Editing Notes: The Problem with “That”

One of the editing rules in Quoll Writer points out use of the word that and until I started using it to help me copy-edit my novel, I had no idea how often I used it.

Like all rules, it should be taken with a grain of salt.  Using that, or adverbs, or opening your book with a mention of the weather (yes, my novel does, still) isn’t inherently evil.  Rules can be broken if your reasons are solid, and they can certainly be bent on occasion.

Let’s line up a few examples from one of the chapters I’m tackling today.

She shifted in her chair so violently that she banged her knee on the underside of the kitchen table.

The first type of that is the useless one.  Take it out.

She shifted in her chair so violently she banged her knee on the underside of the kitchen table.

It means the same thing and reads cleaner.  My manuscript is peppered with these, I’m guessing because I use that a lot when I talk.  It sounds natural in conversation, but in writing, it can come across as filler.  And filler has to go.

(On a related note, Quoll Writer doesn’t flag specific words or grammatical errors inside of dialogue.  Which is awesome, because one of my characters has an idiosyncratic way of speaking that involves dropping subjects at the beginning of the sentence and use of the dreaded ain’t.  If those got flagged, I’d go bonkers.)

Moving on.

Nina half-expected Paul to smirk at that, but he considered her words with a thoughtful expression.

In this case, that is a pronoun referring to the line of dialogue preceding it.  There are two good solutions here: take out at that, or replace that with an alternate pronoun.

Nina half-expected Paul to smirk at her, but he considered her words with a thoughtful expression.

It does change the meaning of the sentence slightly.  Sometimes that would be problematic, but here, I’m okay with it.  The intent remains the same.

But when he rubbed the arch of her foot in little circles, her spine went loose, a string of knots that untied themselves all at once.

Another pronoun replacement is which.  There’s plenty written on the differences between that and which, but in a lot of cases I’ve found they’re interchangeable.

But when he rubbed the arch of her foot in little circles, her spine went loose, a string of knots which untied themselves all at once.

The main functional difference seems to be that is used for specific reference, while which is a more general way of indicating the subject(s) in question.  Since Nina only has the one spine–I don’t need to differentiate between this spine and that one–either works.

She couldn’t complain that she hardly ever had to work with Alison for long, but somehow she hadn’t been paired with Paul even once in the past three days.

This that is slightly more problematic.  Simply taking it out doesn’t work, and replacing it with which makes even less sense.  Time for some restructuring.

She couldn’t complain about hardly ever working with Alison, but somehow she hadn’t been paired with Paul once in the past three days.

I also took out the unnecessary for long and even.  I left in the other problem the sentence got flagged for, the passive been paired–I promise it makes sense in context, because partners in this situation are assigned by someone else, and using passive voice here reinforces that.

Like I said, you can bend the rules when you know why you’re doing it.  Which is the real take-away lesson from all the editing advice I’ve read, and all the experience I’ve accumulated being my own ruthless critic.

Axe whatever thats you can.  Replace the ones you can’t with other pronouns which make sense in context.  If neither of those approaches work, restructure your sentence not to need it.

Or, of course, leave it in when it’s the right word for the job.

Nina had no desire to help with that particular chore.

Yes, that one.  The one she doesn’t like doing.  The very specific chore she wants nothing to do with.  One of the few thats to survive in this chapter.

It’s not evil and doesn’t need to be completely pruned.  Like any other writing rule, it’s better to be aware of the intent behind it, instead of cleaving to it without thought.

Editing is thinking.  Lots and lots of thinking.  Which I should get back to.

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