the passive voice unless you actually are trying to hide who did what. (Ironically, I started to write that in the passive voice, "the passive voice should be avoided...")
posted by at home in my head at 8:17 PM on June 6, 2013 [5 favorites]

I've had two professors point out that the best way to use the word "utilize" is to use "use" instead.

I couldn't help myself
posted by tooloudinhere at 8:17 PM on June 6, 2013 [11 favorites]

Very. Like. Just. Only. There are.... In order to....
The dreaded That.

Seconding WAYAT (above) about and.

Any word that is generic: make, thing.

If you can't read the sentence without taking a breath, divide it or dump superfluous words.

Delete anything redundant: ...gave my aunt a draft manuscript of my novel....

I had very good creative writing professors--too bad I don't much use what they taught me!
posted by BlueHorse at 8:21 PM on June 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

So I just recently got a handle on this, but make sure you are using 'that' and 'which' correctly. 'that' is only used without a comma (The book that you're reading is great.) Of course, you've recently learned that many 'that' s used this way are unnecessary.

'which' should be used only with the comma. The book you're reading is all about goats, which are hairy. OR The book you're reading is all about goats that are hairy.

There are grammatical terms for this, but what finally straightened it out for me was the comma rule.
posted by Tandem Affinity at 8:25 PM on June 6, 2013 [18 favorites]

"Many," "really" and "very" can usually go.

Take a sample paragraph. Circle the subjects and simple predicates, then be honest with yourself about how many of the other words are needed for the sentences to make sense. Do it 30 pages later. And again. This will help you see the things you do repeatedly. You may decide to keep everything else, but it'll be based on awareness.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 8:26 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Before you start ripping your manuscript to shreds, you should definitely have more than one reader for it. People who haven't thought about grammar or editing since their last college paper tend to get hung up on rules that may or may not be helpful. If the "thats" are really intrusive, she won't be the only one to see them.

Also, when having people read for you, make it clear what you want them to look for, and ask them focus their energy on those elements. At an early stage, it's going to be about plot, characters, story flow, and consistency. Once you have those things well in hand, then you concentrate on grammar. Why? Because fixing the plot holes might involve axing or rewriting big chunks of text, and now any time you've spent on grammar for those chunks has been wasted. Don't let it sidetrack you.

If you are planning on publishing, you should also consider paying a professional editor to read it for you, preferably someone who has worked on books in your genre/field and knows what kinds of things to look for. Depending on how long your book is, it doesn't have to be outrageously expensive.

As for rules of thumb, when in doubt about a passage, read it aloud. Or have someone else do so. Nothing makes me reach for my editing pen faster than hearing another person read something I wrote and finding out just how clunky it is.
posted by emjaybee at 8:26 PM on June 6, 2013 [13 favorites]

The Writer's Diet.
posted by The Monkey at 8:30 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I agree with emjaybee. Instead of going on some sort of Strunkian obliteration crusade, it's important to look at instances of apparent extraneity within their own contexts. Sure, in a perfect world we'd all have efficient, muscular yet expressive prose, but in truth we frequently have to choose between precision and concision, and that balance is more about tinkering than about rules.
posted by threeants at 8:36 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

Seconding tooloudinhere:

Never use utilize when you can use use.

Maybe we can repurpose the longer word for something else.

Also: please learn the difference between affect and effect. There are times when using the wrong one can convey the wrong information.
posted by amtho at 8:37 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: BlueHorse - man, turning my own words against me. That's low! Excellent point, though.

These are all great suggestions.

PhoBwanKenobi & Emjaybee - you're right, and I definitely didn't just go Find-Delete with the 'that's, or my manuscript would have turned in to garbage nonsense. But as soon as she mentioned the 'that's, I started seeing them everywhere, which was enough for me to do some cutting. I actually told my first readers all I wanted to know from them was whether they were confused, skeptical, annoyed, or bored (I even made up a little annotation system for them to use!) but they insisted on giving me sentence-level advice anyway. Some of it was helpful and some of it wasn't but I'm trying to think hard about every piece of feedback, at least. I like Neil Gaiman's advice about how when people tell you what's not working for them, they're almost always right, but when they tell you how to fix it, they're almost always wrong.

Just as a side note, the 20 minutes I spent removing excess 'thats' is functioning like one of those speech zappers they have on the internet, the ones that play your voice back to you at a slight delay when you talk. Writing this comment is taking annoyingly long because I keep stuttering over all my writing quirks. So on that note, I'm going to head to bed, and I look forward to waking up to even more excellent pro-tips in the morning.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 8:41 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Decide on Oxford comma or not Oxford comma, and stick with it. This bugs me more than anything when reading a manuscript.
posted by deathpanels at 9:12 PM on June 6, 2013 [4 favorites]

I tend to overuse "this" in referring to a previous idea, particularly as the beginning of a sentence. This can lead to confusion, I'm told.

See what I did there?
posted by freezer cake at 9:13 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]


And don't write when super tired. My mother's German- American grammar imposes itself on my writing and speech when I am extremely tired. If I read French while very tired, my Southern upbringing shows and it sounds Cajun. Etc.
posted by Michele in California at 9:24 PM on June 6, 2013

Another thing that you'll probably run into is how often you explicitly use a character's name in dialog versus using a pronoun. E.g., "Jack jumped on the snowboard. He was really excited. Then he rode it down the mountain. Jack was a pro snowboarder. He had competed in the olympics." There is a sweet spot in which you have enough pronouns to avoid burdening the page with names, but not so many that a reader loses track of who you're talking about. This seems especially problematic in scenes driven heavily by dialog. When you're doing multiple drafts, I find that the balance gets out of whack and you have to keep recalibrating it.
posted by deathpanels at 9:30 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

I admire the ability of some poets to distill the essence of a scene down to a few precise and evocative words. Perhaps reading a few of your favorite poets who explore themes similar to those in your own work will help with the distillation process.
Not exactly a quick and concrete shortcut though.
posted by islander at 9:31 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a technical writer so I'm not sure if this will be helpful for you but I turned on all of the grammar controls in Word and have been surprisingly happy with the result. It finds passive voice and many grammatical issues that I wouldn't catch. I probably ignore Word's suggestions half the time but it does help me notice trends or if I may be using the wrong effect or affect, or too many nouns or whatnot. It might be worth a shot.
posted by fieldtrip at 10:03 PM on June 6, 2013

Try the Paramedic Method described on the Purdue OWL website.
posted by kbar1 at 10:16 PM on June 6, 2013

The one thing that my grade 10 science teacher forbid us to do in our reports that has always stuck in my mind now was to never, ever use the word "it". Any sentence containing "it" can be made more precise; similarly, too many people use the word when they personally are a little fuzzy about what exactly they're talking about but not conscious of the fact, so the word "it" easily becomes a crutch.
posted by Conspire at 10:34 PM on June 6, 2013 [2 favorites]

How long had it been since you last read it? If you were still fiddling with it while it was with your reader, then do yourself a favor and put it away for a couple to weeks. Do this before sending it on to other readers - or if you already have, then don't read any more of their comments until after the break. Being too close to the work can impair one's judgement.
posted by rtha at 10:38 PM on June 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

An instance in which "that" helps clarify:

Today I read a tweet that said "If you walk into a restaurant blaring Gipsy Kings you will grow a moustache." I replied that I wasn't sure who was doing the "blaring" -- the sentence's "you" or the restaurant. There'd be no ambiguity in "a restaurant that was blaring Gipsy Kings."
posted by mirepoix at 10:48 PM on June 6, 2013

Look for forms of "to be" and replace them, as needed, with more interesting verbs.
posted by Edna Million at 11:21 PM on June 6, 2013 [3 favorites]

If you're comfortable with Unix/command line, you might find the scripts at .
Points out instances of passive voice, duplicates (the annoying "the the") and weasel words (useless adverbs).
posted by learning_machines at 12:30 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't claim that I grammar proper, but some rules which I apply to offset the worst quirks of my own writing are:

1) Add more "that"s for clarity, but replace with "which" where appropriate.
2) Take most of the "just"s and "only"s out (these being words I heavily overuse, ymmv).
3) Paraphrase "also" or just rewrite the sentence.

It's always a good idea to consider your audience. I tend to skew too formal or too chatty, and so usually have to correct for that when going back over something I've written.
posted by comealongpole at 3:30 AM on June 7, 2013

"Upon" and "within" are, 90-plus percent of the time, only being used because the author thinks they sound smarter than "on" and "in."
posted by Etrigan at 3:43 AM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

Never use 'comedic' instead of 'comic'.
posted by Brian Lux at 3:51 AM on June 7, 2013

I will second Edna Million on searching for all forms of "to be." When one of my professors circled every single form of "to be" in one of my essays, I realized just how much I relied on that verb (not just in place of other more interesting verbs, but also in passive constructions and other weak phrases). For the next year, I CTRL+F'ed everything I wrote for all forms of "to be." Not only did it greatly improve my writing (and my grades), it got to be second nature and I stopped needing to mechanically search after the fact -- I was just more aware of these constructions in my writing so I avoiding them at the outset! I always told my writing students about this tip, and by the end of the term it was very obvious which students took the advice to heart.
posted by Mrs. Rattery at 4:11 AM on June 7, 2013

Avoid 'There is' and There are' if at all possible. Instead of: There are many ways to skin a cat, use: Many ways to skin a cat include...
posted by BeBoth at 4:27 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

"Being that" -> since, because.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 4:53 AM on June 7, 2013

Only give yourself 3 semicolons and 2 em dashes per page, and avoid parentheses entirely.

Obviously, these are rules to be broken. However, as a little mental hack they do get at the underlying principle of avoiding unnecessarily complex sentence structures and unhelpful meanderings in the flow of ideas. A short sentence is a thing of beauty. It allows your writing to breathe.
posted by drlith at 5:13 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Only give yourself 3 semicolons and 2 em dashes per page, and avoid parentheses entirely.

Obviously, these are rules to be broken. However, as a little mental hack they do get at the underlying principle of avoiding unnecessarily complex sentence structures and unhelpful meanderings in the flow of ideas. A short sentence is a thing of beauty. It allows your writing to breathe.

Ugh, no. Please, if you're writing fiction, know that concise isn't always better. It depends on your stylistics and the voice you're using.

Also, no need to hire a freelance editor for fiction. Really, it's a waste of money. Polish your prose as best you can yourself (and based on your metafilter posts, I have faith that it's fine). When you get an agent or editor, they'll handle the copyediting for you--but remember it's the last last step, after you fix everything else with your book.

It really is silly to be overly worried about prose at this stage.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:34 AM on June 7, 2013 [3 favorites]

The "adverb + verb" structure, especially in the case of any "said" verb and especially in fiction, is rarely powerful and often detracts from the quality of writing. "He said angrily." "She said helpfully." Etc. Most non-said verbs that qualify how something is said are also distracting. "He grumbled." "She muttered." Try to remove anything that was once suggested by a 6th grade creative writing teacher.

Be careful with the rate of adverb usage in general. I have this problem myself...
posted by aintthattheway at 6:52 AM on June 7, 2013

If you can't read the sentence without taking a breath, divide it or dump superfluous words.

So said Hemingway. Proust demurred.
posted by OmieWise at 7:30 AM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

The US Government has rules that government documents must be written clearly and concisely, which they refer to as writing in plain language. They have some wonderful resources on how to communicate in writing more effectively, which you may want to check out. I suggest doing a find/replace using this list, which provides their suggestions on words/phrases that can be replaced by simpler and clearer language.
posted by emilynoa at 7:32 AM on June 7, 2013

BeBoth: "Avoid 'There is' and There are' if at all possible. Instead of: There are many ways to skin a cat, use: Many ways to skin a cat include..."

The OP is writing fiction, not a textbook.

In my own writing, I usually write a sentence or paragraph at a time without self-editing, and then immediately look back on what I just wrote and tighten it up, removing all of the useless adverbs that tend to flow out. Useless adverbs are my writing tic, same as what restless nomad mentions.
posted by adamrice at 9:24 AM on June 7, 2013

I'm sure this doesn't apply to the OP but make sure your "it's" is always a contraction. If you can't substitute "it is" or "it was" or (rarely) "it has" then you're using the possessive pronoun -- it's its!
posted by Rash at 9:27 AM on June 7, 2013

If you can't read the sentence without taking a breath, divide it or dump superfluous words.
Faulkner wrote sentences that went on for a few pages. But then, most of us are far from Faulkner.

Surprised no one here has mentioned the great old advice: "Go thru your MS and replace every 'very' with 'damn.' Your editor will delete the profanity."
posted by LonnieK at 9:35 AM on June 7, 2013

LonnieK, I heard that advice in reference to using so as an intensifier. Don't use That dress is so cute when what you mean is That dress is damned cute.

My very first grad school paper came marked "Avoid the periphrastic genitive." That is, write The boy's dog, not The dog of the boy.

Likewise, remove words that simply don't do anything. Don't write I have got to go to the store; instead, use I have to go to the store.
posted by MrMoonPie at 9:50 AM on June 7, 2013

whilst -> while
amongst -> among

There's no reason to use the "st" suffix except to sound pretentious or old timey.
posted by ultraviolet catastrophe at 11:45 AM on June 7, 2013 [2 favorites]

Advice that I have often heard (and have yet to put into practice) is to read it out loud. Hearing prose can help you catch repetitions and infelicities that your eye scans over, and it's particularly helpful with dialog.
posted by restless_nomad at 12:07 PM on June 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

Avoid adverbs. Compare "he spoke enthusiastically" with "he spoke with enthusiasm".
Replace parentheses with dashes.
Write when you're alert, edit when you're tired. That way you're reading as the average, half-attentive reader would.
posted by seemoreglass at 4:08 PM on June 7, 2013

Compare "he spoke enthusiastically" with "he spoke with enthusiasm".

That's not what that advice means at all. The correct comparison would be "He spoke enthusiastically" with, say, "He enthused," or, more advanced, ""That's right!," he said, pounding the table for emphasis."
posted by restless_nomad at 4:11 PM on June 7, 2013 [1 favorite]

Whenever I write, I make adjectives and abstractions (love, hate, death, etc.) earn their place. Also, consider whether the generic could be made more interesting with a specific noun, e.g., instead of "car," write convertible or mustang or whatever. But PhoBWan is right, at this stage in the writing you probably have bigger fish to fry. (Bigger haddock? Sorry, couldn't resist.)
posted by tuesdayschild at 4:45 PM on June 7, 2013

I'm not talking about replacing the "he said" + adverb construction in dialogue with something more concrete or a single verb. Nobody, I hope, writes "He said angrily" because that's 5th-grade writing. Saying "he raged" is only slightly better.

"Spoke" was a bad choice. I'm saying only that adverbs, especially the -ly ones, are clumsy to read and can usually be replaced with a noun construction or removed.

"Your comment is currently being previewed", for example. "Currently" is superfluous.
posted by seemoreglass at 4:54 PM on June 7, 2013

I once had an editor that would remove the first paragraph of any article that came across his desk. His logic was that most people take too long to jump into it.

Damnit, he was usually right.
posted by Blandanomics at 7:33 PM on June 7, 2013

Never use utilize when you can use use.

Maybe we can repurpose the longer word for something else.

The longer word actually has a slightly different meaning. 'Use' is generally for situations where an object is being operated for its intended purpose - "He used the lawn mower to even up the grass". 'Utilize' is generally for when an object or process is being implemented to accomplish a goal *other* than the one it was designed for - 'He utilized a lawn mower to dispatch the room full of zombified party guests.'
posted by FatherDagon at 7:41 PM on June 7, 2013

Paul Fussell, in his book Class, argued that "utilize" is actually a class marker. It's a way for people who really mean "use" to sound upper class (bigger words are upper class!), while doing the opposite.
posted by seemoreglass at 8:44 PM on June 7, 2013

Best answer: To be honest, about 75-80 percent of what's mentioned here is unlikely to be in your novel. The big one that I see when I copyedit and proofread fiction (both as my job and in my writers critique group) is partially mentioned above -- variations of "to be", and -ing words. This is now the most common and overused weak-ass writing I see, and it drives me slowly crazy each time I get a new book where it's rampant.

You usually see them together -- Jane was turning to Brian and said... She was standing and watching the crime scene... I'm thinking that we should go to the movie early. I think a lot of it's that we speak that way these days, and people just tune it out when they write (when they're writing, see what I did there). But get a whole book of that? Arg. In fact, I just finished a book of that -- it had already been published in England and so I wasn't allowed to touch it much, and the writer thinks he's all that so would have had a cow if I had anyway, but Jesus, I got to a point where I was ready to rip my eyeballs out after paragraph after paragraph of "she was watching him" and "he was looking at her" and the like. It was endless.

Back when I worked at Slate, I read this review of a book that cracked me up, and I've always remembered this great paragraph because it points up the other problem using this construction can add to, use of start (in my writing group, everyone always thanks me for cutting their over-reliance on starting):
His writing is riddled with clichés that are daily struck down by conscientious high-school teachers. The characters always think "for a moment," as if a sustained thought is impossible in the Wagnerian world. "Silence" plagues the pages, and it often "follows" speech. The thunder claps "Whrromp!" Every glance is recorded, for no discernable reason—everyone is "looking" or "focusing" all the time. The faces repeatedly "light up." People don't smile—they "start to smile"—and they do things "a little," even if much happens "all of a sudden." Here is a typical passage: "Liz started to smile, then started to say something, then thought better of it. Her smile faded for a moment, while she seemed to concentrate on a thought." Wagner's writing is so thoroughly devoid of any verbal imagination or intelligence that, in comparison to him, a vocabulary-impoverished sports broadcaster sounds like Shakespeare.
posted by emcat8 at 12:24 AM on June 8, 2013 [9 favorites]

From Annie Dillard's The Writing Life:
“The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the walls of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.”
I agree with emjaybee. Knock out some walls first. Sweep up later.
posted by heatherann at 5:11 PM on June 8, 2013

If you're anything of an Anglophile (like me) you may find you have the rather annoying habit of overusing "rather"
posted by Calicatt at 1:20 PM on June 12, 2013

Pet peeves here:

"To be honest....." or "to tell the truth......"(so you are usually lying?)

Actually..... (really?)

As well..... (I will have the chef's salad as well. - or is that aswell?)

To be honest with you I don't think this comment is actually very productive but there are so many other comments I wanted to leave one as well. I am sorry.
posted by snowjoe at 10:00 PM on June 13, 2013

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